Astrotropes: Starfish Aliens

Inspired in no small way by recent ponderings at Centauri Dreams concerning how alien an alien might be, let’s continue the Astrotropes series with the concept of starfish aliens. In stark contrast with the humanoid aliens I looked at previously, these are the portrayals in culture and science fiction of true aliens. Alien aliens. The kind of alien where a human wearing a rubber forehead just won’t cut it.

Apparently, this trope is so named because of Richard Dawkins (of all people) jokingly referring to starfish and other similar creatures as “aliens”. In fairness, he has a point. Virtually all other creatures on Earth are bilaterally symmetric – that is, they have a left side and a right side. In the case of a starfish however, with its quintilateral (pentalateral?) symmetry, left and right have no meaning. Ironic then, that we’re more closely related, evolutionarily speaking, to starfish than to insects. Perhaps this says something about how bilateral symmetry was favourable here on Earth, and so may be similarly favourable elsewhere.

Speaking from an astrobiological point of view, the so-called starfish aliens are probably far more likely to exist than any of the humanoid aliens which we see in fiction. Have a look at the image strip to the right here. In terms of body configuration, all of these animals are vastly different to us humans. With the exception of the starfish, all show some degree of dexterity, able to effectively manipulate objects.

Three even show notable degrees of intelligence. Octopodes can use tools, elephants are the world’s most intelligent herbivore, and anyone who’s kept decapod crustaceans, like lobsters, will tell you about how they like to rearrange their aquariums to their own tastes. Give any of these creatures a few million years and suitable environmental pressures, and perhaps they may be able to develop further intelligence, then culture and society. This may sound half baked, but how do you suppose human society developed? Let’s quell our arrogance and not assume a humanoid shape to be a necessity.

Unfortunately, we humans have a nasty habit of fearing and despising things which are too dissimilar to ourselves. People are far more likely to have a fear of spiders than a fear of cats, for instance. In sci fi, this is manifested by the fact that non-humanoid aliens are frequently seen as the villains. They’re scary because they’re difficult to understand, and that’s often turned to the advantage of the writer in creating fear or even terror in plotlines. Fairly obviously, because most writers are human.

Descending into flagrant speculation, as this particular trope was always destined to, what might an intelligent alien creature look like? What traits might it possess?

Well, for a start, it would probably need to perceive its surroundings somehow. We humans have quite a nice localised cognitive array – we generally call it a head. On it are all the parts of you which sense and interract with your surroundings. Your eyes focus and image electromagnetic radiation, your nose detects volatile molecules carried in the air, your ears pick up vibrations carried through air as longitudinal waveforms. Depending what kind of environment an alien lifeform evolved in, it may have the same, similar, or very different senses and perceptions of those. For instance, it might “see” in ultraviolet, “hear” microwaves, or “taste” vibrations. How exactly things would be perceived for such a creature are impossble to speculate on, but perceive them it will. And doubtless use them to communicate too!

Additionally, it would likely have some kind of prehension. Dexterity. The ability to manipulate things and construct things. Dolphins, for instance, may be remarkably intelligent, but they lack much potential to use tools. Or anything, for that matter. They could develop an incredible society, but they have little potential to become a technological civilisation. Of course, dexterity doesn’t necessarily require hands like ours. An octopus is perfectly capable of opening a jar, and it doesn’t even have any bones!

Finally, there should be at least a handful of similarities in the psychology of a starfish alien. While it may well be futile trying to impose such implicitly human values as morality, virtue, honour or even ownership – the basics of logic will always be the same. 1 + 1 does not = 3, no matter how many mathematicians try to argue the case. Similarly, they will also have run the gauntlet of natural selection on whatever world they originally came from, and so they will probably have similarly learned lessons from competition, the need to find food, avoiding natural disasters and so on. While some things about a truly alien species are likely to be bewilderingly different, others may well turn out to be uncannily similar.

Interestingly, this is one trope where, once again, the scientists have the edge over the script writers in terms of creative thinking – Notably in certain speculative fiction documentaries. National Geographic’s Alien Worlds series featured two hypothetical planets, one orbiting a red dwarf star and one habitable moon, and the interesting ways in which life which might adapt to live on them. The Future is Wild shows a speculative future planet Earth in which humans are extinct, and considers how Earth life might continue to evolve without us (for coolness value, the final series features giant forest dwelling squid). The 2005 documentary Alien Planet takes place on a hypothetical planet called Darwin IV and the curious animals which live there. All these shows highlight some species which may potentially develop into a civillisation. And no, none of them are humanoid. This big floaty creature for instance, from Alien Planet, is an Eosapien – buoyant in the air, courtesy of that big sac of lifting gas, and with intelligence possibly comparable to primitive humans.

Overall, it’s hard to say what forms alien life may take, but I’d be willing to bet money that we won’t meet any other humanoids out there. Perhaps in the meantime, science fiction writers could stretch their imaginations enough to give us a main character in a movie who isn’t a humanoid? With the state of CGI these days, it really wouldn’t be difficult to pull off convincingly!

trope is a recurring theme in any narrative which conveys information to the audience. These are snippets of information which have somehow ended up in our collective subconscious as ways in which storytellers have gotten their points across. Overused tropes end up as clichés.

Images used are from Doctor Who (© BBC), Star Trek Online (© CBS), Babylon 5 (© Warner Bros), and Alien Planet (© Discovery Communications). These images are used here in accordance with fair use policies, for the purpose of research, review and criticism. All rights are reserved.

The exception to this disclaimer is the image strip of Earth life. All of these images are from Wikimedia Commons:
Starfish – Public Domain
Mantis – Louise Docker/Wikimedia Commons
Elephant – Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikimedia Commons
Lobster – Cefaclor/Wikimedia Commons
Octopus – Albert Kok/Wikimedia Commons

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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3 Responses to Astrotropes: Starfish Aliens

  1. Prof. Bleen says:

    Dawkins must have known that the larvae of starfish and other echinoderms are bilaterally symmetrical, which makes his choice of sea stars as “alien” kind of puzzling. For true radial symmetry you have to go all the way back to Cnidaria.

  2. Pingback: Alien Planet | Supernova Condensate

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