Aliens in Science Fiction (Guest Post by Greta van der Rol)

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Hi everyone. Today (while I’m at Disney World Smile), Greta van der Rol is here to present a guest post on aliens in science fiction. Without further do:

Have you ever noticed how often ‘Aliens’ (especially in the movies or the TV) are humanoid? They usually have two arms, two legs and one head, two eyes and they speak with a mouth. Or maybe four arms or legs just for variety. Check out Star Trek sometime. And what’s more, in Star Trek they can actually mate with humans and produce hybrid beings like Spock. Or so we are led to believe. Yes, okay it’s not always like that. But cast a glance at the Cantina scene in Star Wars IV (The first one, ‘A New Hope’), or even the new arrival, the being in the new movie Avatar.

What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, in a way, nothing. After all, we’re not talking intelligence here, we’re talking technology. Sure, you can have all sorts of aliens inhabiting other worlds. Look in a pond on mother Earth, or in the ocean trenches or in the deepest caves. Life abounds in all sorts of conditions. But not much of it uses technology. Take dolphins; acknowledged to be very, very smart with abilities (like echo location) we can only dream about. But I can’t see your average dolphin building a spaceship. To do that, it seems you need first the desire and secondly the digits to make it happen.

Enter the opposable thumb. Oh, and some brains. And suddenly all those humanoid aliens become a little more understandable. You need things like fingers to build machines. So smart lizards would fit the bill. Very common, your lizard-like alien – especially if it’s a baddy.

Okay, so there might be other ways of building technology that we quite literally cannot imagine. That’s not much use to a writer, is it? So let’s accept that our aliens will have to have some way of getting around (we call them ‘legs’ in our part of the universe) and some means of manipulating material (fingers, hands). But there are other issues. Astronomers have found a number of ‘earth-like’ planets in the galaxy. That means lots of liquid water, a reasonable temperature range. Just one small catch, though; they tend to be much, much larger than Earth. Can you imagine the effect of gravity on a planet that size? I reckon we’d have trouble walking. Unless we can invent some sort of anti-gravity suit.

And what about the air? What if there’s too much oxygen? Or not enough? Earth’s atmosphere hasn’t been the way it is now for most of its existence. Indeed, even now, we need breathing apparatus if we go above a certain altitude on our own planet, or to go down into the water which occupies two thirds of its surface. So it’s pretty hard to imagine all those aliens in the cantina scene all comfortably breathing Tatooine’s air. Yes, I know some of them wore respirators or some such. But not very many.

Really, when you start looking at the difficulties, the solution used by more and more SF writers makes a stack of sense. Bioengineered planets, terra-formed to suit humans. You’ll find them in Elizabeth Moon’s books and Jack McDevitt’s books among others.

I must say also that I find it difficult to imagine why the inter-stellar inhabitants of a planet like (say) Jupiter would ever want to come to Earth and do more than take a passing look. Always assuming, of course, the amorphous blobs living in Jovian storms subject to enormous gravity would bother to build a space ship.  So they get here from their star system and then what? Wouldn’t they be more likely to eye off Jupiter? Now this assumption puts paid to a lot of space wars. Why bother, after all?

Which is why the Ptorix (aliens in my book ‘The Iron Admiral’) evolved on a world similar to ours and live on worlds similar to ours. We are cosmic rivals trying to share a galaxy.

The Ptorix don’t look humanoid, but they do have tentacles. They have two mouths, one for eating which looks rather like an insect’s proboscis, and another for speaking. They have three eyes set on top of a conical ‘head’ which enable them to see most of the way around them and they see different light spectra to us.

Here’s a brief description of them from “The Iron Admiral : Conspiracy”.

‘They followed the crowd into the cavernous main hall. Most of the passengers were Humans, probably getting out while they could. Just like us. Sean headed toward the flight schedule displayed in the middle of the main hall while Allysha waited, arms folded, foot tapping on inlaid tiles, eyes flicking around the hall. The building glittered around her, all curved walls and ornate embellishment, busy with people and luggage. A Ptorix voice rose above the echoing din and she started, nerves jangling. No. The two conical forms approaching her had pale blue fur and wore elaborately decorated, green robes. High caste business people, she’d guess. The writhing tentacles at the ends of each of four arms betrayed tension, nervousness maybe, but not alarm. They passed her, appearing to glide in their floor-length costumes.


Hard to believe that the sight of a Ptorix would frighten her. Then again, she would never have imagined the violent demonstrations, crowds of Ptorix brandishing placards saying ‘Humans Out’ rampaging through the streets, attacking human businesses, looting, even assaulting passers by. She shuddered at the memory.’

Oh, by the way, there is NO possibility of a half-human, half-Ptorix. There is no tab A for slot B and even if there were, the chromosomes and other bits simply wouldn’t match. Sorry about that.


Greta wishes she was born a thousand years or so in the future, where space ships zip around the Galaxy and people have adventures on exotic worlds. Well, if you can’t be there, why not write about it? And slap in a healthy dollop of romance, too? She lives not far from the sea in Queensland, Australia. When she’s not writing she enjoys photography, cooking and the beach. Greta is a member of the Queensland Writer’s Centre (QWC) and Romance Writers of Australia (RWA)

Come and say hi at:!/pages/Author-Greta-van-der-Rol/149930055064863

You’ll find “The Iron Admiral : Conspiracy” at:


and at Amazon



15 thoughts on “Aliens in Science Fiction (Guest Post by Greta van der Rol)

    Rachel Firasek said:
    April 8, 2011 at 7:38 am

    Great post! I’ve often wondered some of the same things, and I think your book sounds great. It’s in my TBR.

    Desmond Haas said:
    April 8, 2011 at 8:18 am

    For the most part, television had mobile aliens (some good, some terrible) looking humanoid because they had human actors under the makeup. As CGI got better, it’s easier to “build” an alien alien.

    However, back to your point. If we don’t allow aliens to exist in human compatible environments, well, we have no story.

    claudia celestial girl said:
    April 8, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Yeah – I was going to say what Desmond said, that as fun as it is to build a completely alien species, then you have issues of sympathy for the audience.

    A side note – believe it or not, one of the most intelligent species’ on earth is the octopus. It’s brain allows control of its billions of skin cells so that it can resemble any environment. This is an incredible brain function – but one that is suited to a marine environment.

    Finally, one of my favorite alien species’ from literature is from The Left Hand of Darkness, where the aliens had a completely different sexual life, even though they were humanoid. Very compelling read, and made you think.

    Linda Leszczuk said:
    April 8, 2011 at 11:11 am

    I addressed the environmental compatibility issue, in part, by stating it was the remarkable similarity in DNA structure that led to my aliens’ interest in earth, and humans.

    Pat Brown said:
    April 8, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    The one thing I always noticed in TV or movie aliens is they seem to be stuck on one form. This skinny,long limbed with huge heads and eyes. I assume the big head is supposed to tell us how intelligent they are, but I swear, every time I see one of those all I do is wonder who the heck gives birth to that?

    I have one daughter and that was painful enough. Giving birth to something with a head 5X bigger than your hips is ludicrous.

    And yeah, how even some well known SF writers have aliens and humans interbreed, or even for that matter eat humans. There are a lot of things on this planet that are poisonous, why would we think food from another planet would be edible, or more important, nutritious. I suspect any alien species that ate a human would have one heck of a stomach ache.

    On the other side, did you ever read Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward? That was about life on a neutron star. Time was totally distorted and the animals were centimeters thick with eye stalks they could raise. Forward did a neat job of showing the whole history of the cheela and how they built a fully developed civilization. I think it was the best alien books I’ve read.

    Greta van der Rol said:
    April 8, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    Hi everyone. Since I’m Australian I live in a different time zone (queue weird music). Thanks to all of you for the comments. I find it to be a fascinating topic. I haven’t read ‘Dragon’s Egg’. Life ON a neutron star? Sounds very hot as well as heavy. Some of the Star Wars spin-off books had some great aliens. One I recall swapped between being male and female over a period of time, causing a complete change in personality. But even then, it was two arms, two legs etc.

    Janice Seagraves said:
    April 9, 2011 at 7:06 am

    Hi Gretta,

    I liked your story from when I first read a sampling. Good luck and I wish you many sales.


    mandyeward said:
    April 9, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    I rather liked the aliens that Anne McCaffrey had in “The Ship Who Sang” – a completely different kind of world with an atmosphere poisonous to us and their own technology, but no understanding of emotions.

    Piers Anthony had good aliens in the BEM of the Phaze Series. He even had a BEM / Human Hybrid. In Phaze Doubt I think.

    I do love the Ptorix though – the thought of them being cone shaped is great fun.

    Greta van der Rol said:
    April 9, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Thanks to everbody for sharing – and to Rosalie for giving me the opportunity.

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