Aliens have been part of the science-fiction genre for about as long as the genre has existed. In fact, even in mediaeval times, philosophers and theologians conmsidered the possibility of beings living on other planets. Today, Film, television, literature and gaming have provided a vast menagerie of alien lifeforms, of all shapes and sizes.
Sadly, not all of these beings quite measure up. All too often, what we get sold as an alien is usually just a "funny foreigner", dressed up with some distinctly unimaginative cosmetic changes and a cardboard culture.
In this article, the first of two parts, I'll be taking a look at aliens, what we use them for, what they may actually be, and how to reconcile what we want in our games with what is understood about the nature of evolution.
Is There Anybody There?
Despite the prolific nature of aliens in SF, we've yet to actually meet one. In fact, there are still many who have yet to be convinced of the existence of extraterrestrial life (it was the discovery of magnetite chains in ALH84001 this year that clinched it for me). Even if there are worlds full of life out there, how many lifeforms ever break out of a microbial lifestyle? Of them, how many ever achieve intelligence? And of them, how many make it to the stars, and live long enough for us to come into contact with them?
Many of the answers to these questions are still unknown, and your own answers will set much of the tone of your campaign.
The Nature of Life
Despite all the unknowns, some things have become apparent. Alien biochemistry is very likely to be based upon carbon, like our own. There are several reasons for this. One, carbon is one of the most prevalent elements in the Universe. Secondly, carbon forms four covalent chemical bonds, more than any other element. This is what allows carbon chemistry to create the huge variety of substances mecessary for life. In particular, carbon's ability to form rings (benzene being the simples) enables organic chemistry to build some truly gigantic molecules. No other element (even silicon, which can form three covalent bonds) has this ability.
On Earth, multicellular lifeforms took off approximately 600 million years ago. After some tentative starts, the variety of complex life on earth exploded some 550 miilion years ago, in an event referred to as the "Cambrian Explosion". From this point on, the world was never going to be the same. Still, this means that for almost 90% of the age of the Earth, the only lifeforms were microbes. If this is par for the course, then most lifebearing planets will consist of only unicellular life. But what about the ten percent that will be more interesting?
The Evolution of Body Plans
One myth surrounding the processes of evolution is that there is a kind of pre-destination involved. The evolution of the horse is one example, where the small, tapir-like Eohippus gradually becomes larger and longer-legged, steadily losiong toes along the way, until the modern, single-toed Equus evolves. This story leaves out approximately twenty genera of equines, which enjoyed a great deal of success in their day. The story of human evolution is similar, though simpler. For a while, the slightly-built Homo Habilis shared a world with two massively-built Australopithecines, Australopithecus Robustus and Boisei. No-one at the time could have predicted that any one species would outgrow the others, or which species it would be.
An alien world will start at the very beginning in this regard. In a world with no molluscs, arthropods, chordates or anything else, the book of life is still quite blank, with plenty of room for new forms to experiment with new lifestyles. On Earth during the early cambrian period, the ancestors of today's lifeforms shared a world with all kinds of strange creatures, including the five-eyed Opabinia, Anomalocaris with its pencil-sharpener mouth and grasping claws, the spined Hallucigenia and the bizarre Nectocaris, which exhibited both arthropod and chordate qualities. Who would've guessed that a two-inch, horned worm called Pikaia would one day give rise to the largest animals the world has ever seen, as well as ourselves? Contingency, otherwise known as blind luck, seems to have the deciding vote as to which organisms thrive and which become extinct.
The inhabitants of an alien world will have their own basic bodyplans, which natural selection and mutation wil adapt to a changing environment. These body plans are unlikely to look much like ours, although sense organs are still likely to be set atop and forward of the body, since that is the best place for them to be. Universal things such as eyes, fur and such, that have evolved again and again, are likely to be present. Other things, such as the number and articulation of limbs, placement of feeding and breathing orifices, placement and nature of sexual organs and the like are likely to be more variable. Needless to say, these biological differences are likely to have a profound effect on an organism's culture, should it be intelligent enough to have one.
The Web has pages by very creative people that an enterprising GM can use for reference. Some good examples are:
http://www.furaha.org (my personal favourite!)
There are plenty of others. Just enter the word "Exobiology" into your favourite search engine and enjoy. Of course, you don't have to look that far for interesting aliens. The Tigs and Ul-Slandri are classic examples of unearthly lifeforms, and you can find them right here on Alternity.net
The Upshot of all This
So, what does this mean for the world-building GM? Well, looking at the way evolution works, an alien world will be filled with lifeforms that would seem quite bizarre to earthly eyes. They will be understandable, but hardly humanoid. Feel free to let your creative juices flow with abandon!
But I happen to LIKE humanoid aliens!
This is all very well, you may be saying, but I like aliens that just give a bit of a twist to the human experience. I don't really want anything so strange that I have to waste half an hour describing it to everyone.
It's a valid viewpoint, especially in a roleplaying game. Not everyone wants anything particularly outre, but they don't want to be limited to just Human characters. Well, it's your game, and what you say goes at the end of the day. However, in case that's not enough, and you want a reasonably hard SF game but still include humanoids in it, I'll be looking at ways to reconcile humanoid aliens with the laws of exobiology in next month's article; see you then.
Live long and prosper.
Â© Mark Peoples 2001.