A top five list of aliens? Out of the wealth of alien-ness available in the field of science fiction how could I possibly settle on only five? Well, I don’t claim this is a list everyone will agree with but they are my personal favourites from my science fiction reading/watching – largely because their alien-ness says something about what it is to be human. Very often, in looking to the future, the best science-fiction tells us about where we find ourselves now. And in a similar way, the aliens we like to read about are expressions of our own ambitions, our fears and our dreams. This is not a definitive list but everything on it says something to me about where we see ourselves in the universe.
5. Sandworms – from Dune by Frank Herbert
Now sandworms are what aliens should be like – colossal worm-monsters that live on the inhospitable desert world of Arrakis (and when I say colossal I mean up to 450 metres long). Inspired by the dragons of ancient folklore, Sand Worms have large mouths and lots of teeth at the business end plus they hunt their prey by homing in on vibrations in the sand – all of which makes it a tricky business if you live there. So why cohabit with these monsters? Well, partly because Sandworm droppings, are an essential and rare commodity used to facilitate space travel. Which only goes to prove that humans will put up with a lot of teeth in order to get access to something they want.
4. The Great A-Tuin – from the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett
The world is a flat disc, resting on the back of four elephants which in turn stand on the back of an enormous turtle, named the Great A’Tuin. At least it is in the Discworld fantasy novels by Terry Pratchett. Based on the Hindu god Akupara, A’Tuin is a mythological beast made real and is literally the foundation for Pratchett’s bonkers Discworld creation. The Great A’Tuin says a lot about how our ancestors tried to make sense of the world they saw around them – discworld’s, elephants and turtles are all part of folklore and mythology (and, bizarrely flat-earthers are finding a new popularity which defies all rational explanation). I love the Great A’Tuin simply because he reminds us of just how daft some of our notions really are.
3. The babel fish – from The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Anyone who knows Hitch-hiker Guide will know it contains no shortage of bizarre alien-ness however, as the guide says itself, the Babel fish is probably the oddest thing in the universe. A small, yellow, leech-like thing that feeds on brainwave energy and poops out frequencies that can be picked up by a human speech centres. Or to put is another way, if you stick one in your ear you can instantly understand anything said in any language. Very handy if you are travelling the galaxy. In a bizarre life-imitates-art twist, Babelfish became the name of the number one language translation site on the web. Douglas would have been so proud of his creation!
2. Mr Spock – from Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry
It is impossible to overestimate the impact Star Trek had on me as a kid. As a shy 9 year old, I once stood up in front of a packed TV lounge in a guest house and demanded that they turn over from the news to let me watch Star Trek. Obviously recognising the dangerous glint in my eye, the twenty five other people in the room agreed. Of all the aliens that have appeared on TV and cinema screen since then, Mr Spock may seem quite tame by comparison. True, he was cool, logical, green blooded and pointy-eared but look past that and he was quite human underneath – albeit a human with decidedly cold-blooded leanings. The reality was that Mr Spock, far from being alien, was really an extreme expression of a basic human personality type and something that the writers of Star Trek went on to explore further with Klingons, Ferengi, Cardassians and all the others. Why do I love Mr Spock? Because he reminds me of what variety is found in humanity. (Plus he can do that thing with his fingers).
1. The Daleks – from Dr Who by Terry Nation
At the age of ten I went to an exhibition of Dr Who monsters at the science museum rather brilliantly entitled ‘Behind the sofa’ which was were most of the kids I knew watched the programme from. The exhibition was pretty scary from start to finish but the most extreme terror was reserved for the final exhibit – the Daleks! Allegedly a race of mutated aliens that survived by installing themselves in a robotic outer shell, it scarcely matters what their backstory is because they were just so terrifying. Emotionless, lacking remorse or compassion and hate filled, there was no reasoning with them. It was said that Terry Nation drew inspiration for the Daleks from the Nazis which says something very profound about the terror that humans can inspire in each other. Perhaps, at the end of the day, we are the worst aliens out there.
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