Tag Archives: Yalda

My Favourite Aliens in Literature – Part 1

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I initially published this article back in September last year. But other events rolled over me around that time, so I didn’t get around to providing the second half of this list. So as I’ve now completed it, I thought I’d reblog the original today, before adding the second half of the list.

Yalda from The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan – Book 1 of The Orthogonal
theclockworkrocketIf you really enjoy hard science fiction with a strong, coherent and utterly different world and haven’t yet encountered this series, then do so. 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. Read my original review here.

Illisidi from The Foreigner series by C.J. Cherryh
This is another extraordinary series. I need to catch up on it, because I’ve read the first six, but now realise to my foreignerdelight 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 Pournelle
footfallThis 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…

The Thranx from the Humanx Commonwealth series by Alan Dean FosterNorcrystaltears
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
EmbassytownThis is another book about a small enclave on a planet already settled by an alien species, but differs 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 offering 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. Read my review here.

Once I started writing this, I realised it would be far too long if I included all my favourites in one article. So this is the first half… I’ll be adding the next tranche in due course.

My Favourite Aliens in Literature – Part 1

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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?

Review of The Clockwork Rocket – The Orthogonal – Book 1 by Greg Egan

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There are degrees of science fiction – some books are long on character development and the social consequences of futuristic living, while being short on the science that underpins it, known as soft science fiction. Other books are far more concerned with the science and gismos that will actually power and run our future worlds – the hard science fiction. Egan, as a physicist, has always been on the harder side of the genre, but the important difference – for me – is that he is also able to write convincing characters into the bargain.

clockworkrocketHowever, this time around he has produced a truly different world – one where the laws of physics as we know them no longer work. As he explains on his website – along with a series of diagrams – this fictional world he’s invented where light travels at differing speeds is due to changing a minus sign to a plus sign in a mathematical formula that governs the geometry of space-time. He calls this a Riemannian universe as opposed to the Lorentzian version we inhabit. In Egan’s world, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity simply doesn’t make sense. Further, the basic humanoid template, so prevalent in most space opera adventures, is also off the table. Egan demonstrates a head-swivelling leap of imagination by producing a race of beings who don’t look like us, don’t breed like us… It’s an awesome achievement.

However, is it readable? Does it provide entertaining fiction?

In Yalda’s universe, light has no universal speed and its creation generates energy. In Yalda’s universe, plants make food by emitting their own light into the night sky. As a child, Yalda witnesses one of a series of strange meteors, the Hurtlers, that is entering the planetary system at an immense, unprecedented speed. It becomes apparent that her world is in imminent danger—and that the task of dealing with the Hurtlers will require knowledge and technology far beyond anything her civilization has yet achieved.

I’m not going to tie up the rest of this review by plunging any further into the science that underpins the book, fascinating though it is. This is, after all, an analysis of whether this book actually works as a piece of fiction.

This is one of the most exciting books to be produced in the genre for years – I cannot think of another story that equals the sheer inventive genius displayed by Egan. Readers can take on board as much or as little of the physics as they wish – but his cleverness would be beside the point if the narrative was so hampered by the long passages describing the world that we all ceased to care whether the heroine prevailed or not. However, Yalda’s story gripped me from the start and didn’t let go. We first meet her working on her family’s farm. In a world where mothers’ bodies break down and normally divide into four to provide two sets of twins – two co’s – Yalda is different. She doesn’t have a male twin, so is larger than normal and she has also encountered a fair amount of prejudice in her short life over her unusual beginning, often regarded as a freak.

We follow her adventures – both physical and intellectual – as she strives to make sense of the world around her, despite being hampered by the ever-present threat of her biological imperative. Which creates social tensions – women effectively cease to be once their children are born and some rebel against losing their lives, while the conservatives in power, inevitably male, strive to ensure that women can’t get hold of the drugs that the prevent this process.

Against these social frictions looms a far more pressing problem – when the scientists observing the Hurtlers lighting up the sky come to the conclusion that they pose a major risk to their own world and decide to build a rocket to investigate the problem and see if they can fix it, before their own planet is annihilated.

The rest of the novel is taken up with series of challenges posed by such a project. The concept of an interstellar ark is an oft-trodden theme within the genre, but the unique physiology of Egan’s beings immediately provides sufficient novelty – and Yalda’s strong personality certainly ensured that I kept turning the pages, completely hooked.

This is a wonderful book – and yes, there are chunks of physics, complete with diagrams within the narrative. You have the option of slowing down and fully absorbing Egan’s invented work, or skimming over the scientific details and getting on with the story. One way or another, I think this ambitious and remarkable series will still be regarded as a major benchmark in science fiction for years to come and I look forward to reading the rest of the books just as soon as I can get my hands on them.
10/10