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Death Was a Lifeguard (Death Was #5)

Death was a lifeguard. In the most ironic sense, Death sat atop a raised wooden bench. Their tortoiseshell sunglasses perched on the bridge of their nose obscuring the scanning path of their eyes. Their box braids were swept back in a ponytail that rested on their shoulders.

Sauriel sat beside the lifeguard tower with her legs drifting in the pool currents. She watched Parish and Beckette, her niece and nephew, splash in the pool. To the humans sharing the space, they appeared as two normal, albeit rambunctious, children. From Death’s perspective, their chaotic energy manifested in their demonic horns as clear as Sauriel’s angelic halo.

  “Who are you wearing?” Sauriel asked.

“Jadah Jamison,” Death said. “She had a seizure unexpectedly and no one caught her fall on this day three years ago. She was seventeen.”

“Tragic.”

“They all are,” Death didn’t flinch as a seagull swooped down to sit on the armrest of their chair. Sauriel recognized the bird as one of Death’s reapers; however, she frowned at the hamburger the reaper was choking down.

“The seagull died of a ruptured stomach. Old hubris dies hard,” Death said.

“Why are you here?” Sauriel asked.

“Someone here is about to die,” Death replied in the same, even tone.

  “Would you tell me if it was Parish or Beckette?” Sauriel balled her fist on her thigh. It would be pointless to fight Death if something were to happen, but Sauriel couldn’t help herself.

“It wouldn’t change anything regardless of if I told you or not.” Death said, “but if it will ease your mind, no. I’m not here for the demon-children.”

Sauriel relaxed her shoulders and turned back to watch the children play. She chose this spot for its seclusion. The country club was located in the middle of the mountainous wilderness of upstate New York. The birds in the surrounding woods spoke to her. They promised their mother a warning if any other cosmic forces approached.

A shift in air pressure alerted her to the cloud formation off in the distance. In a panic, she reached out with her mind to the birds; however, her fears of demonic foes were assuaged as the birds assured her it was a simple storm approaching.

A sharp whistle sounded behind her, “storm alert! Please exit the water!” Death yelled behind her. The lifeguard working on the other side of the pool yelled a similar warning.

Most of the patrons heeded the warning, and Sauriel slipped into the water to herd Parish and Beckette out of the pool to maintain anonymity. Just as Sauriel was bundling the pair up in their own towels, she heard a commotion over her shoulder.

“I’m not leaving! It’s just a little storm!” One woman complained from her pool float as she waved her fruity cocktail in the air. “I will not be bossed around by some teenager!”

“Ma’am, I must insist,” Death tried to usher her towards the steps, but it was too late. Sauriel pulled the towels over the children’s eyes just as a bolt of lightning arced from the sky to the outstretched arm of the woman in the water. Sauriel watched as the shock vaporized her drink umbrella first, then made its way through her body.

Death hadn’t moved from their spot, and once the strike had dissipated, they pulled the woman from the water as the other lifeguards attempted CPR. Death offered their arm to the confused, ghostly figure that emerged from the woman’s body.

“Until next time,” Death tipped their head to Sauriel, and walked into the locker room. When Sauriel led the children into the same room, Death and the figure were gone.

Newsletters, True Crime, and Tomatoes (Update #1)

There are a lot of things in this world that I can say I love, and having a website is one of them. If I’m being completely honest, I wouldn’t have set one up had it not been for a friend educating me on the merits of POSSE (Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere), owning your own content, and maintaining an internet presence independent of social media sites.

Funnily enough, this is the same friend that encouraged me to get a VPN, and I will forever be in his debt for both of these suggestions.

As an aspiring author, developing an online audience has always been one part marketing strategy, one part something to do, and one part a way to make friends that share the same interests as me (this part has become one of the most rewarding aspects of being online). This isn’t to say that being here is only part of a grand marketing plan, but it’s definitely more encouraging to produce content for an audience.

That being said, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve severely underutilized the full capabilities of having a website. To be fair to myself, I’ve been a bit busy this past month. I just started my first full-time job, but once I get settled, I have a lot planned for the months of September and October.

First off, I’m planning on releasing a monthly newsletter starting tomorrow and thereafter on the first Friday of every month. I’m not the biggest fan of making grand announcements on TikTok, so in the spirit of POSSE, the newsletter will become the center for my announcements.

Now, I want to talk about two upcoming projects I have slated for the next two months. First, we have Plenty of Tomatoes in the Sea, a TikTok series that I announced in my last post but didn’t start on the date I wanted to start it.

This delayed start is mostly due to the start date of my new job, but I’m finishing up the scripts, and I will start releasing it within the next few weeks.

Next, the True Crime sequel to my TikTok series Obligate will be released to my YouTube page on October 1st, the one-year anniversary of the erroneously named video that started it all: POV: You’re the Only Human on the Spaceship.

I am so unbelievably grateful for all the support I’ve been given throughout this journey, and I assure everyone that this is only the beginning.

I Don’t Even Like Tomatoes (Sci-Bi Inspiration #4)

Next week I start a new chapter of my life, my first job. Though I just completed my master’s degree in adolescent education, I don’t think it’s in my plan to utilize this degree in its traditional sense; however, I decided to take this opportunity to return to the sciences. I’m going back to the laboratory to work as a lab tech (I’ll get to use a micropipette and everything.)

This new development has gotten me back into the speculative nature of science fiction writing. To avoid confusion, I do not consider myself to be a hard sci-fi writer. While I ground a lot of the more technical aspects of my work in my own scientific background, I have never found myself drawn to the kinds of sci-fi that prides itself on multi-page essays regarding the physics of light speed travel. More power to you if that’s what you want to write or read about, but it’s not really my cup of tea.

This brings me to a conversation I recently had with a relative. To preface, it’s a double-edged sword being a STEM major in a small town; on one hand, you get to teach your family cool science facts, and on the other hand, you have to have every single statistic with a source memorized with the proper wording to even have a hope of anyone listening to you. In a recent conversation, I had to teach a relative what a genetically modified organism (GMO) was while simultaneously explaining that it’s not necessarily the technology that’s bad, it’s the corporate greed that goes along with it.

Of course, using the phrase corporate greed would’ve stopped the conversation in its tracks, so I had to lead up to that idea using the numerous examples of Monsanto’s notoriously vicious defense of its patents. This isn’t to say that I’m team anti-GMO, far from it. With climate change and other global catastrophes looming on the horizon, we need all the help we can get in modifying our food supply to meet current conditions. Like the FDA says, “The most common GMO crops were developed to address the needs of farmers, but in turn they can help foods become more accessible and affordable for consumers.”

Outside of food, a more recent example of a GMO is Darling 58, an American chestnut variant that’s tolerant to the chestnut blight fungus that demolished most wild American chestnuts. Like most things scientists come up with, GMOs have the potential to benefit every living organism barring their commodification.

I haven’t even gotten to the Flavr Savr tomato, but I’m sure I will in the process of writing my next TikTok series: Plenty of Tomatoes in the Sea. The first episode transcript is below, and the first episode is slated to come out this Wednesday.


I’m going to start by saying I don’t even like tomatoes. Of all the foods you can print, I don’t understand why you’d choose tomatoes. If you want a red food, go for an apple. If you want a juicy fruit, go for a nectarine. In fact, I’d wager that the only thing tomatoes are good for are sauces, and even then, why would you ever choose a tomato-based sauce over something like Alfredo.

Despite this, I’m still quite disturbed by the news we got this weekend. If you haven’t heard—and really, shame on you for not listening to the nightly news—this past weekend, a virus was found in the computer systems at OpilioneCo, and before it was caught, it made its way into the latest, automatic, mandatory software update. Within the past few hours, we got confirmation from OpilioneCo’s PR team that this virus is working to delete the file for tomatoes off of every organic printer sold by the company.

And, now you may be thinking, “why is this a problem?” Well, it is a problem if you like tomatoes because OpilioneCo holds the patent for the only known tomato genome currently in existence. To be fair, none of this was done behind closed doors, I’ve been warning all of you about this for years. Well, myself and the botanical community at large, but now it’s time to face the consequences.

That means no more tomatoes for you or anyone else unless we can cobble together a passable tomato genome that’s compatible with the digital stuff while being unrecognizable to the virus and without getting sued by OpilioneCo. Yay. Lucky us.

Relationship Words in Lacerti

As a culture, the speakers of Lacerti highly value family and community connections. When I was developing the language, family and relationship words were some of the first I created.


Root WordVariations (ipa)Part of Speech MeaningNotes
KeshKesh/Kesher
(kɛʃ / kɛʃ.er)
PhraseHi/Hello (a way of greeting someone)
Kesh
(kɛʃ)
n.Friend, acquaintance
Kēsh
(kɛ:ʃ or ke:ʃ)
v.To enjoy
KeshertiKesherti
(kɛʃ.er.ti)
Proper NounThe homeworld of LacertiMost Lacerti speakers would refer to their species as Kesherti
Kesherti
(kɛʃ.er.ti)
n.Home in the abstract sense, can be used to refer to someone who feels like home
Keshērti
(kɛʃ.e:r.ti)
n.Home in the literal sense, the place where you reside 
Keshsonll Keshsonll
(kɛʃ.sonɬ)
n.Stranger (archaic)Made by adding the word for friend to the word meaning unfamiliar or zero
KeshviKeshvi
(kɛʃ.vi)
n.Stranger (modern)The suffix “-vi” means “not” or “without”
Kēshvi
(kɛ:ʃ.vi)
v.To look at someone strangely/with suspicion
LorkeshLorkesh
(lor.kɛʃ)
n.Romantic partner, spouse Title used post marriage spar
Lōrkesh
(lo:r.kɛʃ)
n.Romantic partner, significant otherTitle used pre marriage spar
MatiMati
(ma.ti)
n.Caregiver, MotherLacerti as a species have one sex and three genders, this word is used for only one gender
Mātī
(ma:.ti:)
n.Caregiver of your caregiver, grandmother
Matī
(ma.ti:)
n.Strength, the concept of strength
Māti
(ma:.ti)
v.To create a physical thing
NocertiNocerti
(no.ser.ti)
Proper NounThe Lacerti people/speciesVery clinical sounding, a Lacerti speaker would probably call themselves Lacerti but their species Kesherti
PatoPato
(pa.to)
n.Caregiver, ParentLacerti as a species have one sex and three genders, this word is used for only one gender
Patō
(pa.to:)
n.Caregiver of your caregiver, grandparent 
Pāto
(pa:.to)
v.To exist in more than one state of being 
TelvmaTelvma
(tɛlv.ma)
n.Family, the glass family crest necklace given to a Lacerti child at age 24 to signify adulthood 
VataVata
(va.ta)
n.Caregiver, fatherLacerti as a species have one sex and three genders, this word is used for only one gender
Vatā
(va.ta:)
n.Caregiver of your caregiver, grandfather
Vāta
(va:.ta)
v.To create an abstract thing
A table of common Lacerti family words

Death Was a Nurse (Death Was #4)

Death was a nurse. Not in the official sense with a handful of patients waiting for their morning pills. Death walked through the halls of Elm Street Cancer Treatment Center dressed in navy scrubs and dark trainers. Death stopped before a patient’s room: 283, Mary Colling. Death could feel it in the air, that pressure between the veils of this universe and the plane of comfort and eternity. 

Death slipped into room 283, opened the window, and approached Mary’s hospital bed. On the side table sat a plethora of cards and fresh flowers. Mary had just celebrated her eighth birthday the day prior, but all the cheer in the world could not hide the fact that her eyes were sunken and her skin was close to translucent. Mary was a strong girl, and Death could feel that her fight was close to over. On the bed, her mother slept next to her.

“Don’t you get tired of this,” a man crossed the room and joined Death in observation of the sleeping pair. Death looked beneath the man’s shell to confirm what they already knew. The cloudy charge of purple haze that writhed just under the layers of visible reality was unique to one being—Lucifer.

“Many things in the state you call reality change. You are not one of them,” Death returned their gaze to Mary. Her breath grew ragged. 

“Where’s Marcin.” Lucifer demanded. 

“How should I know?” Death said. 

“You were the last to see him,” Lucifer snapped.

“I do not control Marcin. Regardless of if I’ve perceived him or not, I do not know where he is now.” Mary shifted on the bed. Death reached for the plush teddy bear that had fallen to the ground some time ago and tucked it under Mary’s arm.

“Are you being deliberately obtuse?”

“Are you deliberately wasting your time?” Death smiled as Mary curled into her teddy bear and settled once more.

“I have eons left still to waste. Who knows, maybe you’ll never remove me from my ambitions,” he said.

Death looked to the window just as two crows perched on the sill. The birds leaned forward and melted into the vinyl floor, slowly oozing forward and lightening into a golden shimmer. After a few feet of shapelessness, the crows built themselves up again into the form of an elderly golden retriever. The hound was clad in a harness that read Therapy Dog

“Across all realities and all beings, even among those like you, that’s one thing that remains constant in some form,” Death beckoned the dog to Mary’s bedside and scratched behind his ears. “You always think you’re the exception.”

Death looked Lucifer in the eye and held up a hand to ward off the next useless thought that was to come out of his mouth. “All things living may do as they please with their time, but keep this in mind Morning Star, the only place where time has no meaning is the plane of comfort and eternity. You will meet me there one day. Then, maybe, we could talk freely.”

Death held out their hand over Mary’s body, and slowly, glowing fingers intertwined with Death’s own. Mary’s soul stepped off the bed and enveloped Death’s reaper, still in the form of a therapy dog. Death spared Lucifer one last pitying glance before leading both Mary and their reaper through the layers of the worlds just as the machines still hooked to Mary’s body started ringing.

It’s Not Just Mary Sues: A Case for Derivative Works (Sci-Bi Inspiration #3)

A few months ago, I went on the Podcast VJ Talks. The host, V.J. Harris, is a TikTok mutual of mine, and I was excited that they invited me on to talk about worldbuilding, conlanging, and Obligate—the mini-series I was best known for at the time. I had a great time talking with V.J., but there was one admission that I made on that podcast that I’ve been hesitant to talk about on TikTok, that the universe I write in started as a derivative work. 

Yes, the universe that my conlangs, my novel in progress, my short stories, Obligate, and most recently The Boston Androids exist in was originally a Star Trek original series that I called Star Trek: Apgar. The Apgar portion was taken from the name of the galaxy-class starship where the series would take place (I named the ship in honor of the scientist Virginia Apgar whose creation of the Apgar score has saved the lives of many newborns).

Star Trek: Apgar was a quarantine project. In the year 2020, I had just started my third year of college, my mom had just had major brain surgery, and we had just had one of the most contentious elections in US history. Emotionally, I wasn’t doing too hot. My answer to emotional instability was to start watching Star Trek: The Next Generation

I fell in love with the series. The characters, the setting, and the story spoke to me. I took the world building, and I ran with it. I started wondering what the show could look like free from the constraints of 80s technology and TV budgets. I imagined complex life support equipment and languages that didn’t translate. I developed a new alien species, the Beskarans, who were amphibious, quadrupedal, and clear-blooded.

I soon remembered that Beskarans sounded a bit too much like Beskar (a fictional material from Star Wars). As a consequence, Beskarans became Lacerti, based on the Latin word for lizard. Beskaran also became the basis for Beshan, the family name of my new protagonist, Ehno Beshan.

I wrote Star Trek: Apgar as an episode concept. In it, Lt. Cmdr. Beshan’s homeplanet is considering joining the Federation, and the USS Apgar is ordered to oversee talks. It dealt with Beshan’s conflicting feelings on her family, her home, and her decision to leave it all behind to join Starfleet. 

A drawing of a frog-like humanoid wearing a modified Starfleet uniform

I wrote somewhere around 12,000 words before I realized that Star Trek was being used as window dressing. I wanted to write a character-driven story that felt like Star Trek, but that didn’t mean that I had to write within the confines of Star Trek. I think that’s the beauty of derivative works; they give you a familiar space to process what kind of story you want to tell. 

There are a lot of stories that could be told in the sand box that is Star Trek, and I needed that sand box to assure me that I had the capability to write a compelling story. As soon as I felt confined by the preexisting worldbuilding of Star Trek, I realized that I could write compelling original content.

This was the push that got me to rewrite Star Trek: Apgar as my own original work, and I realized that once I took away the titles and transporters, there was very little Star Trek worldbuilding left behind. Now, my worldbuilding includes android societies, morally ambiguous parasites, and glassmaking physics that probably wouldn’t work out in the real world, but most importantly, it’s a universe of my own design. 

Though I still worry that the echoes of Star Trek could one day cause some overzealous fanboy to call Major Ehnno Beshan an OP OC or Mary Sue, I have the self-confidence to know that this isn’t the case. I’m grateful to Star Trek for inspiring me to write complex characters that go on compelling adventures, but Star Trek doesn’t have a monopoly on this concept. 
When we write derivative works, we write out of love for the franchises that give us creative insight. I’m not ashamed that The Astroauroran Chronicles is reminiscent of Star Trek. The nature of existence, the draw to the unknown, and the complexity of the human experience are universal themes, and there’s more than enough room for one more franchise that explores them.

Counting In Lacerti

Back when I was consistently drawing concept art, I found myself drawing all Lacerti (the amphibious, web-handed speakers of the eponymous language) with four fingers on each hand.

As a consequence, when it came time to come up with a counting system for Lacerti, I questioned if a base ten counting system (like the one English and most other languages use) would be appropriate. Why would a species that has eight fingers to count on make a language that is based in tens.

Lacerti is now base eight because of my drawing style. Though, it’s not 0-7, it’s 1-8 because Lacerti uses the word for “deception” to convey the foreign concept of zero (and totally not because I didn’t initially know how number systems work).

Lacerti NumberEnglish EquivalentLacerti NumberEnglish Equivalent
Sonll0
Nos1NoNos9 (2nd 1)
No2NoNo10 (2nd 2)
Sho3NoSho11 (2nd 3)
Sh4NoSh12 (2nd 4)
Shos5NoShos13 (2nd 5)
Nosh6NoNosh14 (2nd 6)
Osh7NoOsh15 (2nd 7)
Os8NoOs16 (2nd 8)
ShoNos17 (3rd 1)ShNos25 (4th 1)
ShoNo18 (3rd 2)ShNo26 (4th 2)
ShoSho19 (3rd 3)ShSho27 (4th 3)
ShoSh20 (3rd 4)ShSh28 (4th 4)
ShoShos21 (3rd 5)ShShos29 (4th 5)
ShoNosh22 (3rd 6)ShNosh30 (4th 6)
ShoOsh23 (3rd 7)ShOsh31 (4th 7)
ShoOs24 (3rd 8)ShOs32 (4th 8)
Sosh64 (1 sosh)
SoshNos65 (1st sosh 1)SoshNoNos73 (1st sosh 2nd 1)
SoshNo66 (1st sosh 2)SoshNoNo74 (1st sosh 2nd 2)
SoshSho67 (1st sosh 3)SoshNoSho75 (1st sosh 2nd 3)
SoshSh68 (1st sosh 4)SoshNoSh76 (1st sosh 2nd 4)
SoshShos69 (1st sosh 5)SoshNoShos77 (1st sosh 2nd 5)
SoshNosh70 (1st sosh 6)SoshNoNosh78 (1st sosh 2nd 6)
SoshOsh71 (1st sosh 7)SoshNoOsh79 (1st sosh 2nd 7)
SoshOs 72 (1st sosh 8)SoshNoOs80 (1st sosh 2nd 8)
NoSosh128 (2nd sosh)
NoSoshNos129 (2nd sosh 1)NoSoshNoNos137 (2nd sosh 2nd 1)
NoSoshNo130 (2nd sosh 2)NoSoshNoNo138 (2nd sosh 2nd 2)
NoSoshSho131 (2nd sosh 3)NoSoshNoSho139 (2nd sosh 2nd 3)
NoSoshSh132 (2nd sosh 4)NoSoshNoSh140 (2nd sosh 2nd 4)
NoSoshShos133 (2nd sosh 5)NoSoshNoShos141 (2nd sosh 2nd 5)
NoSoshNosh134 (2nd sosh 6)NoSoshNoNosh142 (2nd sosh 2nd 6)
NoSoshOsh135 (2nd sosh 7)NoSoshNoOsh143 (2nd sosh 2nd 7)
NoSoshOs136 (2nd sosh 8)NoSoshNoOs144 (2nd sosh 2nd 8)
Shev576 (8th sosh 8th 8)
ShevNos577 (1st shev 1)ShevNoNos585 (1st shev 2nd 1)
ShevNo578 (1st shev 2)ShevNoNo586 (1st shev 2nd 2)
ShevSho579 (1st shev 3)ShevNoSho587 (1st shev 2nd 3)
ShevSh580 (1st shev 4)ShevNoSh588 (1st shev 2nd 4)
ShevShos581 (1st shev 5)ShevNoShos589 (1st shev 2nd 5)
ShevNosh582 (1st shev 6)ShevNoNosh590 (1st shev 2nd 6)
ShevOsh583 (1st shev 7)ShevNoOsh591 (1st shev 2nd 7)
ShevOs584 (1st shev 8)ShevNoOs592 (1st shev 2nd 8)
The Lacerti Number Table up to 592

Death Was a Babysitter (Death Was #3)

Death was a babysitter. Not in the regular sense with homework to do and sock hops to attend after their employers returned from their monthly reprieve but in the temporary sense with two demon children chasing geese in a cemetery park. Death sat on a bench, their brown hair pulled into a neat ponytail and bangs framing their round face. They crossed one ankle over the other, and aside from the occasional chewing-gum bubble, they sat perfectly still, a sentinel watching over the children.

A man approached the bench, his nerves dissipating as he sunk down in the free seat next to Death. He looked at the kids, his eyes welling with relief.

“Who are you wearing today?” He asked, voice wavering.

Death took in his appearance without taking their eyes away from their wards. Marcin usually kept his shell in immaculate condition, but today, his black hair hung loose and limp from the half bun he normally kept it in, his pea coat was unbuttoned, and his white button up was untucked. 

“Betty Lis, she died on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle,” they said. Betty’s poodle skirt caught in the wind, and Death turned her head to look at Marcin. “But that’s not what you want to talk about.”

“No, sorry. I just…” He looked out at his two children, Parish and Beckette, gleefully playing a game of chase with the geese by the pond. “Thank you for watching them.”

“Thank your sister. She was the one who chased off Mephistopheles Henriette and Mephistopheles Adisa. I was here to take them.”

Angels and demons didn’t need to breathe; despite this, Marcin felt as though Death had taken all of the air from his surroundings. “Are you still,” He began before Death cut his thought short.

“No,” they said. “They don’t belong with me yet, but they still appear as two children alone in the park. I didn’t want any humans to bother them.”

“Where’s Sauriel?” He asked, realizing that if she chased off Henriette and Adisa, she could be in danger.

“I’m unsure,” Death said. “But I know I’m not needed by her side at the moment.” Death popped another bubble of chewing gum. “Perhaps, you should ask your other sister. Abiah keeps a close watch on you all.”

Death stood from the bench and held out Betty’s arm. All at once, the geese stood at attention, making the children stop and watch in bewilderment as they flew and morphed mid-air into one, giant golden eagle.

Marcin looked back to Death, now a Kazakh eagle hunter with warm, fur clothing wrapped in intricate, red patterns and a padded glove that strained under the grip of the talons.  

“Consider leaving your children with someone, maybe Gabriel. I heard she’s been rather bored lately.” Marcin glanced at his children, and though he felt nothing, he knew that Death had left his side.

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

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