Human Extraterrestrials


Even though science fiction is often focused on the future, its assumptions are tied to the present.

Aldrin descends from Apollo 11In some respects this is obvious.  A story about the near future can become dated by history itself.  Every SF story prior to 1969 that describes the first moon landing in detail (happy 51st anniversary, last week!) is obsolete.  And every story that predicted a smooth reach out into colonizing the solar system directly after that first landing, unfortunately, is also defunct.  Stories can also be rendered unbelievable by scientific advance:  all the delightful tales based on a habitable Venus or Mars are gone with the, er, vacuum.

But there’s also a subtler way.  Even though F&SF specialize in examining our assumptions about the universe, the assumptions that seem plausible shift over time.  Fashions change.  To take a heartening example:  SF stories from the late 1940s and the 1950s tended to take it for granted that there would shortly be a nuclear world war.  (Hence it’s spot-on characterization when the 1955 version of Doc Brown in “Back to the Future” accepts Marty’s recorded appearance in a hazmat suit as logical because of the “fallout from the atomic wars.”)  But for over seventy years, we’ve managed to avoid that particular catastrophe.

One assumption that’s always intrigued me is whether we are likely to meet people like ourselves—and I mean, exactly like ourselves—on another planet.  If we discovered an Earthlike planet of another sun, might we climb down the ladder from our spaceship to shake hands with a biologically human alien?

Not Really Alien

I’m talking about a “convergent evolution” hypothesis—the notion that the human species might have developed independently more than once.  And, incidentally, the standard biological definition of “species” as “interfertile” (a more precise definition can be found on Wikipedia) is what I’m using here; because, obviously, one of the potential uses of the assumption in a story is to make possible a romance between two characters from different worlds, and romance is not unrelated to sex and reproduction.

The Cometeers coverSo we want to set aside, to begin with, a class of stories in which people from different planets are all human because they have a common ancestry.  For example, in Jack Williamson’s classic space opera The Cometeers (1936), Bob Star finds his true love Kay Nymidee among the human subjects of the decidedly nonhuman masters of an immense assemblage of space-traveling planets, the “comet.”  But the reason there are human beings present is that a research ship from Earth was captured by the Cometeers long ago, and these are the descendants of the crew.

It’s not uncommon for the inheritance to work the other way around.  David Weber’s “Mutineers’ Moon” (1991) starts with the eye-opening assumption that our Moon is actually a long-inert giant spaceship—and reveals that the humanity of Earth is descended from the original crew members of that spaceship.  Thus, it’s perfectly plausible when hero Colin MacIntyre falls for a preserved member of the original crew; they’re from the same stock.  Similarly, in at least the original 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica, the human survivors of the “rag-tag fugitive fleet” are human because Earth itself was one of their original colonies, which apparently fell out of touch.

The Era of Planetary Romance

In the early days of modern SF—say, from about 1912 through the 1930s—it was commonly assumed that the answer was yes:  human beings (with minor variations) might be found independently on other planets.  Arguably, this may have been because the early planetary romances—melodramas set on exotic worlds, heavy on adventure and love stories—were less interested in science than in plot devices.  But biology was less advanced in those days; recall that DNA was not identified as the basis of genetic inheritance until 1952.  It’s easy to forget how little we knew about things we take for granted today, even in relatively recent periods.

A classic early case is that of Edgar Rice BurroughsBarsoom.  In A Princess of Mars (1912), Earthman John Carter is transported by obscure means to Mars, called by its inhabitants “Barsoom.”  Those inhabitants include the nonhuman “Green Martians,” but also people identical to humans in several colors, particularly the “Red Martians” among whom Carter finds his lady-love, Dejah Thoris.  As a Red Martian, Dejah is human enough for Carter to mate with, and they have a son, Carthoris, thus meeting the “interfertile” criterion.

Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris in John Carter of Mars

Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris

To be sure, the biology here is a little mysterious.  Dejah looks entirely human, and even, to borrow a Heinlein phrase, “adequately mammalian” (see, for example, Lynn Collins’ portrayal in the loosely adapted movie John Carter (2012)).  But Martians don’t bear their young as Earth-humans do; they lay eggs, which then develop for ten years before hatching.  It’s not easy to imagine the genetics that could produce viable offspring from an individual whose genes direct live birth and one whose genes result in egg-laying.  But that didn’t stop Burroughs.

E.E. Smith, whose initial SF writing goes back just about as far as that of Burroughs, was willing to accept this trope as well.  In The Skylark of Space (published 1928, but written between 1915 and 1921), our intrepid heroes travel to a planet inhabited by two nations of essentially human people—although the double wedding in the story does not involve any interplanetary romances, but is between two pairs of characters from Earth.  Smith’s later Lensman series (1948-1954), which features one of the most diverse arrays of intelligent creatures in SF, also allows for apparently interfertile humans from a variety of planets.  My impression is that this sort of duplication was also true of some of the nonhuman species in the Lensman unverse—there might be, say, Velantian-types native to planets other than Velantia.

This approach wasn’t universal in old-time SF.  The more scientifically-minded John W. Campbell’s extraterrestrial character Torlos in Islands of Space (1930) was generally humanoid in form, but quite different in makeup:  his iron bones, for instance.  It’s been argued that a roughly humanoid form has some advantages for an intelligent species, and hence that we might find vaguely humanoid aliens on different planets—though this is pure speculation.  But “humanoid” is a far cry from biologically human.

Darkover Landfall coverWe see some persistence of this tradition into the second half of the twentieth century.   Marion Zimmer Bradley’s iconic planet Darkover, for instance (first novel published 1958), is populated by the descendants of Terran humans from a colony ship and also by the elf-like indigenous Chieri, who, despite minor differences like six fingers and golden eyes, not to mention the ability to change sex at will, have interbred with the Terran immigrants.

An interesting variation can be seen in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile (first story published in 1981).  When modern humans are sent on a one-way trip into the distant past, they are enslaved by the Tanu, aliens from another galaxy who have settled on Earth.  The story indicates that the Tanu were specifically searching for a place where the local gene pool was similar to theirs—which might also account for why they came all the way from another galaxy (also a somewhat antique trope) to get here.

It’s slightly odd that, even where basically identical human beings turn up on other planets, other animals never seem to be similarly duplicated.  On Burroughs’ Barsoom, one doesn’t ride horses, but thoats; is menaced not by tigers, but by banths; and keeps a calot, not a dog, as a pet.  In a planetary romance or science fantasy setting, one is less likely to see Terran-equivalent fauna than parallel creatures with exotic names and slight differences—whence the SF-writing gaffe “Call a Rabbit a Smeerp” (see TV Tropes and the Turkey City Lexicon).

At the Movies

The all-too-human trope is carried on into the present day in video media—movies and TV.  Again, this may be partly because the science is often subordinated to the plot; but the cost and difficulty of putting convincing nonhuman characters on-screen is surely another factor.  Filmmakers’ ability to depict exotic creatures, however, has changed immensely in the last forty years, to a point where almost any imaginable creature can be created if the budget is sufficient.  Thus, the original Star Trek series of the 1960s stuck largely to slightly disguised humanoid aliens, perhaps relying on the ‘universal humanoid’ hypothesis mentioned above, while later series were able to branch out a bit.  Similarly, the Star Wars movies could readily give us nonhuman characters like Jabba the Hutt, Chewbacca, and C3PO; they, too, grew in variety as the capabilities of CGI and other techniques expanded.

Jupiter Ascending movie posterStill, it may be harder for us to adjust to interactions among characters where we can see their nonhumanity, rather than just reading about it.  So we still tend to see extraterrestrial humans on-screen.  The Kree in Captain Marvel (2019), for example, are indistinguishable from humans—an actual plot point, since this makes it possible for Yon-Rogg to tell Carol that she’s an enhanced Kree rather than a kidnapped human.  The Kree do have blue blood, in the movie; it’s not clear what kind of biological difference (hemocyanin?) might result in that feature.  We also see a number of alien humans in Jupiter Ascending (2015), though I think of that tale as a deliberate throwback to pulpish science fantasy or planetary romance.

A Match Made in Space, fictional coverI keep wanting to cite the fictional novel written by George McFly as shown in the closing scenes of Back to the Future, “A Match Made in Space,” since the cover seems to suggest an interplanetary romance (and one thinks of George as a nerdy romantic); but it isn’t actually clear whether that’s the case.  All we have to go on is the title and the cover, and that could just as easily depict a match between two humans, fostered by an alien matchmaker (or vice versa).

The Modern Era

We don’t see nearly as many extraterrestrial humans in modern SF, and for good reason.

The more we understand about genetics, the less likely it seems that another human species, so closely similar as to be interfertile, could evolve independently.  What we know about evolution suggests that there are just too many random chances along the way—cases where the prevailing mutations might have turned out differently.  Even if we assume that humanoid form is probable, why not have six fingers, or hemocyanin rather than hemoglobin?  While I’m not well enough educated in biology to venture any actual probabilities, I think our growing sense of the complexity of the human body and its workings, over the last seventy years or so, has simply made it seem vanishingly unlikely that an independently evolved intelligence would come out that close to the human genotype.

For example, the scientifically-minded Arthur C. Clarke depicted a galaxy in which each intelligent species, including humans, was unique:  The City and the Stars (1956, developed from an earlier story published in 1948).  In one of the unused story fragments he wrote while working on 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968), his hero, well along on his journey into mystery, thinks:

He did not hesitate to call them people, though by the standards of Earth they would have seemed incredibly alien.  But already, his standards were not those of Earth; he had seen too much, and realized by now that only a few times in the whole history of the Universe could the fall of the genetic dice have produced a duplicate of Man.  The suspicion was rapidly growing in his mind—or had something put it there?—that he had been sent to this place because these creatures were as close an approximation as could readily be found to Homo sapiens, both in appearance and in culture.  (Clarke, The Lost Worlds of 2001, ch. 39, p. 220)

Contemporary SF writers who are really adept at building interesting and coherent aliens—David Brin and Becky Chambers, to name two of the best—give us a wide range of wildly exotic creatures from other planets, but not humans.

The Uplift War, coverIf we are still fond of the idea of interplanetary romance, we might find a possible work-around in the shapeshifter.  The Tymbrimi female Athaclena in Brin’s The Uplift War (1987) uses her species’ unusual abilities to adjust her appearance closer to that of a human female—but of course she has an entirely different genetic heritage, as that ability itself demonstrates.  The result wouldn’t meet our criterion of interfertility, no matter how close the similarity in physical structure.  To adjust one’s genes in the same way would be another order of change altogether.

Starman movie posterThe 1984 movie Starman, in a way, plays off this idea.  The alien in this case is apparently an entity made of pure energy, without a physical structure of its own.  Using hair from the female lead’s deceased husband, it creates a new body with a human genetic structure.  The two do, eventually, prove to be interfertile.  If we’re willing to accept the notion of an energy being in the first place, this approach is actually more plausible than, say, mating with the oviparous Dejah Thoris.

If one were writing a SF story today, it would be rash to assume that Earthborn characters could run across independently evolved humans elsewhere.  The idea may not be entirely inconceivable.  But it’s out of fashion for good reasons.  Attractive as the notion of interplanetary romance may be, at this point we’d best confine it to the kind of case noted above, where some common ancestry—no matter how far-fetched—can account for the common humanity.

Becky Chambers and Domestic Science Fiction

Hugo Material

Science fiction writer Becky Chambers is up for a Hugo award (SF’s equivalent of the Oscars or Pulitzer Prize) this year—twice.  Her 2018 novel Record of a Spaceborn Few has been nominated for best novel.  The Wayfarers series, of which Record is the third book, is also in the running for best series this year.

Wayfarers series coversThe series as a whole, and especially the most recent book, highlight a facet of SF that can sometimes be neglected in the shadow of the world-shaking blockbuster epics:  stories that are concerned more with what happens to individuals and small groups than with the Fate of the World.  I’m going to tag this subcategory “domestic SF.”

I don’t mean to imply that Chambers’ tales are concerned with cosy traditional family life.  On the contrary, some of her characters’ situations are decidedly nonconventional.  This is science fiction, after all.  But family and home do play a central role.

High Stakes

When we think of science fiction—especially early modern SF, from about 1920-1940—we tend to think of adventure stories:  space opera, “planetary romances” like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories, or the modern revival in Star Trek and Star Wars.  In these tales, conflict was a must, and often on a grand scale.  We were Saving the World, or even the galaxy, the universe; or at least (for instance) the beloved city of Helium, as John Carter was wont to do.

Many of these early epics had to do with exploration.  We were ‘going where no one had gone before’ in the Jules Verne Voyages Extraordinaires, or in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds (though in the latter case one might say instead that ‘where no one had gone before’ was coming to us).  The heroes were frequently achieving the first of something, a momentous event:  first spaceflight, first interstellar flight, first contact with nonhuman intelligence, or (when spaceflight had become routine) first landing on some particularly odd sort of planet.  Whatever they were doing, it was a big deal.

Of course this was never all of science fiction; but it made up a major part of modern SF.  And this tendency continued into the mid-20th century.  Even a scenario that initially seemed purely local and personal often turned out to have grand-scale implications.

In Heinlein’s The Star Beast (1954), for example, the Everyboy teenage hero is unusual only in having a pet that was puppy-sized when his great-grandfather brought it back from an interstellar trip, but has gradually grown to the scale of a medium-sized dinosaur.  The story opens with “Lummox” getting into trouble by eating a neighbor’s roses, plowing straight through a set of greenhouses, and so forth—the kind of domestic turmoil that might turn up in any situation comedy.  (At least in science fiction.)  But it eventually turns out that Lummox is actually a mere child from a fearsomely intelligent and pugnacious extraterrestrial species that lives for centuries.  When her relatives come calling, it requires a major diplomatic effort to head off an interstellar war.  What started out as a neighborhood squabble has become a planetary crisis.

E.T. poster, fingers touchingWe see something of the same development, but with a different twist, in the movie E.T.:  the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  The first part of the story focuses mainly on the friendship that develops between E.T. and young Elliott.  The situation grows into an adult-level crisis in the second part.  But Spielberg has a different take:  even at the end, the story remains centered on that personal relationship between the two main characters.  The trail of candies Elliott lays out for E.T. leads to a momentous first-contact moment; but it isn’t clear at the end whether Elliott’s contact will lead to some kind of new era for humanity, or whether things will return to normal once the alien spacecraft departs.

E.T. shows that what’s at stake in SF doesn’t have to be world-shaking.  The whole story may simply revolve around the lives of a few main characters.  And that’s what I mean by ‘domestic SF.’

The Wayfarers Books

Chambers’ first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014), opens when a young woman named Rosemary Harper joins the motley crew of an aging spaceship-for-hire called the Wayfarer.  Her relationships with the varied personalities (and species) of the crew draw her out of herself and allow her to develop her potential in classic bildungsroman fashion.  As the plot thickens, Wayfarer does get involved in major diplomatic affairs, in a small way.  But, as with E.T., the focus stays on the characters and their interactions.  We’re much more concerned about whether (for instance) the ship’s AI, Lovelace, will succeed in being downloaded into a human body at the urging of her human beloved, than in galactic politics.  Wikipedia puts it concisely:  “The novel concerns itself with character development rather than adventure.”

This tendency is even more pronounced in the second story.  A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) leaves behind most of the characters of the first book to follow the distinct, newborn AI that ended up occupying the human body in question at the end of The Long WayOrbit entirely eschews the grand scale in favor of personal relationships, as the main character tries to decide how to manage this strange new life in the flesh while making friends with a woman who herself had an extremely odd childhood.  One review correctly observed that Orbit is even “more intimate than its predecessor.”

The third story, Record of a Spaceborn Few, takes place in the same universe but, again, mobilizes an entirely different cast of characters.  Chambers is not writing a cumulative single story on the model of, say, the Star Wars movies.  Rather, each book is complete in itself, although they share a common background and characters occasionally cross over.  This in itself indicates that we are not building up to a single galaxy-spanning climax.  The author’s interests lie elsewhere.

Record of a Spaceborn Few

Record of a Spaceborn Few coverThe most recent book builds on the backstory of which we’ve seen glimpses in the prior volumes.  In Chambers’ future history, humanity, having ruined its home planet, sets out en masse to search for new homes in slower-than-light generation ships, the “Exodus fleet.”  It’s only when the are discovered by more advanced nonhuman species that they gain limited access, as impoverished refugees, to higher technologies and faster-than-light travel.  By the time of the stories, people from the Fleet have spread out to live among other species on numerous other worlds; some have even returned to their own solar system to colonize Mars.  But a substantial number of humans still remain aboard the immense ships that had been their ancestors’ homes for so long, which have now been put in permanent orbits around a star loaned to them by another species.

Record explores possible options for choosing to live one’s life in these circumstances.  Some of the “Exodans,” like young Kip, pine for the wider horizons of a planet, yet end up opting for a place within the Fleet—after spending some time going to college “abroad,” onplanet.  Others, like Tessa and her family, do take on the new experience of living in the open, on a planet.  Meanwhile, some of the dispersed humans born on planets come to decide they’d rather live aboard the Fleet, whose close-knit culture has its attractions despite the shabby and relatively modest conditions aboard; and some of the Exodans choose to create a “cultural education” center to train these returnees so they can fit into that culture.

A friendly alien observer, visiting the Fleet to gain material for a study and staying with one of the main characters, provides an external viewpoint to place these various life decisions in context.  But the core of the story is how each individual or family chooses among the different possible ways of life.  There’s no great crisis or climax, and the story doesn’t come down on the side of one lifestyle or another.  It simply lays out the possibilities.

Family Life Out There

Chambers’ stories, then, seem to be moving more and more in the direction of ‘domestic’ or small-scale concerns.  There’s a continuing theme of belonging to a family group, or something like one—even when the “family” in question, as in Orbit, consists of both ordinary embodied humans and “sessile” AIs that never leave the home they operate (giving a whole new meaning to the term “homemaker”).

The Rolling Stones coverWith Chambers as the bellwether, so to speak, we can trace similar kinds of stories back through the history of SF.  For example, another Heinlein “juvenile” novel, The Rolling Stones (1952), really is a domestic story:  the Stone family, bored with their comfortable life on the quietly citified Moon, buys a spaceship and sets off to visit Mars and then the asteroid belt, getting into various scrapes and small-scale adventures as they go.

These “adventures” can be as mundane as the teenage twins’ run-in with bureaucracy and the law when they try to import bicycles to Mars without first researching the customs duties—or as serious as a life-endangering spacecraft malfunction.  But there are no grander events or interplanetary crises involved.  (Incidentally, the book has nothing at all to do with the band The Rolling Stones, not even if you try to compare the “rocks” of the asteroid belt with—no, even I’m not going to go there.)

Another perennial favorite of mine is Zenna Henderson’s tales of the People, refugees from a far-off world who are scattered across the Earth when they must escape in “life-slips” as their spacecraft breaks up on entering our atmosphere.  These short stories each center on different individuals or families of characters, built around a common theme of finding the lost and bringing them back to their own people.  The unusual powers of the People often evoke xenophobic hostility in the Earthlings among whom they are hiding—but just as often bring out compassion and kindness from the people who take them in and help them.  The array of short stories does not really build to any climax or conclusion.  Rather, each person’s fate is a story in itself—though it is intimately bound up with those of others.

Whole subgenres of SF are inherently oriented toward the small and personal.  There’s a significant category of science fiction murder mysteriesIsaac Asimov was famous for these—which by definition revolve around a particular individual’s death, which may or may not have cosmic ramifications.  Similarly, a SF romance necessarily focuses on a particular couple; and again, while their relationship may have broad-scale importance, the story is just as sound if what matters is only the two of them.

On the Big Screen

My impression is that SF movies, even more than books, have tended to concentrate on big crises and broad scope; perhaps a visual medium evokes a particular fascination with spectacle.  (Explosions, give me lots of explosions.)  But that’s not always the case.  Now that we’ve shown we can do believably spectacular stories along the Star Wars lines, moviemakers may be turning back toward more personal-level tales.

The Space Between Us posterA good example is the teenage SF romance The Space Between Us (2017).  I’m fond of this film, though it didn’t do well as the box office and was disliked by critics.  The movie fits our survey here because it’s all about the particular pair and the other people involved with them.  There’s a base or colony on Mars, but that’s just the background that sets up the essential premise of the story—how a boy born and raised in a scientific station on Mars is determined to visit the home planet and to meet the girl he’s been corresponding with there.

I’m tempted also to cite the Chris Pratt-Jennifer Lawrence film Passengers (2016).  It’s all about the two principal characters (who are the only characters for much of the story).  The stakes do rise at least to “save the ship” level when the main characters have to perform death-defying acts to prevent the destruction of the sleeper ship they’re on.  But, as a romance, it does maintain a focus on the fates of those two people—in a way that is rather poignantly realized at the end.


Becky Chambers’ Hugo nominees thus illustrate that aspect of SF that deals with the personal and local rather than the grand and spectacular.  I’m all for more of this.  Once we get over the initial amazement at space travel and other scientific advances, we can settle down to telling the small individual stories that these advances make possible—without giving up the grand-scale tales as well, of course.  In a literary realm, eating our cake and still having it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.