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Today’s guest is science fiction author Paula S. Jordan! She has two short stories published in Analog (“The Gift of Unbinding” and “Two Look At Two”) with a novelette (“Vooorh”) soon to come in the same publication, and she also blogs at DarkCargo. In addition to being a writer of short fiction with a novel in progress, she has a background in physics and has worked for NASA, and today she is discussing her inspirations and influences in developing aliens in science fiction—both the planetary environments and the effect first contact has on the individual characters.

Building Aliens

I have come late to the writing of science fiction and fantasy, but not to the field itself. My first science fiction book was Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse and His Space Ship, a gift from my father at age seven. I have been reading sf/f ever since.

Over the years I have sought out educational and work experiences that fed that early interest and that feed my writing today: BA degrees in history and drama (both helpful for characters, societies, plots, conflict, etc.) and a later BS in physics with emphasis on astrophysics, orbital dynamics, and planetary design. I was able to parlay the latter degree into a 13-year stint as an orbit analyst working on NASA and NOAA contracts at Computer Sciences Corporation.

To date I have sold three stories in the field, all to Analog. The most recent of them, “Two Look at Two” (April 2011) and “Vooorh,” (appearing soon), are adapted from my novel in progress, a people-to-people alien contact story set in the mountains of western North Carolina. While the background physics, alien and planet design, biology, etc. are carefully researched, they are secondary to the novel’s primary emphasis: the characters–both human and alien–and their individual reactions to this encounter. There are factions among the aliens, each group with its own reaction to the humans, who of course have factions of their own. I expect the complete story arc to be a long one.

My own first meeting with aliens came through the novels of C.J. Cherryh, first with the utterly inscrutable aliens of her Faded Sun Trilogy and later her Foreigner series. Then there were Ursula Le Guin’s groundbreaking Left Hand of Darkness, considering exoplanet-adapted human beings, and Patricia Anthony’s accounts of off-world sentients arriving on Earth at various historic periods. In God’s Fires, for instance, her aliens arrived in Spain during the Inquisition.

The Faded Sun by C. J. Cherryh Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh Worldwired survival

Most recently I have been impressed by two extraordinary series. Elizabeth Bear’s Jenny Casey trilogy further expanded my thinking on both aliens and modified humans while Julie Czerneda’s Species Imperative series brings an environmental biologist’s eye and experience to both the physical and psychological variations possible in alien beings, including powerful innate drives arising from the challenges of their home environments.

There have been others, but these books pay more than usual attention to the aspect of alien encounter that interests me most, the personal reactions of individuals apart from the group behaviors of official and/or military personnel with their trigger fingers ever at the ready. It’s an interest that grows with every such story I read, and continues to develop as both the power and the challenge of diversity become ever more evident on our own planet in the 21st century.

And there is that other thing: the knowledge that–however much each of us may experience of this world in our individual lives, or that the whole of humanity may learn of the universe while this planet endures–the entire sum of our observation can only be a miniscule fraction of all that the universe holds. And even that tiny part is filtered through limited senses, specialized for our own small world. The rest of existence we can only guess at, in part by imagining the kinds of senses that other sentient beings might develop and the wonders that they might perceive thereby.

So I wanted to build aliens, a process I knew little about when I started the novel. What I did know was that to build a believable alien it would be helpful to consider the sort of biosphere, generally a sun and planet system, that could evolve such beings and sustain them over time. Not only is it science fictionally more satisfying to do so, but the logic of the model environment can reveal more about the aliens’ needs and behaviors and suggest more useful detail for plot development than a writer’s imagination might manage without it.

Thanks to my physics professor, the late Dr. Sheridan Simon at North Carolina’s Guilford College, I did know something about designing planets. In addition to teaching the fundamentals of orbital dynamics and stellar evolution in classroom work, he mentored me in a semester-long independent study on more advanced astrodynamics and the fundamentals of planetary design.

Aliens-and-alien-societies First-Contact Eerie-Silence

Later resources included Stanley Schmidt’s very helpful book, Aliens and Alien Societies, and Paul Davies’s The Eerie Silence, among other references old and new. I also read First Contact by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, the moving story of encounters between Australian prospectors and indigenous stone age peoples in the interior of New Guinea in the 1930’s. In photographs of the islanders at their first meeting with white-skinned men, their faces–stunned, terrified, baffled, curious, haunted–tell the entire story. Other sources have included the Internet, fellow writers at science fiction conventions and, in particular, ongoing discussions with neurologist Dr. Tedd Roberts on the octopus, arguably the most “alien” of our Earthly creatures.

Once I got my hands into the clay, so to speak, it became clear that neither the aliens nor their biosphere could be developed independently of the other. Also that tracking and respecting the inter-relationships between alien critter and planet and sun was more complicated than I had imagined.

Think of a biosphere as the sweet spot for a particular species within a star system. For my critters that meant a planet of relatively low density (its gravity light enough to produce the aliens I wanted but strong enough to hold an atmosphere) and a stable star of sufficient luminosity (energy output) to keep life perking along on the ground (or in this case, in the seas). For its part in the energy equation, a planet needs the right combination of surface reflectivity (albedo) and orbital distance from its sun to collect and hold the energy it needs. Too shiny or too far from the sun and it’s too cold for life; too dull, too smoggy, or too near the sun and it’s too hot.

Fiddle with the planet’s density, tweaking its mass and size to get the right gravity? Fine. But the orbital distance also varies with the mass. Changing that too much can shift the planet out of its sweet spot, sending it too near or too far from the sun. And adjusting its albedo to compensate–say, adding an ice sheet to reflect more light and heat into space–would wreck the nice semi-tropical environment I want for my aliens. Aaaaugggg!

So it’s build and check. Rebuild and check some more. And finally it’s right. I have the aliens I want, and I know the place they call home.

But why stop there?

One of the neatest things about developing non-human, sentient critters is figuring out what their psyches, and therefore their personalities and behaviors, might be like.

OK, so maybe my human characters can’t delve very deeply into alien instincts and behaviors, but these are my aliens. I made them up. So why stop with the physical? If it is the benefits and challenges of a world that shape a species, wouldn’t the same forces also shape the instincts, the imperatives for survival, and the functioning of the minds and senses of the aliens evolved there?

Then, with the motivations and capacities of the critters well in hand, why not just turn around and take a look at the universe as a whole–the one we all inhabit–as these aliens, with their uniquely evolved and calibrated set of senses, might perceive it?

Whoa! We are a long way from Kansas now.

These beings will see and hear in the wavelengths that provide the information they need to survive in their particular environment. Their bodies will tolerate the ranges of heat and cold that their environment provides. Their senses of smell and taste will be attuned to the chemical compounds that most affect their lives. The acuities of any or all their senses may differ from ours, and they may have senses that we have never dreamed of, for detecting elements of their environment that we have no survival-level need to detect.

In short, their perception of physical reality, what I think of as their sensory universe, will differ from ours to the same degree that their biosphere differs from Earth. All of which will affect the ways in which these guys think and behave differently from us.

More and more material for their story, and for the story of how they and my human characters meet.

Paula S. Jordan

Paula S. Jordan, a lifelong reader of science fiction and fantasy, is the author of “The Gift of Unbinding” (Analog, May 2001) and “Two Look At Two” (Analog, April 2011). “Vooorh,” her novelette-length sequel to “Two Look At Two,” will appear in Analog in the near future.

After degrees in history and drama and several years as a free lance writer, she earned a BS in physics and worked as an orbit analyst for NASA and NOAA. She supported 30+ unmanned science and weather missions including the Clementine mission that first detected water on the moon.

Now a freelance writer and community volunteer, she is at work on more short stories and her first real novel. She blogs regularly at http://Darkcargo.com on sf/f-related books, writing, history, and assorted distracting curiosities. Follow her on Twitter @PaulaSJWriter.