Monday, April 2, 2018

Sci-Fi Aliens

All right, I get to write about cartoon stuff and writing-related junk again!

So I was drawing a weird comic about Steven Universe characters like I do when I'm thinking about stuff (you know, a large chunk of my waking hours), and when I was drawing this one character named Rhodonite, I thought about some stuff.

Like, she's weird--she's a space alien with two sets of eyes and two sets of arms. But when it comes to the gestures and faces she makes, they're consistently very recognizably human expressions.

(From my in-progress comic)

On the TV show, the Gem race is a strange one--essentially, they kind of don't really have bodies. Some statements about their physical existence that they've tossed out include "Our bodies are only an illusion" and "think of it like a hologram, but with mass." The only "real" physical part of these aliens is a gemstone that holds their entire existence encoded into information, and the rest is a projection.

So, if an alien race has that much freedom in how they manifest their bodies, why are all they all humanoid?

The extra eyes and extra arms make Rhodonite look pretty alien, sure, but most of the Gem characters don't even have that; she's different because she's a type of entity known as a Fusion--she's actually two individuals who chose to live their lives together, so they share a body and some of their features are doubled up. If you're this kind of alien, why even have arms, or legs, or eyes? Why choose to interact with the physical world using such a similar framework to that of humans? Or why not look MORE human, in the case of the Gems who live where humans do? Most of the characters who live on our planet are humanoid but don't make any effort to blend in, so they have oddly colored skin and sometimes inhuman proportions. What influences these choices? Is it "realistic" for a science fiction show to make their aliens look like this?

Star Trek got some criticism over how their aliens were so frequently just humans with minor prostheses. Want a new alien race? Give your actors a weird lumpy forehead, pointy ears, or fancy contact lenses. Really, some said it was either human egotism or lack of imagination that had them building 90% of their aliens off a human template. But given the limitations of a television show that has to deal with expensive wardrobes, special effects, and actors' ability to act through the costume, it made sense that they might take those shortcuts.

Why, then, would you do it in animation? Or, for that matter, in novels?

Here's the reason I don't have any problem at all with how unrealistic it is. It's because of WHY we tell stories.

We tell stories to communicate concepts to each other. To entertain, to teach, to compare, to understand. There is a time and a place for a really awesome extremely alien concept that incorporates a scientific understanding of how an alien race might actually develop on a distant planet. There is a time and a place for incredibly foreign, inhuman ideas of how society and culture might work for aliens. And it's so incredible when some talented science fiction creator manages to do it. But the problem also with those kinds of aliens is that we spend more time in the story getting our heads around them than we do understanding the story they're there to tell.

Sometimes, like on Star Trek or Steven Universe, the creators want to bring aliens into their stories but they want their messages to be clear. They want us to read the signals they're sending instead of having to stop everywhere to figure out whether these aliens are communicating what we would be communicating with that gesture. That even varies amongst cultures on Earth, so of course a realistic alien probably wouldn't use many of the same shortcuts.

But if you watch Steven Universe, sometimes you'll see a four-eyed, four-armed alien on a distant planet in space telling you things you can nevertheless instantly read through her gestures. Her raised eyebrows mean what ours do. So do crossed arms, open-palmed gestures, and tears. When her voice goes up at the end of the sentence, she's asking a question. When she's scared, she looks like we do.

We don't have any explanation in the show for why the characters all speak English, or why they pant after putting out a lot of physical effort even though they literally have no internal organs, or how they can cry or spit or sweat if they don't eat or drink or breathe. Or rather, we don't have an explanation for it that would make scientific sense. But the "actual" explanation is that the audience knows what it means when a character cries, and we'll attribute the appropriate emotions to that character with much more authenticity if we see them demonstrating physical cues that we would if we were in the same situation. If the purpose of this show is to tell a story and increase connection, it's really not necessary to withhold scientifically implausible character traits in the name of realism. 

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