As a science fiction writer, I often find that I have the opportunity to write about aliens. And, of course, as a writer, that means I get to invent my own aliens. What should they look like? How are they different from humans? Are such differences significant?
These are not insignificant questions, dealing only with matters of entertainment or aesthetics. The choice of alien characteristics can aid in the development of the plot and can be used to emphasize the outrageous and arbitrary views of humanity. And if you’re like me, exploring the outrageous and irrational aspects of humanity is one of the better parts of being a writer.
Here is just one example.
Imagine a world that has a permanent cloud cover in the upper aerosol layer. The cloud cover is thick, preventing visible light from penetrating to the surface of the planet. Now imagine what the creatures living on the surface of that planet might be like.
Since no visible light penetrates to the surface, a bright day on this planet would look like a moonless night on Earth. Creatures that evolved in such an environment may not have evolved eyes. There is no light, and therefore, eyes are useless. The inhabitants navigate their environment through a process of echolocation. Their heads have a large mound that encapsulates a portion of their brains. This organ produces low-frequency radio waves that are emitted and bounce off the various objects in their world. The same region can detect the reflected radio waves, and they are thus able to construct a mental model of their surroundings, just as detailed as the mental models we make from the perception of visible light.
After all, our own brains produced electromagnetic radiation, in the form of brain waves. These waves are incredibly weak, fading in only a few feet, but using the process of evolution throughout millions of years, the alien’s brains have evolved to produce much stronger waves. A terrestrial example might be a dolphin’s sonar, but using electromagnetic radiation as opposed to sound.
Having no eyes, the aliens have no concept of color. Imagine two blocks sitting on a table, a green block and a red block. Other than the color, there is nothing to distinguish them. They are the same height and width, they have the same mass. Both blocks are smooth to the touch, they are at the same temperature. A human can easily distinguish between the two. If I tell you, “pick up the red block,” you’d know exactly which block to pick up.
The alien’s, on the other hand, would not know which block to pick. The very word, “red” is meaningless to them.
Now, if I tell you to pick up the “gook” block, you wouldn’t know what to do. You’d likely ask, what is a “gook” block? An alien might then inform you that the two blocks are different. There is a texture difference between them, one is gook, and one is tok.
The word “gook” describes the frequencies of radio waves that bounce off the surface of the block. When the frequencies and phase shift are at certain values, the block is said to be “gook.” Different values produce a “tok” block. To the aliens, the difference is immediately apparent. To us, there is no difference.
How would such perceptions affect their opinions of humans?
Upon encountering humans, the aliens might notice that certain groups of humans treat other groups of humans most horrifically. They notice that certain groups hoard material possessions for themselves, denying those possessions to the oppressed group. They see that certain groups have structured their society such that they benefit from power, status and societal opportunities denied the oppressed groups in systemic ways.
The question for the aliens, is what the makeup of each group is? What distinguishes one group from the other? There would be specific physical characteristics that the aliens might notice, such as average height, flat vs. round facial construction, hairstyle. But the results are not entirely conclusive. No differences of any particular physical characteristic give a satisfactory statistically significant answer.
Then, finally, the aliens hit upon a difference that has a high statistical correlation. Yes, the aliens had discovered that humans who require more copious amounts of Vitamin D tend to look down upon those humans do not need the Vitamin in such quantities.
Clearly, Vitamin D is vital to the human species. The vitamin helps the body absorb calcium and deposit the calcium in bones. That much is clear, but it still mystifies the aliens. All humans ingest Vitamin D in their diets, and they all ingest the vitamin in more than sufficient quantities to ensure their health. In some species, members might put down other members of their species because of a lack of a particular characteristic that could imperil the species as a whole. In ancient times, the aliens noticed, humans, did this with a specific class called leapers.
The afflicted humans were infected with a deadly, and infectious disease. To protect the species as a whole, the afflicted were shut off from the rest of a healthy society, thus limiting the spread of the disease and thus protecting the health and prosperity of the species as a whole.
But Vitamin D ingestion did not fall into that category. The natural diets of humans provided plenty of Vitamin D for all members that required it, in quantities suitable for their continued health. It was a mystery.
Now, if you are going to use this in your work, you have to make sure your readers know the significance of Vitamin D and the human body’s need for it.
Humans require many vitamins to remain healthy. Among those is Vitamin D. A 1978 study showed that ultraviolet light cut folate (a member of the Vitamin D complex) levels in half. The lighter a person’s skin, the more ultraviolet light penetrates. Therefore, to remain healthy, lighter skinned people must ingest more Vitamin D because the ultraviolet light penetrating their skin breaks down the folate. This can be a problem for light-skinned people in regions where there is prolonged and intense sunlight. Whereas darker skinned people do not suffer from the breakdown of folate in their skins nearly as much as lighter skinned people do, they can subsist on lesser amounts of Vitamin D intake.
So, when the aliens ask “Why do humans with higher requirements for Vitamin D look down upon, and oppress those that do not require such copious amounts of Vitamin D?”, what they are really asking is “Why do white people look down upon, and oppress black people?”
We all know that issues of racial discrimination are not due entirely to skin color. Such a description is an oversimplification. Nevertheless, skin color does play a part, and it is interesting to see it from the view of aliens, which makes the somewhat arbitrary choice of skin color as a differentiator seem even more absurd.