The best aliens in science fiction books

The Books I Picked & Why

A Fire Upon the Deep

By Vernor Vinge

Book cover of A Fire Upon the Deep

Why 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.

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The Crucible of Time

By John Brunner

Book cover of The Crucible of Time

Why 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.

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By Octavia E. Butler

Book cover of Dawn

Why 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.

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Out of the Everywhere and Other Extraordinary Visions

By James Tiptree Jr.

Book cover of Out of the Everywhere and Other Extraordinary Visions

Why 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.

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A Song for Lya

By George RR Martin

Book cover of A Song for Lya

Why 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.

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