We Come In Peace - Really
March 14, 2009 10:39 AM   Subscribe

Science Fiction Filter: examples of unreliable aliens?

So I'm working out a story concept and I want to make sure that I'm not inadvertently ripping off some obscure film, novel or TV episode.

Please post examples of first contact between humans and alien species, where the aliens deliberately misrepresent themselves to us as being something other than what they are. This can be misrepresenting their philosophy, their origins, the source of their technology, their physical composition, anything so long as the revelation of the lie would be shocking to the humans. The classic example is "To Serve Man". What other examples can you recall? Thanks in advance.
posted by arcanecrowbar to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
In Babalon 5, apparently the Centauri had told humans that they were related when first contact happened. (This was mentioned in an offhand comment about history in one of the episodes)

Also in Aurhor C Clarke's Childhood's End novel the aliens keep themselves hidden for years, then reveal themselves later. They also are somewhat dishonest about their intentions.
posted by delmoi at 10:45 AM on March 14, 2009

V the miniseries
Childhood's End by Arthur C Clarke
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:47 AM on March 14, 2009

In the Honor Harrington universe, the treecats deliberately obscured their intelligence and level of social organization, not to harm to humans, but to protect themselves.
posted by Bruce H. at 10:53 AM on March 14, 2009

The Mote in God's Eye, by Niven and Pournelle.
posted by creepygirl at 11:01 AM on March 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Slitheen family from Raxacoricofallapatorius* on Dr. Who disguised themselves by hiding inside human skins and breiefly took over the British government.

*The planet name is entirely unimportant to your question. I just love saying it!
posted by MsMolly at 11:06 AM on March 14, 2009

The Mote is a great example.
A couple Vernor Vinge books have similar devices: the visitors in Tasha Grimm's World are, ehem, not totally forthright about what they're about. The Emergents in A Deepness in the Sky are also hiding their nature and intentions (do yourself a favor and skip the Wikipedia article; this is a fantastic book that needs to be experienced in the order of its presentation). In each case, the "aliens" are not alien species but recent forks of humanity, but they play a dramatic role much like the aliens in other space sci-fi.
posted by grobstein at 11:09 AM on March 14, 2009

Best answer: So, umm, spoilers.

I think the most spectacular example has got to be Larry Niven and Jerry Pourntelle's The Mote in God's Eye. The aliens there lie about their history, culture, but most importantly their physiology, in an attempt to prevent humanity from exterminating them immediately. This is one of the best science fiction novels ever written, and it's required reading regardless of what you're trying to write.

I can think of a few other examples as well. Towards the end of Alastair Reynold's Redemption Space series (Absolution Gap to be exact), a species from a parallel universe which had presented itself as a potential solution to one of humanity's particularly pressing problems turns out to be merely looking to escape from their universe into ours. Not only are they unlikely to be able to help humanity with the problem at issue, but they are likely to be even more of a threat than the one humanity was currently facing. Reynolds' short story "Beyond the Aquila Rift" has aliens lying to humans out of mercy, as the fate that has befallen the protagonists' ship is to terrible to contemplate all at once.

A campier example would be the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Samaritan Snare." There are probably dozens of other episodes from the various Star Trek franchises which could be mentioned if one had the inclination.

The Vorlons of J. Michael Straczynski's Babylon 5 universe premise most of their relations with other species on what is arguably a pretty significant deception.

The recent CRPG Mass Effect has at the center of its plot a major deception of humanity and its allied alien races by another alien force.

For a subtle twist on your concept, consider Murray Leinster's "First Contact." Leinster has aliens... not exactly lying to the human explorers they meet, but both sides deliberately attempting to conceal certain truths about each other out of self-preservation. A classic Mexican standoff resolved in a unique fashion.

Mary Doria Russell's novel The Sparrow is perhaps another twist on the concept. There, it was at least as much fundamental cultural misunderstanding as outright deception that propel the main events of the plot.
posted by valkyryn at 11:10 AM on March 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

In the Julian May series The Galactic Milieu the Lylmik, a sort of overseer alien race governing human (and other species) evolutionary development turn out to be --- MAJOR SPOILER -- advanced humans, or at least one of the major characters in the series. Great hard scifi btw. Recommended.
posted by elendil71 at 11:10 AM on March 14, 2009

The Ray Bradbury classic Mars is Heaven! immediately comes to mind.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 11:23 AM on March 14, 2009

The Stargate series has the Asgard who are unreliable in the that they are superior race and can't aways be bothered to help the humans as they have problems of their own.
posted by 517 at 11:41 AM on March 14, 2009

They also misrepresented themselves as gods to early humans, as have other alien races in the Stargate series.
posted by 517 at 11:43 AM on March 14, 2009

Man, I am so surprised that Mars Attacks! hasn't been mentioned yet.
posted by rhizome at 11:46 AM on March 14, 2009

It's a comic book, but I immediately thought of the Viltrumites in Invincible.
posted by cheapskatebay at 11:55 AM on March 14, 2009

Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict is the story of the Taelons, aliens who seem initially benevolent but have several different hidden agendas.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:01 PM on March 14, 2009

The Gelth in Doctor Who.
posted by you're a kitty! at 12:02 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Both the Asgard and the Goa'uld from the Stargate SG-1 TV series represent themselves to less technologically advanced races as gods, although for entirely different ends.
posted by fearnothing at 12:16 PM on March 14, 2009

Greg Bear's The Forge of God explores a deceptive-aliens-in-a-first-contact scenario. Its sequel, Anvil of Stars, feature some incredibly deceptive aliens.
posted by bigbigdog at 12:39 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I can't remember the author, and the cursory googling I have time for right now can't find it, but there's a short story called Push. Spoilers follow:

A race of apparently-benevolent aliens arriving in slower-than-light ark transmit ahead information about all sorts of technology to Earth. The aliens also "push" their avatars ahead as holographic projections (obviously not hard sci-fi). As the alien mother ship decelerates into earth orbit, one of the main characters takes an alien "push" on a hunting expedition. He makes a comment about wanting to give his prey a sporting chance. The story ends with the alien's ominous "so do we."
posted by Alterscape at 12:48 PM on March 14, 2009

Best answer:
So I'm working out a story concept and I want to make sure that I'm not inadvertently ripping off some obscure film, novel or TV episode.

Your premise is flawed. You can't "rip off" a story concept. Ideas are not copyrightable. If you were to straight out re-write a story you know from seeing it and change the names slightly, yeah, that'd be plagiarism, but you really don't have to worry about using a well established idea that's been done by someone before, you just have to worry about writing it well and making it interesting.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:03 PM on March 14, 2009

Greg Bear's Forge of God has duplicitous aliens, and good ones too.
posted by Max Power at 1:07 PM on March 14, 2009

William Tenn's Betelgeuse Bridge. Really, giant slugs from space are not to be trusted.
posted by SPrintF at 1:12 PM on March 14, 2009

Don't forget Nibbler in Futurama.
posted by gudrun at 1:33 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ring of Swords by Eleanor Arnason.
posted by Kattullus at 2:24 PM on March 14, 2009

City of Illusions by Ursula K. Le Guin is an great example of this, as the novel explores the concept of duplicity, withheld information and identity in an unusually complex and satisfying manner.

This is a common SF concept, though, so you will find it in many places.

(if for some reason you decide to read this novel, which is quite good, you should buy the collection; the short story that begins Rocannon's World is just... amazing.)
posted by selfnoise at 3:27 PM on March 14, 2009

Voice of the Whirlwind was a very good by an underrated author. The aliens, called The Powers, exist as a kind of sub-plot, but they are somewhat inadvertently deceptive -- they have a physical and psychological effect on humans that stay in contact with them for long periods of time, an effect that is not what most people expect or intend.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:48 PM on March 14, 2009

Oh, and I can't believe no one has yet mentioned the uber-classic Mars is Heaven story from The Martian Chronicles.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:51 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

They Live, by John Carpenter. We don't see the first meeting - it's a conspiratorial "aliens in our midst" film. Amazingly, the entire film is on Google video.
posted by O9scar at 3:56 PM on March 14, 2009

Frek and the Elixer by Rudy Rucker.

Also, I don't think Mars Attacks counts. It always seemed to me that it's the conceit of the scientists that causes the translator machine to misinterpret threats of violence as "we come in peace".
posted by Netzapper at 4:46 PM on March 14, 2009

In the addition to what's already been mentioned about Stargate, the Aschen, in the SG-1 episode 2010 and its sequel, 2001, told the humans that they'd help them fight against the Goa'uld (evil megalomaniac snakes inside people's brains), and provide them with advanced technology, cures for all disease, etc. Eventually, the heroes discovered that some of the life-extending drugs/disease cures actually caused sterility in 90% of the population, and the Aschen were just waiting for Earth's population to die out so they could colonize the planet.

In Star Trek, this happened a lot. Off the top of my head, you have Liaisons, The Survivors, and Devil's Due in TNG; in DS9 there's the Vorta female in The Jem'Hadar, and in VOY, you have Hope and Fear and Warhead. Oh, and Ariel in the TNG novel The Buried Age. if my username didn't make it obvious, i have watched way too much star trek.
posted by spockette at 4:54 PM on March 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you'd have a shorter list if you asked which aliens didn't misrepresent themselves in their dealings with humanity.

Add the Puppeteers from Niven's Known Universe series (just about everything he wrote, including Ringworld).
posted by Dunwitty at 5:12 PM on March 14, 2009

Add the Puppeteers from Niven's Known Universe series (just about everything he wrote, including Ringworld).

Nah. What did the Puppeteers misrepresent? That their planet did have a moon when it really didn't? They're secretive. Certainly, like the Vorlons*, they took action against humans and then concealed that. That doesn't really count, in my book, as the same sort of misrepresentation as the Moties or the aliens from To Serve Man. I guess I could buy the Starseed Lure being sufficiently big to qualify.

I think the difference is that the Puppeteers were known as scheming and untruthful bastards, but honest and powerful, throughout Known Space. The Moties were just cute, brilliant creatures destined to be man's new best friend until their breeding habits were determined.

*I assume that the Vorlons made this list because of their real physical manifestation (and their history), not because they toyed with everybody's DNA.
posted by Netzapper at 5:45 PM on March 14, 2009

His Majesty's Starship, which I seem to remember as "The Ark" - might've been something different, but I know my copy isn't titled "HMS".

Spoiler: the First Breed invite representatives from Earth to join them on "a world that we could share". Turns out, the First Breed are genetically engineered servants of a dying race, and the world they want to share is their homeworld - they're looking for new masters. A bit of a twist on the ending, though ...
posted by spaceman_spiff at 7:49 PM on March 14, 2009

I once read a science fiction short story about first contact between humans and a giraffe-like alien race, and it turned out that the aliens had a propensity for lying (but often done to save face, not maliciously), but the humans eventually figured this out by noticing the aliens' tendency to blink a lot when lying. But dammit, I can't remember the name of the story now, and Google is not being helpful. *sigh*
posted by Asparagirl at 12:12 AM on March 15, 2009

The new Battlestar Galactica series.
posted by brenton at 12:30 AM on March 15, 2009

In comics, that's likely the norm. Examples that come to mind:
* In the just-ended Blue Beetle series, the Reach were deceptively aggressive - they appeared benevolent, though.
* Morrison's JLA kicked off with the Hyperclan landing in "New World Order" - they were, again, wolves in sheep's clothing, if that saying hasn't been corrupted by furries yet.
posted by Pronoiac at 12:01 PM on March 15, 2009

Cool Papa Bell: psst!
posted by war wrath of wraith at 1:29 AM on March 17, 2009

« Older A Printable PEI   |   High caffeine, low rent Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.