The best aliens in science fiction books

Why am I passionate about this?

I have always been fascinated by the workings of the human mind. What instincts and influences make us who we are? This Alien Shore grew out of research I was doing into atypical neurological conditions. It depicts a society that has abandoned the concept of “neurotypical”, embracing every variant of human perspective as valid and valuable. One of my main characters, Kio Masada, is autistic, and that gives him a unique perspective on computer security that others cannot provide. What might such a man accomplish, in a world where his condition is embraced and celebrated? Good science fiction challenges our definition of “Other,” and asks what it really means to be human, all in the context of an exciting story.


I wrote...

This Alien Shore

By C. S. Friedman,

Book cover of This Alien Shore

What is my book about?

When Earth’s superluminal drive altered the genes of the first interstellar colonists, Earth abandoned them. But the colonists survived, and now there is a new civilization among the stars, peopled by mental and physical “Variants”. Earth’s children have become alien to her.

In Terran space, orphan Jamisia Shido is guided by mysterious voices in her head. After a devastating attack on her station, she is forced to flee to the Variant worlds, where she must uncover the secrets locked within her own brain before those who destroyed her home can find her. In Variant space, a computer virus is killing the only pilots capable of guiding ships through deep space. Security expert Kio Masada must track down the source of the virus before all of Variant society collapses. And the key to doing that may lie hidden within the mind of a young Terran fugitive. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Fire Upon the Deep

C. S. Friedman Why did I love this book?

Vinge’s tines appear comfortably dog-like in the physical aspect, yet experience life from a perspective that is utterly alien to us. When individuals are close to one another their minds merge, creating a single pack-mind. What elevates this phenomenon above the usual “pack mind” is that the merger does not obliterate individual identities, but combines them into a new identity that reflects all its components. Tine intelligence requires at least four minds to function properly, so a pack that loses members also loses mental acuity. Single tines are pitiful creatures, desperately looking for a pack to join. As such they are perfect experimental subjects for tine scientists, who design cruel experiments designed to document the effects of sustained isolation on the tine psyche. One is reminded, chillingly, of Harlow’s Pit of Despair.  

Besides the stunning creativity of Vinge’s aliens, it is this last factor that moves them to the top of my list. Observing in the tines the same kind of cruelty that humans are guilty of, we are forced to consider that our darker instincts may not be “human nature”, but something more fundamental –natural byproducts of the evolution of higher intelligence. If so, any alien race we contact in the future might have those same qualities.

By Vernor Vinge,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked A Fire Upon the Deep as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fleeing a menace of galactic proportions, a spaceship crashes on an unfamiliar world, leaving the survivors - a pair of children - to the not-so-tender mercies of a medieval, lupine race. Responding to the ship's distress signal, a rescue mission races against time to retrieve the children.


Book cover of The Crucible of Time

C. S. Friedman Why did I love this book?

A planet in its equivalent of the stone age is passing through a galactic debris field. An alien stargazer realizes that sooner or later some object will strike the planet and destroy it. The only hope of survival his species has is to leave the planet before that happens. But the concept is a mere abstraction to his people, the equivalent of a Neanderthal saying “we need to travel to the moon,” and the task is further complicated by the fact that their technology is biological in nature, focused on the manipulation of living tissue. It is hard to imagine how such technology could ever produce a spaceship. 

The novel--structured as a series of novellas-- follows the development of a fascinating alien species from its primitive roots to an age of high technology, each chapter focusing on a different time period. Always the stargazer’s warning is proclaimed by a few believers, who struggle to get their message heard. In some periods the messengers are considered prophetic, in others insane. But as with humans, it is hard to make people care about the theoretical future destruction of their planet. Brunner’s aliens (never fully described) are wonderfully quirky, and the story resonates powerfully with current environmental politics.

By John Brunner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Crucible of Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Traces the development over milennia of a civilization of an unusual alien species, whose sense of humor, resourceful adaptibility, and metalworking skills are the strengths and the hope of their society


Book cover of Dawn

C. S. Friedman Why did I love this book?

When Earth is destroyed by nuclear war, a race called the oankali rescue the few survivors and restore the earth to health. The oankali trade in DNA, and wish to combine their genetic material with that of humans. In doing so they will correct the issues that made humans destroy their planet while adopting human genes that will benefit their own species.

Those who accept the merging of species give birth to hybrid children, while others struggle to maintain humanity’s purity. A new species is slowly being created, and Butler explores how humans might respond to their own children becoming “the Other.” Issues of race, gender, and identity play out on a grand scale in her capable hands, no doubt enriched by her own African-American heritage.

By Octavia E. Butler,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Dawn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'One of the most significant literary artists of the twentieth century' JUNOT DIAZ

'Octavia Butler was playing out our very real possibilities as humans. I think she can help each of us to do the same' GLORIA STEINEM

One woman is called upon to reconstruct humanity in this hopeful, thought-provoking novel by the bestselling, award-winning author. For readers of Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison and Ursula K. Le Guin.

When Lilith lyapo wakes in a small white room with no doors or windows, she remembers a devastating war, and a husband and child long lost to her.

She finds herself living…


Book cover of Out of the Everywhere and Other Extraordinary Visions

C. S. Friedman Why did I love this book?

This anthology has one of my favorite stories by Tiptree, it is called "We who stole the dream". The Joilani have long been enslaved and abused by humans. So has another race, of “delicately winged creatures”, whose sweat is a powerful intoxicant to humans. It is most potent when the donor experiences pain and fear, so humans have taken to torturing mated pairs of them, so the partners can watch each other suffer. The resulting sweat is a drug called Star Tears. Although that unnamed race plays no active role in the story, they are on my list because of the powerful manner in which they influence other species, invoking the darkest and most brutal aspects of human nature simply by existing.

The diminutive, weak, and peace-loving Joilani make a desperate break for freedom. Stealing a spaceship called The Dream, they seek out the mythical planet of their ancestors. But when they find it, they discover that the darkness of humanity is not unique to our species, and their own history has equally terrible demons. Like Fire Upon the Deep, this graphic and disturbing story questions whether humanity’s darkest traits are uniquely human, or might arise in any sentient species.

By James Tiptree Jr.,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Out of the Everywhere and Other Extraordinary Visions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ten tantalizing tales of man, woman and child - and their cosmic connections...

Contents:
Angel Fix (1974)
Beaver Tears (1976)
Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light! (1976)
The Screwfly Solution (1977)
Time-Sharing Angel (1977)
We Who Stole the Dream (1978)
Slow Music (1980)
A Source of Innocent Merriment (1980)
Out of the Everywhere (1981)
With Delicate Mad Hands (1981)


Book cover of A Song for Lya

C. S. Friedman Why did I love this book?

Years before Game of Thrones became a household name, Martin was best known for this hauntingly beautiful and deeply disturbing novella. Two telepaths, Robb and Lya, are sent to an alien planet to investigate a disturbing religious movement. The planet is home to a race called the Shkeen, and to a gelatinous parasite called the Greeshka. In middle age the Shkeen allow the Greeshka to infect them, and ten years later they visit a cave where they allow a massive specimen to consume them. Some humans living on the planet have even joined the native religion, and have allowed themselves to be infected and devoured. The administrators are desperate to know why.

Robb and Lya have an unusually close relationship, but she suffers from a sense of isolation that telepathy cannot banish. While they watch some Shkeen being devoured by the Greeshka, she can sense how isolated the Shkeen feel before that, and how their loneliness vanishes as they are devoured. The temptation to join them is overwhelming. Martin’s story is a powerful statement on the emotional isolation of human existence, and the lengths one might go to, to escape it.

By George R. R. Martin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Song for Lya as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two telepaths investigate the newly discovered world of Shkea, where every native inhabitant, and an increasing number of human colonists, worships a mysterious and deadly parasite. Winner of the 1975 Hugo Award for Best Novella.


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Book cover of Tidelands: Ghosts and Monsters

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What is this book about?

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