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Death Was a Shepherd (Death Was #2)

Death was a shepherd. Not in the religious sense with a flock of devoted worshipers but neither in the literal sense with a homestead and worries of icy winters. Death stood in ankle high, wet grass wearing wool pants, a study cap, and a border tartan wrap overlooking hills dotted with sheep. They whistled and four border collies bolted from Death’s side and made quick work of the scattered flock. 

Sauriel stood behind and off to the side, marveling at the dogs’ agility. “Who are you wearing today?” She asked. 

“William Barker but he preferred to be called Will,” they said. Death whistled again, changing the direction of the flock towards a fence off to the right. “He died this day, 1905.”

“And your reapers?” She saw the traces of mist that followed the dogs’ paths.

“Duncan, Malcolm, Lady Macbeth, and Banquo. They were Will’s herding dogs. They died the same day.” Death turned to face Sauriel, trusting their reapers to handle the rest of the sheep. “You seldom seek me out.”

“I came to ask a question,” she said. “You said that Lucifer sent the Mephistopheles after Marcin, but the things that attacked him, those weren’t demons.”

Death hummed. From their tartan wrap, a lamb popped its head out and gave a single, offended bleat. “You’ve upset Lamb-bert.”

“It…it has a name?”

“Yes, the farmer down the road was a single father with two young children caring for his weary parents,” Death ran Will’s hand across Lamb-bert’s head. “He died two hours ago. His last wish was for his flock to be returned. Lamb-bert was named by his children.”

Sauriel placed a hand on her hip and ran the other one through her hair. The light from her halo reflected off the gathering mist and gave Lamb-bert’s eyes an eerie glow. “Death, I need you to be honest with me. I’m begging here, what else is after Marcin and his kids?”

“There are things larger than you and I, Sauriel.” They pulled off their tartan and swaddled Lamb-bert, rocking him softly until his eyes closed. “All things dead are my domain, and all things living will eventually be my domain, but while they live, their choices, their definitions, are their own. I am not as omnipotent as most would like to believe.”

Before Sauriel could interrupt to ask another question, Death closed the gap between them and handed her the bundle of tartan-wrapped lamb. “Do me a favor and return Lamb-bert.”

The sheep corralled, Death called their reapers with a sharp whistle. As the mist settled on the group, William Barker blew away on the wind, and in his place stood a tall woman with sleek, black hair and bold, red lipstick wearing pointy stiletto shoes, a knee-length fur coat over a form-hugging, decadent silk dress, and oversized sunglasses. 

“I am needed elsewhere,” Death and their reapers, now borzois with thick, diamond-studded golden collars dissolved into the mist leaving Sauriel in the field, holding a cozy, sleeping lamb.

Do Aliens Need to be Humanoid? (Sci-Bi Inspiration #2)

In teaching biology, you often have to throw out a lot of really shocking statistics as your anchoring phenomena (analogous to a hook in writing) for a lesson. One number that always throws them off is that humans share somewhere around 40% of our DNA with bananas. Our genetic bases are a fascinating story for another time, and believe me, I’ll have a thing or two to say about them later, but I have another statistic that always threatens to send me into a spiral of existential thinking—of all the living things we’ve identified on planet Earth, roughly 40% of them are insects.

To preface, I was a bug kid. I loved bugs; I had a bug catching net and one of those cute dollar-store mesh cages that I’d use to keep my daily bug collections in for a few hours before releasing them. I helped my mom curate the wild milkweed that grew on the fringes of woods surrounding my childhood home. Shino Aburame was in my top five favorite Naruto characters growing up (though, my top spot would always be reserved for Hinata Hyūga). 

A bee perches on a hand

(I still let bees perch on my hand; thankfully, I’m not allergic.)

Unfortunately, the world was not as fond of bugs as child-me was, and my poor creepy crawlies are disproportionately relegated to villainous on-screen roles. Though, I appreciate Starship Troopers’ forward nature with skipping the hassle of paper-thin world building and having the characters call the alien hoard as they appear—bugs.

There seems to be a sliding scale in sci-fi (at least in live action); the more humanoid something is, the more agency they’re given. Even though our real world contains variety beyond our wildest imagination as inspiration for alien biology, we always come back to humanity as our template for sapience. I don’t think this inclination is accidental. It’s a mechanism of storytelling. We need to relate to the characters we see onscreen, and it’s easy to see yourself in Spock or Worf, beings that are aliens in only the most superficial of ways.

In live action media, it’s tempting to paint an actor’s skin green or insert colored contacts in place of costly practical effects or CGI. Animated media and books, by their nature, allow for more flexibility in design. It’s easier to describe an eight foot tall sapient praying mantis-amoeba hybrid on paper or animate one in the style of the rest of the cast than it is to underpay a team of VFX artists to add one in during post-production.

Concept drawing of a mostly human alien with gills and a life support device on their back
A concept drawing of an alien with webbed hand, webbed feet, gills, and a tail

(My own alien species, the Lacerti, got less human looking until I tried to make them quadrupedal. Then, I scaled it back to bipedal but kept features like gills.)

Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with making aliens humanoid. No one is complaining about Deanna Troi (who, like Spock, is half-human, but that’s a blog post for another time), Kira Nerys, or Elim Garak looking too human. In my opinion, mimicking the appearance of humanity in sci-fi is a form of shorthand; if something appears human, it means that its intentions, whether good or bad, should be understood in human terms. Non-humanoid aliens such as the bugs in Starship Troopers aren’t given that instant benefit of humanity. We don’t mind that Deanna, Kira, and Garak look human because they fulfill the narrative promise of being something that acts human. 

Does this mean that non-humanoid aliens cannot be fully sapient characters capable of human-like emotions and audience sympathy? No, not at all, but it does mean that they’re starting at a disadvantage. The need to make your sympathetic aliens human-like and your unsympathetic aliens cold extensions of an insectoid hive-mind is tempting and something I struggle with in my own writing, but I’d like to challenge myself to think about why that is.

Why is coding something as distinctly unlike us in physicality and language shorthand for unsympathetic? For any works made during the Cold War era, I think the answer is painfully obvious, but for as much as we like to think we’ve progressed beyond looking at the subtext of what a popular trope could insinuate, I’d say there’s a lot more to be said about how we represent extraterrestrials in sci-fi and how we treat others who may not be similar to ourselves in physicality and language in real life. 

(My work-around for the amoeba- like Ceruleans, another one of my alien species, is mild shapeshifting abilities, but in my attempts to assure myself I’m not ripping off Star Trek, I made sure the closest Ceruleans got to humanoid was four limbs and eye spots)

This leads to the titular question: do aliens need to be humanoid? If we ever meet sapient life in space, I think the answer is maybe, probably, most certainly no. In fiction though, not necessarily.

It doesn’t matter if they’re Nana Visitor with nose ridges or goop in a bucket. Consumers are smart, and if you give them a character with motivations and thoughts and feelings they can either empathize or sympathize with, they will. For once, I think we can take a lesson out of the sci-fi romance handbook: no matter what something looks like, some reader somewhere is going to relate to them in one way or another.

Sources:

The Gene | The Gene Explained | Is That a Banana in Your Genes? | PBS

Which animal group has the most organisms? | AMNH

Death Was a Housewife (Death Was #1)

Death was a housewife. Not in the literal sense with a husband, 2.5 kids, a house in suburbia, and a dog (can’t forget the dog). Death liked humans and their assorted aesthetics, so in that moment, Death was a housewife with dark brown hair swept into an updo, a stiff, pink dress, and a wool cardigan tied around their shoulders. Last time Sauriel saw them, Death was a punk kid with a studded, leather jacket and dyed hair—it all depended on their mood that day.

“Who are you wearing today?” Sauriel asked, sipping orange pekoe tea from an ornate porcelain cup.

“Mary-Debra Jones, she died this day 1952. Heart attack.” Death stirred three sugar cubes into their earl grey tea, clacking Mary-Debra’s French-tipped nails against the cup. “She was a very stressed woman, but her taste in fashion was exquisite.” 

“Who doesn’t love the new look?” She took a sip of her tea. “Not that I don’t enjoy speaking with you, but you’re usually not one to seek out the living.”

The sugar cubes finally dissolved, Death took a long sip of their tea. “Don’t worry, I’m not here to scatter you to the stars just yet, but you are correct, I’m not here for pleasant conversation. I’m here to give you a warning.”

Sauriel stopped mid-sip, “a warning? Hopefully I’ve caused no offense.”

“None at all,” Death scrutinized the cup, running their finger across a miniscule chip. “Your sibling though, the one with the two demon-children—”

“Marcin,” Sauriel supplied.

“Yes, Marcin and his two curtain climbers have caused offense to some powerful people. I won’t lie to you. There are many beings gunning for his demise, for the demise of all of them.”

Sauriel set her cup in its saucer; for a brief moment before it seated properly, the cup rattled, spilling over. “Who sent out the order?”

Mary-Debra’s eyelashes weighed down her eyelids. “The order came from Lucifer. I heard he’s sent Mephistopheles Henriette and Mephistopheles Adisa.”

Nothing good could come from a Mephistopheles; Hell’s most loyal, the first to fall. She had crossed paths with Henriette and Adisa—both before and after they fell. When they were angels, Henriette had created thylacosmilus. Adisa had created pikaia. When their creations were wiped from existence, their screams tore into Sauriel’s soul. Now that they’re demons, they’re the last to be reasoned with.

“Are you sure you can’t just give them their pet projects back?” Sauriel asked.

“No,” Death didn’t even entertain the joke. “My reapers quite like them. I could never give them up.” Sauriel could count on one hand the number of times Death willingly let someone or something slip from their grasp. It was a special occurrence with special rules for special individuals. She stirred her tea and sent a silent apology to all thylacosmilus and pikaia.  

Sauriel looked back up and Death was a college student sipping an energy drink wearing cargo shorts and a garish, dinosaur-print button up. 

“Fashion is overrated these days,” they said. Sauriel blinked and Death was gone.

Butterflies: Nature’s Answer to Soap (Sci-Bi Inspiration #1)

I can’t be the only one who’s ever looked at a bar of soap and thought “it smells good, it looks good, it must be delicious.” My youthful optimism died with the horrifying realization that you can’t always believe your eyes and nose when determining what will make a tasty afternoon snack. Fortunately, this was a lesson I only had to learn once, and to this day, I have a instant repulsion for foods in a certain tint of pastel lavender.

Nature has its own form of the appealing-but-unappetizing which acts as a species-wide survival strategy called aposematism.

A monarch butterfly perched on a bucket

Take the monarch butterfly. Unlike other insects such as the grasshopper which usually sport coloration matching their chosen habitat, the monarch butterfly takes a lesson in subtlety from Sasha Velour (though the fabulous monarch shown above is actually a king, you can tell by the black dot on each hind wing).

Though it seems counterintuitive, this bright and distinct coloring actually acts as an overall advantage for the monarch butterfly as a species. Due to their diet of milkweed as caterpillars, monarch butterflies retain a level of toxicity that can make predators who ingest monarchs sick.

This usually plays out in nature like so: a bird sees a conspicuously-colored monarch and decides to take an early lunch, the bird becomes ill shortly after eating the monarch, and now, the bird now associates the bright wings of the monarch butterfly with sickness and avoids all monarch butterflies it may see in the future.

If you think back, you may be able to recognize this phenomena of warning coloration—aposematism—in other species. From poison dart frogs to coral snakes, nature has developed its own form of distinctly-colored, snack-shaped, disgusting-to-eat soap that leaves a lasting impression in the minds of hungry foragers.

Though there are many reasons animals are pushed to one coloration or another (I’ll have to go through them some day, they’re fascinating to consider), aposematism provides a unique option for sci-fi and fantasy world builders looking to add a bit of elegant and unsuspecting peril to their settings.

Sources:

The Monarch is a Poisonous Butterfly

Multiple, recurring origins of aposematism and diet specialization in poison frogs

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