Themes and plot elements part 1 – Aliens


For the next couple of weeks I’m going to go over some basic plot elements and themes common to a lot of fantasy and science fiction.  In particular I’m going to bitch about what is over done or nonsensical.  It is worth the effort to figure out some of the finer details of your plot elements.  Much like you want your characters to have believable motivation and reasonable reactions, you want your basic plot to make sense.  If you don’t do the research and fill in the little things you risk losing your readers to the great WTF?
Alien Invasion
A theme followed in many novels, science fiction, fantasy and otherwise, is that of an alien invasion. I’m not talking about aliens purely in the “from outer space” variety, but in the more general “from somewhere else” flavour. The obvious place for this is science fiction, but historically there have been any number of alien invasions including the Spanish in South / Central America, the English in Australia, the French in Vietnam and so on. There are two basic things you need to cover off, even if they don’t make it into your story; who are the aliens and why are they invading?

Who?

The aliens may never make an appearance in the story, but you need to know who they are to some extent. Physical description, clothing (if any), social structure, morality and physical capabilities all need to be at the very least sketched out. Remember that for each of these things you need to do a sanity check unless, like Lovecraftian horrors, your aliens exist in such an alien state as to be beyond human comprehension. Physically you need to understand that if they are to operate in the same environment as humans they will share many features with humans. They will need to be physically consistent with gravity, heat and cold. That is aliens from a place with significantly less or more gravity may not be able to operate on Earth without technological / magical assistance. Likewise they will need to be able to cope with Earth atmosphere or have technology that lets them do so. Socially they would need to exhibit traits that allow for large organisations to work. Unless each alien was themselves capable of long distance travel, they will need to cooperate with each other. The ships that Christopher Columbus rocked up to America in were the result of many hundreds or even thousands of workers all combining their skills to the one task. The thought that an alien race could arrive on Earth in an inter-stellar ship and then be incapable of sharing, communicating or being empathic (not necessarily in the psychic sense) is ludicrous. So they will have some shared morality and social structure that unites and binds them to common goals. They will be able to understand the feelings of others, though maybe only others of their own kind and they will be able to learn and communicate.

Why?

The above who questions can be answered easily enough by saying “Alien race X is more or less similar to human culture Y.” It is a cop-out, but effectively gives the aliens all the features they need to operate successfully. But the seemingly harder question to answer is why? I’ve read so many half-baked and retarded ideas on why aliens would invade that I have begun to suspect that aliens have already invaded and performed imagination and logic transplants, replacing human brains for sea sponges. Strangely enough, most of these silly ideas end up as movies (Cowboys and Aliens, cough cough). So here is are a few reasons for alien invasion and my commentary.

  1.  incomprehensible to a human mind: So the aliens are so alien and have such a rich and structured history and society that their reasons for invading can only really be understood by members of the alien society. This is easy to say but hard to pull off. The author would need to instill in his aliens such an aura of mystery that the reader is absolutely convinced of the fact they will never understand why the aliens are invading. I would say this is best pulled off by not having the aliens communicate with the humans in any meaningful way. As soon as a dialog opens, the reader will probably expect to be able to get a handle on the aliens.
  2.  They want our resources: This is the standard movie alien and the least believable scenario. The first question I raise is: What resources do we have that they couldn’t get them from somewhere else much easier? The only resource we have in abundance is life. It is probably fair to say that most planets are devoid of life and those that do have life probably have only bacteria and the like. So the aliens can’t just simply land on the moon and extract complex life. But then you are left with the question of why they need complex life? Presumably they come from a planet rich with complex life or they wouldn’t have come from it. If they are looking to collect specimens then they could do that without an invasion. If they want to eat us I’d have to ask “how do they know we taste good?” If they are the great galactic parasites that drain “life energy” then how is it they managed to advance to the point of inter stellar travel if they so foolishly and voraciously drain all life? WTF? I’m thoroughly unconvinced that aliens would invade Earth to gain our resources. They may enjoy the fact we have plenty of easy to get resources, but that doesn’t ring true as a good reason for invasion on its own.
  3.  Moral obligation: I’ve recently read some pontificating, but mentally stunted, theorist say aliens might invade to save the galaxy / universe from us and out raping of the natural world. The theory is that aliens see what we’ve done here on Earth and decide that we can’t be allowed to get off the planet because we will immediately cause global warming to the universe. I read that and nearly vomited blood. The problem with that sort of thinking is that the aliens wouldn’t invade us, they would wipe us out. How hard would it be to divert a comet or large asteroid toward Earth? Extinction event anyone? So they would need to be morally obligated to invade, but not simply destroy us. Perhaps they feel they would be no better than us if they just killed us and so feel they should invade, conquer us and teach us how to live in a “civilised” manner? Oh and on the side, there are great big piles of steel and rock and coal and stuff just lying around that could be shipped off world very cheaply, not to mention all the new and exciting foods and art that can be plundered. I think moral obligation is one of the stronger arguments, so long as the argument includes a reason for invading and not just destroying us.
  4.  Religious belief: The great thing with religious belief as a motivation for invasion is that it doesn’t need to be rational and it allows for aliens that do strange things for apparently no good reason. Look at our world religions for example. Some people of various beliefs don’t eat certain foods. No rational reason, they just don’t eat them. Apparently pigs are “dirty” animals and animals not killed in a certain fashion and under certain circumstances are “unfit” for consumption. scientifically there is no justification for this and the religions don’t require justification beyond that it is their belief. That’s just one example. Aliens could easily have a religion that requires they invade and conquer a race every one thousand years to show appropriate devotion. Why? No particular reason, but they have to. They have run out of races on their own planet and Earth is just the next nearest world. Or maybe some alien calculated that Earth is their “holy ground” and sacred to their religion. So to help unify their own nation the high priest sends word to all his followers that Earth must come into the possession of the true faith.

How?

The question of how they invade is another topic altogether. When considering how, you need to also ask, how could the people invaded possibly fight back or survive? The movies get this wrong pretty much every time. The obvious answer is that humans won’t survive and can’t fight back so as an author you’re going to have to work hard to convince your readers that we could.

Next week I’ll talk about magic and how not make it totally crap.

PS: I’m still looking for more beta readers to have a shot at my first 10 chapters.

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About sjohnhughes

Author, nerd, father, runner and more View all posts by sjohnhughes

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