Skip navigation

Category Archives: Ranting

I hate writing aliens.

Okay, that’s not true. Aliens are fine as long as there are people to make comparisons but they are really hard to write in isolation.

The Ewts, who are currently giving me the most trouble, are a species that I have put a lot of thought into and I’m currently churning my way through writing a language for them. Their problem is Empathy. No not caring part, let me explain.

When crafting an alien race there are a few simple steps: 1) pick an animal to base their morphology on 2) Pick a trait that makes them different from humans 3) Repeat step 2 4) Extrapolate.

For the ewts this is: Newts, Undetermined Gender and Empathy. Here follows the extrapolation.

So for a start the ewt philosophy is very centred around water, to the point of river worship, not to mention a deep seated view that events are implacable unless countered with a good front crawl. Their surroundings are dangerous, but they bread quickly leading to a safety in numbers attitude and a deep seated idea that they have to fight for what they have, but against their environment as much as themselves.

The undetermined gender (ie, the same ewt may fulfil different gender roles at different times) wipes out a lot of the immediate prejudices and because of this ewts have a precedence to treat people as if they can achieve anything they wish too. Racial prejudice is just as popular as in humanity but ewts have never formed a caste system, or a monarchy as the idea that a man can be predestined by their birth has never sat well.

Finally, the most complicated concept is Empathy. Ewts, along with quite a few of the dominant hunters on their planet, can pick up on the minds of other creatures at a distance. In the Vast Worlds canon this is due to the same quantum resonance effect the Altairians use for telekinesis but the ewts use it purely to gather information with no actual effect on their target.

Like human language this ability expanded in use and complexity as the ewts formed the first tribes and they can pick out another ewts emotions’ at a hundred yards. It has never been a force for peace; it did originally evolve as a hunting sense so the ewts aren’t particularly distraught at feeling (paetan, in ewtan) someone suffering, though there is a tendency for ewts to want to solve that problem if the sufferer is resident, as there is some emotional spill over.

Now, this empathic sense and shared sub-conscious is very difficult to qualify. If I were being clever I’d find some way to integrate someone into it, or have a human stooge to explain it too, but I’m not, I have to write a short story where an alien encounters these ewts and goes about dealing with them more or less scientific way. Worse, for the bits where the story focuses on the ewts I have to drop six months of work on history and cultural motivation into a couple hundred words.

I’m beginning to see why Star Trek just had pointy ears.

By the End Time Wars humans cover some five hundred light years in volume and I’m musing on what effect that would have on the classic question, is there life on other planets? When the answer comes back yes, and, it’s us, some find it immeasurably unsatisfying, but they are the minority because this changes the question from one of science to one of politics and politics are boring.

Humanity has been to the stars, found nothing particularly interesting, and started bickering and so, when they actually do discover an alien race its almost unimportant. They are undoubtably a scientific marvel, and bring a whole slue of political issues, but those aren’t part of the public interest post End Time and so they become funny looking humans with a weird culture.

I’m rather disappointed by this conclusion, but the Altairian reaction more than makes up for it.

One thing that bugs me in sci-fi are alien diseases. It’s such a fundamentally flawed concept that, when used as a plot device, it disenfranchises me with the plot from then on. Given that I can get put off by as little as engine position on the models this isn’t saying much, but I’m going to list why you don’t need to worry about getting alien flu and dropping down dead in twenty minutes.

First, viruses. Now, I’m under the impression that most people don’t really understand what a virus actually does, so skip the next bit if you know. Basically, viruses penetrate a cell and insert their own genetic material into either the cell body or the DNA. This overrides the cell’s own code and hijacks the functions to produce more of the virus, and, as this is generally destructive to the host cell, it can be fatal if not checked by the immune system.

Generally it is assumed that our immune system has no defence against this, but while I do not deny that they will be not recognised as a pathogen (I’ll elaborate on this isn’t a problem in a moment), their method of reproduction will fundamentally not work on our cells and so the viruses effect will be mooted. Even if they use DNA/RNA[1] it is highly unlikely their codons will match, so, while their code says G-A-A-T-A-A- and they expect say… Lysine and Adenine[2]. Our cells would synthesise Glutamine and STOP, which would be utterly useless and wouldn’t form the necessary proteins.

For this reason alone, alien viruses would be utterly benign as they could not reproduce. A mutated strain also wouldn’t do anything as it would have to reorder its entire codon structure to function and I really can’t see a way that could happen in nature. Viruses struggle to pass between species, let alone between biospheres.

Bacteria are another matter, they would require a host species with similar internal chemistry to function as a pathogen, but that isn’t too much of a stretch if you’re in a universe where carbon and liquid water based life is common[3]. However, it seems illogical that humans will be incredibly susceptible to these micro organisms, in fact, given our immune system is pretty much geared towards identifying and eliminating foreign bodies (including the aforementioned viruses) it seems more likely that the bacteria will be susceptible to us. The bacteria are, after all, adapted to flummoxing a very different immune systems to our own and such a big species gap is unlikely to be surmounted by random evolution in our lifetimes.

Besides, even if we were successfully infected by a bacterium, the strain would have no resistance to the antibiotics we use and would actually be easier to treat than the stuff we’ve got now.

As it happens, the big worry would be our immune systems working far too well, and our ambassador having a severe allergic reaction and going into anaphylactic shock because of their ambassador’s detergent.

Join the discussion on the forum.


[1] Which almost certainly won’t be the case, but anything based on a different chemistry would be killed by your internal conditions anyway.

[2] Amino acids if you do not know.

[3] Just as an interesting note, any alien visitors to earth are more likely to catch a disease of a non-human species as they’d likely be a closer match to some other animal that us specifically.

Another rant post because this has been bugging me.

Characters. Or rather, character overload. This is a big failing for a lot of authors, especially those with little experience, and I know I’ve been more than guilty of it in my stories.

In short it is when the audience forgets who the characters are. Either they’ve forgotten the name, mixed up their description with another’s, or even failed to remember that the character even exists. It’s fairly typical of stories that have a lot of characters and do not utilize them effectively, or leave some characters on the sidelines, and it annoys the audience no end. Especially when the author assumes that the audience has a perfect memory for every facet of their story.

Anyway, character overload will most often occur when there are way too many people in a sequence. For example, a short story set on a colony ship could have as many as forty characters each with their own name and back-story. The only problem there occurs when you consider it will take some ten thousand words to introduce all those people and by then your audience will be gasping for something to happen. There’s a simple solution here, use fewer characters. While it is true that worlds with too few characters can feel empty and artificial, you don’t always have to introduce the guy driving the train.

Longer stories are more resilient naturally to a character overload[1] but you can still overload your readers with too many characters in a rush. This is particularly annoying because it puts the burden of forgetfulness on the audience, and is so easily avoided by making sure you never introduce too many characters at once[2]. In addition you also can have an issue with time scales for reading a book and characters that aren’t mentioned for twenty thousand words can be lost entirely if they weren’t particularly important.

However there are a lot of ways to make your characters more memorable. Names are a good first step. Chuck, Harry, Richard, are all names we are familiar with and so they are quite easy to put to a character. Yanne, Taandural, and Gaen, are more exotic and I personally find them much harder to pin to faces[3]. This gets even worse when names sound similar. Chuck, Kris and Craig is just about understandable, though introducing them all at once may be unwise. But, Tanne, Trealle, and Tant, will have people scratching their heads for an entire novel before they catch on to which one is which.

Finally, some advice. Make introductions memorable. Walking up to someone in a room and shaking hands is boring. Find them buried waste deep in a half dismantled console. Start with a joke, a funny situation, have them walk in on an awkward moment and be yelled at. Anything that isn’t just “Hi I’m [blank]” because then they will be blank for the rest of the story.


[1] Simply because these intros can be spread out so as not to make the reader gnaw off their legs to escape

[2] Hmm, I think I have a scene I have to check for this.

[3] I’m not wholly sure why this is. It might be because they do not mentally register as names, but nonsense words.