My Favourite Aliens in Literature – Part 1


Having started writing lists about all things writing – especially connected with speculative fiction, I can’t seem to stop… So today I’m presenting my favourite aliens that crop up in books, in no particular order.

Yalda from The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan – Book 1 of The Orthogonal
If you really enjoy hard science fiction with a strong, coherent and utterly different world and haven’t yet theclockworkrocketencountered this series, then do so. See my review of The Clockwork Rocket here.By tweaking a mathematical sign from minus to plus in an equation that governs space time, Egan has created a universe where light behaves completely differently – he writes at length about it on his website. To people his world, he also creates a species that don’t look like us and don’t breed like us. Once fertilised, the females bodies break down into two breeding pairs, effectively dying. So it is the males who are left with the task of raising the young and keeping society running. This creates tensions among women who don’t wish their lives to end prematurely, so refuse to mate with their co. Yalda is born without her opposite, larger and stronger than average and regarded as a freak in the farming community where she is raised. I loved her story from the first page.

Illisidi from The Foreigner series by C.J. Cherryh
foreignerThis is another extraordinary series. I need to catch up on it, because I’ve read the first six, but now realise to my delight that since I last read them, Cherryh has written a whole bunch more. Yippee! These books are about a human outpost on a planet already settled by tall, predatory dark-skinned aliens who use numbers and maths to make sense of their world. The protagonist is the diplomat, Bren Cameron, who lives among them, constantly striving to ensure communications between the two species stays peaceful. Illisidi is grandmother to the ruler, a stately, enigmatic lady very heavily involved in politics. Scary and stately by turns, she is intrigued by Bren. Cherryh is superb at writing tension and miscommunication.

The Fithp from Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournellefootfall
This famous alien invasion book lodges in my mind as the elephant-like aliens may superficially resemble the grazing beasts that live in Africa and Asia, but the Fithp are far more lethal. They don’t understand the concept of diplomacy, regarding species as either prey or predators. Prey are to be turned into useful slaves and predators are to be subjugated. A frightening species I loved to hate…

NorcrystaltearsThe Thranx from the Humanx Commonwealth series by Alan Dean Foster
These insectoid species stumble across a human crew while waging war with the AAnn. After scooping them up, they tweak humanity’s DNA a tad and then forge a close alliance with them. Foster is one of a handful of science fiction authors completely comfortable with producing a whole slew of remarkable and original alien lifeforms, but the Thranx is the one that stick in my mind.

The Ariekei from Embassytown by China Miéville
This is another book about a small enclave on a planet already settled by an alien species – see my review here – but Embassytowndiffers markedly from Cherryh’s Foreigner series in all sorts of important ways. The Hosts are large, powerful crablike creatures, who communicate with pairs of specially raised and trained humans. Until it all goes terribly wrong when a new pair of ambassadors turn up from off-planet and attempt to communicate with the Hosts…
This is another extraordinary book that blew me away with its sheer inventiveness and worldbuilding – particularly around the alien species. Miéville has also lots of interesting things to say about language and how it is used, along the way.

I started this and realised that this article will be far too long if I include all my favourites at once, so these are the first five. What about you? Are there any aliens you particularly loved reading about? Have you encountered any of my favourites and if so, did you also enjoy them?

7 responses »

  1. One of the best-drawn portraits of an utterly alien species is Fred Pohl’s portrayal of nonhumanoids and their very strange social set-up in “Jem.” It’s been three decades since I read it, and I still remember it.

  2. Interesting list, Sarah. I haven’t read as much science fiction – especially space-oriented sci fi – as I have fantasy, but one alien character who stands out to me is Estraven from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. He was actually the character connected with most, even more so than with the human lead character Genly. I think I was more drawn to his personality than Genly’s; he’s empathetic, logical, meticulous, and loyal to Genly’s cause. Even though Genly distrusts him at first, Estraven goes out of his way time and time again to show he believes in doing what’s best for the greater good. I think the words I used to close out my review of TLHOD was “sometimes we need an alien perspective to learn what makes us human.”

    • That’s it, exactly:)). And one of the reasons why I love science fiction so much! It is the genre that tends to examine some of the gnarlier issues regarding our own society through the filter of the far future. When it’s done well, it packs an almighty punch…

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