What space aliens really look like

Certainly nothing like the ones you see in movies

If you have followed Star Trek, one of the most successful series of all time, you will have encountered aliens from other star systems. Like the ones shown below. That may have led you to conclude that intelligent life forms all over the galaxy will always develop humanoid forms.

Such diversity! Aliens from Star Trek, intelligent life forms that developed on other star systems of our galaxy. It is an amazingly accurate description of what such creatures will NOT look like.

The main variance to Earth’s homo sapiens seems to be the aliens’ foreheads, which show incredible, often repulsive diversity. So many different foreheads in the 300 billion stars of our galaxy.

This I found hard to take, even for an avid Star Trek fan (in early youth). It was not just the humanoid body and features, but also the inter-breeding. Spock is supposed to be the product of a union between inhabitants of planets from two different star systems. Individuals from such planets wouldn’t even share DNA as the medium for storing genetic information. Interbreeding seemed to me to be quite unlikely — like mating an African rhino with a cube of yeast.

No, wait: very much more unlikely. Yeast has the same reproductive system, based on double-helix DNA storage, as all Earth’s higher animal forms which have developed over half a billion years. At some stage a number of species started moving towards intelligence and sentience, and in spite of sharing up to 99% of their DNA with us, these animals are substantially more diverse than the Star Trek examples above.

Some of the most intelligent creatures that inhabit our planet today. Note that one of them, still in the early infant stage, completely outstrips the rest.

The great apes can actually count at remarkable speed; bottlenose dolphins cleverly herd fish to capture, and use vocal “words” to denote objects; elephants have the largest brains in the animal kingdom and are self-aware; dogs are smart, but pigs are even smarter; African grey parrots display abstract, inferential reasoning; crows are as intelligent as primates and can execute complex plans; octopuses can solve and remember mazes; infant humans plan, use tools and can communicate using abstract vocal sounds. These sentient, more or less intelligent creatures are vastly different in shape and size, even though they evolved in a uniform planetary environment. Here’s a compilation of smart animals in action.

Now I understand the constraints of motion pictures, especially in the late 1960s, when Gene Roddenberry’s series was original launched. No CGI at the time, it had to be Men in Suits (the title of my article on historical and modern-day Godzillas). But technology and cinematic art progressed, and we soon had extraterrestrial aliens that were more plausible.

One of my early favourites was the film Alien, produced in 1979 by Ridley Scott. The creatures which the crew of the space tug Nostromo encounters, are based on designs by the Swiss artist Hans Ruedi Giger. His Space Jockey (left) is interesting, but why does this alien from a different star system have a skull, eyes, ears, arms and hands that are very close in design to homo sapiens — the shoulders, sinews, muscles and digits are precisely reflected. No creature on planet Earth comes closer to humans than these Alien creatures, at least in the torso and appendages. The sequel, unimaginatively named Aliens, is better, but still not what I am looking for.

Science fiction books have done a better job than these films. It is easier to vividly describe alien creatures in words than to film them, especially without computer animation. For decades SF authors have given their imagination free reign. Here are some of my favourites:

The “Puppeteers” from Larry Niven’s Known Space science fiction series are three-legged creatures with a massive torso that safely houses the brain. The appendages are like hands, but with mouths and eyes. They are used for dexterous manipulation of objects. The Puppeteers are herbivores with a life span of centuries. They have three genders, two male and a non-sapient “female” that hosts offspring. Puppeteers are technologically extremely advanced, but cowardly and secretive, obsessed with their own safety, never revealing where their home world is located. They are extremely manipulative and have instigated interstellar wars to eliminate aggressive species in favour of more docile ones.

Many years ago, in the early 1980s, my friend and mentor John Nunn told me to read Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward. “It’s about life on a neutron star,” he said breezily. I told him that the sentence had just uttered was patently absurd, but got myself the book anyway. I still have it in my science fiction collection, as the picture on the left proves.

The neutron star Dragon’s Egg is populated by Cheela (inset), which are normally completely flat and round, but can grow tentacles at will. When a human expedition approaches the neutron star the Cheela are still at a primitive, savage stage of their development. They start to worship the new star in the sky and light “fires” for that purpose. The ship detects their activity and realize that the star is inhabited by intelligent aliens.

Dragon’s Egg, which has a gravity of 67 billion times that of earth, rotates five times every second, and the Cheela, who are the size of sesame seeds, live at a very much faster rate than humans. Their “day” is about 0.2 Earth seconds, and the average Cheela life span is about 40 minutes. They soon invent writing to send messages to the spaceship, but communications are very tedious when you live a million times faster than humans. The latter start downloading their on-board library, and the Cheela use the information to continue developing, until they have completely overtaken humans in science and technology. That took many Cheela generations to achieve, but only a few days by human standard.

Forward’s book is still available and is an interesting, entertaining read. If you want to go further into exotic forms try Stanisław Lem’s Solaris, in which the intelligent alien is a single organism, an ocean of gel that covers the entire planet. No strange forehead there.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for more practical but realistic aliens, there are plenty, by different artists, here on Pinterest. Take a special look at the works of C. M. Kosemen, which I think are extraordinary.

C. M. Kosemen is an artist and independent researcher born in Ankara, Turkey. He studied at Cornell University, Istanbul’s Sabancı University and London’s Goldsmiths College. His areas of interest include surreal art, Mediterranean history, palaeontology, evolution, zoology and visual culture. His art has been displayed in exhibitions all over the world. You can listen to a 30m video lecture by Kosemen on Designing Alien Lifeforms.

A final sample of Kosemen’s Haplobrachids, a group of small-sized predators that lack arms and legs, but have appendages sticking straight out from their shoulder and hip joints. This man has a very fertile imagination.

Also read: Godzilla — Men in Suits

The Friedel Chronicles

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.