Often, when people talk about aliens in science fiction, they trot out the old classics, Rendevous with Rama, The Gods Themselves, Stranger in a Strange Land, War of the Worlds, Ringworld, Childhood’s End, Starship Troopers. But these books are older than many of the people talking about them.
People didn’t stop writing books with aliens in them. Aliens are still out there. And there are some great ones.
Here are five books with aliens that we read and enjoyed in the last year:
Cat-like bipeds: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
This is a rewrite of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy which was written back in the 1960s. It’s a classic “Earthlings go to another planet to exploit the mineral wealth, discover sentient aliens” story.
The aliens (Fuzzies) are small, furry cat-like bipeds. They’re cute, of course, and it soon becomes obvious that they’re sentient. Unfortunately, our protagonist (Jack Holloway) has just discovered a massive lode of sunstone on the Fuzzies’ world and the corporation he works for wants it. Except the law says that ravaging the world of a sentient species is not acceptable. So the company tries to prove the Fuzzies non-sentient; Jack ends up on the Fuzzies’ side.
It’s a truly entertaining read and our favourite Scalzi novel. This is good introductory book to give to someone who, say, loves the science fiction shows on television but hasn’t read many SF books yet, and wants to.
Elves and reptiles: Valor’s Choice by Tanya Huff
Remember the cantina on Tatooine? If you want Star Wars-type aliens, try Tanya Huff’s Confederation of Valor series.
Aliens abound in Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr’s world. There are the Others, the bad guys. There are members of the Confederation, the “mature” races who use the lesser races, like humans, to fight their war against the Others. Plus the lesser races themselves. Humans, of course. The di’Takyans, who look like elves, and the Krai, who like their protein snacks (human meat included). Kerr is part of a team sent as a diplomatic guard to convince the Silsviss (a warm-blooded, reptilian-looking warrior race) to join the Confederation. Naturally, nothing is quite what it seems.
Massive spoiler alert here (and at the risk of making this a Scalzi-heavy post), Valor’s Choice reminds us a bit of John Scalzi’s After the Coup.
Dinosaur-like predators: Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach
If you love urban fantasy, you should love kick-ass heroine Deviana Morris. Devi has an armored metal suit that cost her two years’ wages, and she uses it. She wants to become a devastator, one of the elite armed guard that protects the king himself, but she’s ten years short on experience. She can, however, fast-track that by taking a position on the Glorious Fool, a ship with a reputation for losing its security personnel. And by losing, we mean they die. Think Firefly, crossed with Battlestar Galactica, with a bit of Ellen Ripley thrown in.
There are aliens in the crew. Basil, the aeon, who looks like an overgrown, fluffy stork. Hyrek, the xith’cal doctor. (Devi’s natural reaction to a xith’cal—“If a xith’cal had told me he was feeling terrible, I would have shot him before he decided to do anything about it. But then, I would have shot him before he’d had a chance to tell me anything, so it was a moot point.”) There are enemy aliens, too—most of them xith’cal. And… spoiler alert, so we’re not telling.
It’s lots of fun, but there’s a cracking good story behind the whole thing, with the captains and their “daughters.” No one is truly good or bad; they’re just people trying to do the right thing.
Aliens who look human: Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
The Presger are the mysterious aliens who are so much more powerful than humans in Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series of books. This is Breq’s story—ship AI, ancillary, fragment—but the Presger treaty with humans provides a central spine to the whole series, and everything that happens there. The Presger breed translators to interact with humans. We meet the almost-human Presger translator Dlique in book two, Ancillary Sword, but it’s in book three (Ancillary Mercy) that the translators truly shine, when we meet Translator Zeiat (who might have been Dlique, instead). Zeiat is truly alien in a human skin, intriguing and a pleasure to read. Fish sauce, anyone?
But don’t start with Ancillary Mercy. Start with Ancillary Justice, and read up to here.
Pack intelligence and intelligent plants: A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge
Now we’re getting into the classic hard science fiction, and there are few people who do it better than Vernor Vinge. Vinge has a number of aliens in this book. Skroderiders. Intelligent plants that ride around on (artificially) intelligent carts. The blight. An ancient, malevolent intelligence (hive mind) that spreads across space. There are lots more aliens as well, but Vinge’s best aliens—some of our favorite aliens ever—are the tines. The tines are dog-like creatures who have some small measure of intelligence individually. Combine them into packs and each mind contributes to the greater intelligence of the pack creature. There is an optimal size for a pack. If it grows too large, it becomes an almost mindless mob. Or it can remain a not-very-intelligent singleton.
Add a complex story to all these cool aliens: Human researchers accidentally release the Blight. They escape, and crash-land on the Tines’ planet. Only the two children survive, and they end up on different sides in a Tine-war. Meanwhile, the Blight is gobbling up advanced civilisations and the various races are trying to stop it.
A Fire Upon the Deep was written 1993, so there are a few computer references you might stumble over. Even so, this is classic hard sci-fi at its best.
Top image: Concept art for Guardians of the Galaxy film
S.K. Dunstall is the pen-name for sisters Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall, who live in Melbourne, Australia. They have aliens in their own novel, Linesman. Not that their human protagonists have interacted with them yet, because the aliens are suspended in some sort of stasis. And they have lines, which are definitely sentient, even if no-one is sure yet whether they’re ‘natural-born’ aliens in their own right or an artificial intelligence created by the aforementioned aliens. Their second book, Alliance, was released on February 23rd.