World building is one of those topics speculative writers can’t seem to get enough of. Probably because the topic is so broad, spanning astronomy, biology, politics, culture, and more (or less, depending on the type of story one envisions).
We can learn a lot by examining the stories that have gone before, unearthing nuggets of inspiration wherever our reading eyes go. So today, I’d like to do just that by focusing on the unique qualities of the aliens featured in Annie Douglass Lima’s heartwarming YA sci-fi, Heartsong.
For as many good alien stories out there (movies included), one can probably find as many or more examples of alien clichés. Let’s face it. Because it’s easier to write what we know, we humans have a tendency to invent either animalistic aliens (very similar to earth species) or humanesque ones (with cultures too much like our own).
As to the former, I can think of some truly unique examples that stand out. How about the sandworms in Frank Herbert’s Dune? Or—one of my personal favorites—James Cameron’s Aliens.
Acid for blood is fun, to be sure, but what considerations arise when the aliens are more civilized—less animalistic? In my opinion, creating intelligent fictional life requires a whole new depth of development: Not just environment—but culture. Not just biology—but personality. And the last thing we want to do is reinvent the human. On second thought—Just make ’em blue!
I guess there’s no hiding the fact—I’m an alien.
So, let’s take a look at Annie Douglass Lima’s Somavians to see what inspiration can we glean.
Language and Speech
Anyone who’s studied foreign languages probably knows that sentences are structured differently in different languages (e.g., English: “I like aliens” = Subject-Verb-Object vs. Japanese: “I aliens like” = Subject-Object-Verb). They also know that adjectives have different placements (“the blue alien” in English would read “the alien blue” in Spanish). And why should we naturally assume that adding an “s” to an alien word should designate plurality (when not even the English language consistently follows that rule)?
I don’t know about yous guys, but Mooses are one of my favorite animals.
Blue alien mooses, especially.
Clearly, from these examples, there’s much room for creativity in cultivating fictional alien speech. Certainly, an understanding of different languages can help, as I’m sure it did for Heartsong‘s author. According to her bio, “Annie Douglass Lima spent most of her childhood in Kenya and later graduated from Biola University in Southern California. She and her husband Floyd currently live in Taiwan, where she teaches fifth grade at Morrison Academy.”
In this case, “write what you know” turned out beautifully, as the Somavian language Annie created bears a tonal quality like the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan. (Learn more about tonal languages here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foImPuD_bKc)
Here are a few quotes for more language inspiration (and to convince you to read this book, I hope):
Yellow saw me looking at his planet. Pointing at it, he said something in his musical language, some notes higher than I knew my voice could reach, others at the very bottom of my range.
“Are you telling me about the planet? My people call it Somavia.”
Yellow pointed again and spoke just one word this time, slowly and clearly. Then he repeated it. It sounded like hu-a-bi, three syllables with three musical notes. He pointed to me, and I got the idea he wanted me to say it. So I tried to repeat the word, singing it more or less the way he had. He fluttered his elbows. I wondered if that meant he was pleased with me for trying to pronounce the name of his world or annoyed that I hadn’t said it quite right.
Gestures & Other Extralinguistic Communications
What is communication exactly? When we interpret what someone says, heaven forbid we should restrict ourselves to words. We’re not robots—and even animals show emotions in the form of body language.
Consider the cat, for example—hair standing on end, tail raised, dancing sideways. Yikes! How about a cowering dog or a tiger ready to pounce? Both have their heads drawn down, but the underlying message is different. I daresay we can see it in their eyes.
But what if we couldn’t—what then?
Consider this description of the Somavians:
Just like Forerunner’s pictures had shown, they were covered in fur. The one on the left had pale yellow fur, and the one on the right was dark red.
They were roughly humanoid, with what seemed to be mostly the same basic body parts as humans—except for the extra set of arms at waist level. Their faces were different, too: bulging black insect-like eyes at the sides of their heads, tiny rounded ears set just behind the eyes, flat noses with two little slits for nostrils. Their mouths were huge, stretching almost all the way across the front of their faces.
Wait. No eyebrows or eyelids?
Think for a moment how much meaning is conveyed by those two tiny features. It would’ve been far easier for the author to give the Somavians the ability to narrow their eyes—to smile or frown—but that’s not what she did. Instead, she limited their facial expressivity and created a unique range of gestures to serve that purpose.
Fluttering elbows—oh, what does it mean? I guess you’ll just have to read the story to find out. (Hint, hint: It’s not a chicken dance.)
Humans rely heavily on their vision. We use computers with screens. We create art with splashes of color. But what if our vision worked differently? Or if we relied more on other senses?
How often, for example, do we focus on texture?
“Do you like my home?” Mountain gestured around the little apartment.
“Sure. I mean, it’s pretty different than houses on Earth, but it’s cute and cozy.”
“What is different about it?”
“Well, where I come from, people don’t live underground, and most houses are bigger than this.” I glanced at the empty walls. “And humans like to decorate their walls with art.”
“I have decorated my walls with art.”
I looked at her to see if she was joking. “What do you mean? Your walls are plain gray. They just look like rock.”
“You do not notice the art?”
“Um, no.” Wondering if you had to have Somavian eyes to see whatever was on there, I stepped closer and peered at the nearest wall. Then I realized there actually was something on the wall, though it was almost invisible. Tiny ridges and grooves barely showed up in its surface.
Mountain followed me over, translator in hand. “You will not notice it easily by looking. You must touch it.” She brushed the palm of her hand across the wall.
When I did the same, I realized that section of the wall had far more texture than I had thought.
This same consideration alters their designs of technology, but I’ll leave those details as a surprise for future readers.
Traditions, Habits, and Customs—oh my!
In some cultures, people eat with their hands. In other cultures, cutting off ones fingers is a way of showing grief. All this variety is born of the human mind and linked with human abilities—which need not be the same as the aliens inhabiting your fictional world.
Creating unique habits is good. Linking them to physical differences is better.
I was surrounded by more of the massive, colorful aliens. Some stood looking into the truck, some crouched in it beside me, and the air was filled with their musical language. Buggy eyes stared at me. Leathery hands reached out to touch my arms and hair and face.
I shrank back. “Stop touching me!”
The hands pulled away, but the conversations continued. These Somavians seemed to have no concept of personal space. They were all right there, some only inches away from me, their fur brushing against each other. Most had placed their hands on each other’s arms or shoulders, and with four arms each, that was a lot of fellow-aliens to be in physical contact with. At least they weren’t doing anything to hurt me, but this was just weird. What’s up with all the touchy-feely stuff?
What’s up with it, indeed. I won’t give you the answer, but I will say I loved the concept—especially how it added depth to the themes.
Now it’s your turn. Tell me what unique factors you’ve built into your own alien creations. Or, what’s one novel or a movie you enjoyed that boosts your alien inspiration?
By the way, did you find the hidden image? If not, you might want to take a second look at the pictures and check out the scavenger hunt instructions here.
Two alien worlds.
One teen emissary.
No reality she can trust.
Thirteen-year-old Liz Smith has been ripped away from one foster family after another for years, so the idea of a permanent home is tantalizing. Who cares if that home is a colony sixty-five thousand light-years from Earth? The friends in her trusty e-reader will keep her company just fine on her interstellar relocation.
But when the adventure of a lifetime turns into the disaster of the cosmos, Liz can only retreat so far into the books that have always sheltered her from loneliness and loss. Trapped in half-truths and secrets that leave her questioning reality, can one orphaned bookworm find a way to stop two races from destroying each other … and somehow write a happy ending to her own story?
If you like books about space travel, aliens, or cross-cultural transitions, you’ll love this poignant science fiction adventure. Get your copy of Heartsong now to start the journey today!
About the Author
Annie Douglass Lima spent most of her childhood in Kenya and later graduated from Biola University in Southern California. She and her husband Floyd currently live in Taiwan, where she teaches fifth grade at Morrison Academy. She has been writing poetry, short stories, and novels since her childhood, and to date has published eighteen books in a wide variety of genres (science fiction, fantasy, YA action and adventure novels, a puppet script, anthologies of her students’ poetry, and a Bible verse coloring and activity book). Besides writing, her hobbies include reading (especially fantasy and science fiction), scrapbooking, and international travel.
Connect with her here:
- Email: AnnieDouglassLima@gmail.com
- Blog: http://anniedouglasslima.blogspot.com
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AnnieDouglassLimaAuthor
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/princeofalasia
- Goodreads: http://bit.ly/ADLimaOnGoodreads
- Google+: http://bit.ly/ADLimaOnGooglePlus
- Amazon Author Page: http://bit.ly/AnnieDouglassLimaOnAmazon
- LinkedIn: http://bit.ly/ADLimaOnLinkedIn