No silly putty, please
September 29, 2009 8:25 PM   Subscribe

What are the most alien aliens in Comics, TV or Movie SF?

I am looking for the least human-like depictions of aliens, in terms of anatomy, culture, art, architecture, technology, etc., that you've seen in a movie or tv show —animated or live action— or comic book?
Looking for significant alien roles, not some random muppet in the background of the Mos Eisley Cantina.
posted by signal to Media & Arts (53 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The Horta from Star Trek.

The Crystalline Entity, also from Star Trek.
posted by The World Famous at 8:32 PM on September 29, 2009

Must it be from visual media? By far the most alien aliens I've come across have been in books.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:36 PM on September 29, 2009

Jeff Bridge's alien character in "Starman" was just a ball of energy that could inhabit any suitable form.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:40 PM on September 29, 2009

ocherdraco: I amend the question to include books.
posted by signal at 8:40 PM on September 29, 2009

War of the Worlds, obviously.

The aliens in, um, Alien are pretty far from human.

James Cameron's The Abyss included a pretty different;y-shaped alien. Pardon the pun.

The aliens in 2001 are so alien that we don't even get to see them, really.

The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy has a few, including the Hooloovoo, which is "a superintelligent shade of the color blue.", but that didn't make it into the film version.

If books are allowed, MeFi's own JScalzi has the Consu, giant blade-armed manta ray sorts of things, and David Brin had those "stack of donuts" aliens in his Uplift books.
posted by rokusan at 8:41 PM on September 29, 2009

Oh, and Lem's Solaris, or the film version, has that, um... liquid planet whatever.
posted by rokusan at 8:42 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

The aliens in "Contact" were also of a some kind transcendent energy that would assume a form that the lesser beings found familiar or comfortable.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:42 PM on September 29, 2009

posted by pompomtom at 8:43 PM on September 29, 2009

Seymour from "Little Shop of Horrors" was an alien.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:44 PM on September 29, 2009

I like to consider myself a bit of an armchair xenologist. I think as far as books are concerned, Octavia Butler gives you what you're looking for, from an incredibly alien culture in the Xenogenesis trilogy to the creepy crawly aliens with bizarre reproductive practices in the short story Bloodchild.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:45 PM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Futurama has had a bunch, including Brain Slugs, Hyperchickens, Morphing Grasshoppers, intelligent Bouncy Balls, Popplers and Yarn People.
posted by rokusan at 8:45 PM on September 29, 2009

Seymour from "Little Shop of Horrors" was an alien.

Seymour was human. I think you're thinking of Audrey Jr./Audrey II.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:48 PM on September 29, 2009

Seymour was human. I think you're thinking of Audrey Jr./Audrey II.

Oops. Yes, I was referring to the flesh eating plant.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:49 PM on September 29, 2009

posted by Loser at 8:49 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Blob
posted by Burhanistan at 8:51 PM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

The aliens in The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Also: it's a novel about Jesuits in space.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:52 PM on September 29, 2009

The Universe Between, Alan E. Nourse, 0441854567.
posted by WCityMike at 8:54 PM on September 29, 2009

Ted Chiang's short work "Story Of Your Life" had radially-symmetric aliens, won a boatload of awards, and is just a great, brain-stretcher of a story. Especially if you're interesting in linguistics. The level of analogies employed in this story amaze me to this day.
posted by intermod at 8:55 PM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Babylon 5 Vorlons hands down. If they had hands
posted by Freedomboy at 8:55 PM on September 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

For me, the most alien of aliens I've ever encountered was Nadrek, one of the four Second-Stage Lensmen in the legendary "Lensmen" series. SPOILERS BELOW

Near the end of the series (in "Children of the Lens"), the Patrol is getting close to complete victory over all the proxies of Boskone. It comes down to two major systems which are Boskone strongholds. Both are equally well defended.

The entire Patrol fleet combines and attacks one of them, and after a bitter battle, with heavy losses on both sides, the Patrol wins.

Nadrek takes the other out all by himself. I'm not joking. He sails an undetectable speeder into the system, lands it, and then uses his mental powers to stimulate annoyance and feelings of aggravation in all the people in the command center of the system defense, reaching the point where they are ready to kill one another. Eventually there's a spark, and they all start shooting.

But it isn't a perfect job. Three of them survive it, and Nadrek himself has to enter the command center and kill those directly. And he is so utterly shamed by this failure that he places his entire report about the event under Lensmen's seal (which means only lensmen can read it) and abjectly apologizes to Kinnison for his utter incompetence.

He isn't posturing. Despite having single-handedly done as much as the entire Patrol Grand Fleet, he feels that his performance was abysmal and he spends a lot of time moping about it. Kinnison himself is completely bewildered by Nadrek's behavior, but he's gotten used to being bewildered by Nadrek and simply accepts it. SPOILERS END.

For me that was wonderfully impenetrable, and thoroughly alien.

(Oh, heck; I just read your question again and what you're looking for is visual depictions of aliens, right? Because what I'm describing is from a series of books and what impressed me was how alien and incomprehensible Nadrek's behavior was. Rats; I'm gonna post this anyway.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:01 PM on September 29, 2009

The biltongs in P.K. Dick's "Pay for the Printer" were some kind of sentient blobs that could replicate any object that you showed them from their own life essence.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:05 PM on September 29, 2009

There's always the Dralasites from various TSR/ Wizards of the Coast RPGs, like Star Frontiers. If you go through some of the TSR space products, you'll probably find a bunch of alien races that fit the criteria.

Relatedly, there's Roald Dahl's Vermicious Knids from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

Chris Claremont came up with the Acanti in Uncanny X-Men, as well as a bunch of other non-humanoid races like the Warwolves, the spined and spineless inhabitants of Mojoworld, and the Shi'ar (although the Shi'ar are too humanoid and human-like to pass your criteria).

Mogo of the Green Lantern Corps is an entire goddamn sentient planet that happens to run with the GLC.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 9:54 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Ender's Game series includes some digression on the Hierarchy of Exclusion; the different kinds of alienness:

I think you're looking for Varelse or Djur from this list. As such, much of the aliens presented in literature have largely human-understandable motives; you rarely see something truly alien.
Utlanning (translated: "outlander" or "foreigner"", utlänning in Swedish) are strangers of one's own species and one's own world (i.e. community or culture). An utlanning is a person who shares the observer's cultural identity. For example, if one were to meet a stranger who lived in another city, state, or province, this person would be considered utlanning.

Framling (translated: "stranger", främling in Swedish) are members of one's own species but from another world or culture. This is a person who is both substantially similar to and significantly different from ourselves. For example, if one met another human who lived on Mars, this person would be a framling (a classic example is Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land). At the time the Hierarchy is proposed, each planet in the Ender's Game Universe (other than Earth) has been colonized by a single terrestrial culture or nation, making humans from other planets "framlings." In passing from Nordic to Stark, the word dropped its umlaut.

Ramen are strangers from another species (as paradoxically explained in Card's own terms) who are capable of communication and peaceful coexistence with Homo sapiens, though that does not guarantee they will pursue the latter. While ramen can share ideas with each other, they may not have common ground, at least not initially. Some examples of ramen featured in the series are the piggies or Little Ones of Lusitania, Jane and the buggers. "Ramen" is the only word of the five to not come from a Scandinavian language.

Varelse (pronounced var-ELSS-uh[2]) (translated: "being") are strangers from another species who are not able to communicate with us. They are true aliens, completely incapable of common ground with humanity. The quasi-intelligent Descolada virus may or may not have been sentient enough to qualify in this category; their creators, the Descoladores, were easily identified as sentient (due to their clear mastery of mathematics, genetics and electromagnetism), but the Ender Quartet ends with years of study yet remaining before any meaningful communication can be entered with them. One character also describes all animals as being varelse, since with them "no conversation is possible. They live, but we cannot guess what purposes or causes makes them act. They might be intelligent, they might be self-aware, but we cannot know it." Translated from Swedish, varelse means "creature."

Djur (translated as: "slavering beast"): are the monsters. "The dire beast that comes in the night with slavering jaws." Translated from Swedish, djur means "animal".
posted by joshu at 10:08 PM on September 29, 2009

As a link:
Hierarchy of Exclusion
posted by joshu at 10:08 PM on September 29, 2009

There was that one episode of ST:TNG that had aliens whose language consisted entirely of metaphor and was therefore completely incomprehensible to universal translators.

As for literature:

David Brin's Startide Rising has the Karrank%: insane psychic magma dwellers whose larval state is a sort of metallic coral reef thing that burrows through tectonic plate boundaries. It's also mentioned at some point in the series there are plenty of hydrogen-breathing gas giant dwellers in the universe; they virtually never interact with oxygen-based species because they have so little in common that communication is pointless.

The "Tines" from A Fire upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge: individuals are like long-necked, unusually intelligent dogs, but in packs of three to five can form group minds that communicate using short-range ultrasonic "telepathy". Since packs can gain or lose members without too much fuss, their notion of personal identity can be fairly fluid. There's also "skroderiders", who almost completely lack short-term memory and compensate using extensive cybernetic support systems.

The aliens (or possibly alien) in Peter Watts' Blindsight are thoroughly unlike humanity on a crucial and fundamental level. I can't go into details without completely ruining the surprise, but the point near the end of the book when all the details fall into place is incredibly creepy and unsettling.

In Diaspora by Greg Egan, the first alien life ever detected turns out to be a featureless planet-engulfing mat of quasi-inert cellulose. Turns out that the edges act something like a huge biological Turing machine, simulating an unimaginably rich 16-dimensional virtual ecosystem that's completely isolated from the outside world. Schild's Ladder involves the inhabitants of a region of space created by a physics experiment gone catastrophically wrong, in which all possible laws of physics exist in a giant quantum superposition.

Robert L. Forward wrote a book called Dragon's Egg about sentient beings inhabiting the surface of a neutron star.
posted by teraflop at 10:11 PM on September 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

Pierson's Puppeteers from Niven's Ringworld kind of stand out (aside from their unusual anatomy) as being a species which values cowardice as a personality trait.

Arthur C. Clarke develops some intriguing very non-terrestrial Jovian life forms in his short story Meeting With Medusa.

Harlan Ellison imagines some pretty bizarre aliens in some of his stories, although the extraterrestrial theme isn't really central to his oeuvre (and they are generally though not always pretty human in their motivations, they just have exotic skins, so to speak). S.R.O., I'm Looking for Kadak, The Wine Has Been Left Open Too Long and the Memory Has Gone Flat, The Region Between and How's the Night Life on Cissalda for example.

The Muskies in Spider Robinson's Telempath

The Martians in Heinlien's Stranger in a Strange Land

I'd second Lem's Solaris: the theme of encountering an inexplicable xenobiology (of which it is impossible to say whether it is in fact sentient or not) and the shattering effects that arise from its interaction with the human psyche is a fundamental theme of that excellent book.
posted by nanojath at 10:42 PM on September 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Transformers are pretty freaking weird, when you think about it.

There was even one who was a whole planet. And he had the voice of Orson Welles. How weird is *that*?
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:47 PM on September 29, 2009

The termite-like non-intelligent spacefaring aliens in Bruce Sterling's short story Swarm. They have an intelligent caste that only appears when they have to swat a problematic alien species, like those pesky humans.

The Ka in Jack Vance's The Asutra communicate by singing parts of a song that tells their entire history. There's a character that has spent her whole life learning as much as she can of the Ka's Great Song, and she can only speak to them in pidgin.

As mentioned previously, Solaris. Especially the novel, since part of the story is that there's an entire branch of science devoted to the study of Solaris and they still have no fucking idea what it is. Lem is a good one for aliens that we just can't communicate with or understand, but it's been awhile since I've read his novels and they've all run together into a big lump, so I can't think of other specific examples.

Finally, here's a SPOILERIFFIC crappy summary of one of my favorite encounters with an alien that's just a bit off, from Michael Swanwick's Stations of the Tide.

The main character has been drugged and is wandering through a forest (on a human-colonized alien world) at night, hallucinating madly. In a clearing in the forest a fox-faced man is watching a television. He's one of the supposedly extinct natives. They've been hiding out, passing as human at the margins of society. He's been fasting and praying, trying to see the pictures on the television. He never will, because his eyes don't work like ours.
posted by gamera at 10:59 PM on September 29, 2009

Alright, so the theme is either things that are sort of like things on earth, just weird or with superpowers, or blobs -- blobs of energy, or blobs of blobby blobbiness (which I guess means that when people attempt to imagine the unimaginably different, what comes out is the unimaginably shapeless) . That said, you can't go wrong with most all of Stanislaw Lem's stuff -- I would say a good 70%[1] of his career was devoted to exploring what it actually meant for something to be alien, rather than weird or different or superpowered or blobby[2].

One Lem that people tend to overlook is Fiasco. The book, as I (somewhat vaguely) remember it falls neatly into three sections. One features a character piloting a machine across the surface of one of the outer moons, musing about how the lifeless arrangement of crystals formed by millions upon millions of years of slow action are in their way fully as complex as arrangements made through processes of reproduction and natural selection -- and in a certain sense more wildly creative. (Universe, or universe away from the influence of life, as alien). The second consists of a long fable-like passage describing a 19th-century style adventurer in Africa coming across a massive swath of land consisting of more or less a termite nation, built of termite cities nearly resembling human cities and indicative of utterly incomprehensible behavior on the part of the termites. (this sorta thing -- other forms of life on Earth as alien). The third -- neglecting the long passage where a character on a spaceship explains how nearly impossible it is to have a comprehensible interaction with an alien species, since the number and sheer difference of the different branches of technological or biotechnological development that radically separate civilizations can take means that there's only a brief period of a few centuries between a species' development of the radio technology required to be contactable and that species subsequently altering itself so thoroughly as to be impossible for other species to understand -- tells of a group of humans in the near-ish future on a one of a kind, very energy-expensive, and very nearly incomprehensible spacecraft finding a planet with a radio-using alien species that seems to be arranged on a hive basis, and attempting to communicate with them. This communication goes, as the title of the book may suggest, not well.

As you may gather, although occasionally his presentation of characters is very, very strong, Lem's better stuff tends to be more essayistic than fictional per se. IMO this is a feature marking the best discourse on radical alienness -- once you start taking the concept of complete alterity entirely seriously, you wind up writing stuff that's more aligned with philosophy than with most fiction.

One non-Lem suggestion, that I haven't read myself (yet! I keep meaning to track down a copy...) is Paul Di Filippo's "Phylogenesis" -- apparently, it's about a species of enormous spacefaring, likely nonsentient aliens arriving, converting most of Earth's biomass into food for themselves, and leaving Earth a basically lifeless waste. The radical-alterity twist to the book is that humans survive, sort of, by bioengineering versions of humanity, called "neohumans," optimized to live as parasites on the bodies of the aliens themselves. What makes me want to find this sucker is the... well, coolness... of approaching the question of radical alterity through starting with altered humans -- and the neohumans are radically different... actually, let me just quote the review where I first read about this thing:
The bioengineering is precise and efficient. Everything is optimized in accordance with the physiology and metabolism of the host, and in the interest of flexibility. Anything deemed superfluous to survival is unsentimentally jettisoned. The “neohumans”mate quickly, reproduce in great numbers (in “litters” of five or more), and mature rapidly. They exhibit both swarm behavior — ganging up together when necessary to overwhelm the host’s defenses — and nomadic distribution — “scattering themselves throughout the interior of the gargantuan alien” to reduce the chances of being all wiped out at once by the host’s counterattacks. Once they have killed their host, they go into hibernation within “protective vesicles,” in order to survive the vacuum of deep space until they can encounter another host. In this way, they are able to perpetuate both their genes and their cultural heritage. Since they unavoidably “possess a basically nonmaterial culture,” they only use light-weight technologies that have been interiorized within their bodies. They are especially gifted with “mathematical skill,” including a genetically-instilled “predisposition toward solving… abstruse functions in their heads.” Aesthetically, they are all masters and lovers of song, “the only art form left to the artifact-free neohumans.” Mathematics and music are the sole “legacy of six thousand years of civilization” that has been bequeathed to them. The lives of the neohumans are short and intermittent; they are “mayflies, fast-fading blooms, the little creatures of a short hour. Yet to themselves, their lives still tasted sweet as of old.”
Now that, that's just alien as all getout.

[1]: I'd say the bulk of the other 30% is devoted to exploring how genuinely alien math and science are, with a bit to looking gently at how genuinely alien our own political systems are -- and really, the emergent systems that happen when you put a multiplicity of humans together are alien as all fuck when compared to the actual bodies and behaviors of individual humans.
[2]: Not to say that Solaris (mentioned upthread), his own personal entry in the big blog subfield, isn't just about the finest blob to date. It's an introverted planet-sized blob god that no one can understand, but also it's tiny waves that are playful, like puppies, until they get bored or distracted.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:15 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Warlock, his father Magus, and the other Technarchs from the Marvel universe.
posted by Kickstart70 at 11:20 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another entry into the blob stakes is Planet in the game Alpha Centauri. It's deeply derivative of Solaris -- basically, it's a supermassive neural network built out of the "xenofungus" that nearly covers the planet on which the game takes place -- but it's extra fun seeing those concepts come out in the context of a video game. Later on the representation of Planet becomes a bit boring -- it starts talking to the leaders of the human factions, and the highest-scoring ending involves your faction blasting the contents of the game's Internet-equivalent into Planet's network and then merging with the newly supersentient and by this point almost entirely comprehensible alien -- but until then there's some neat explanations of how (barring outside intervention) over the course of millions of years the fungus on the planet becomes more and more interconnected and approaches closer and closer to sentience, until it crosses a certain threshold, becomes sentient or supersentient for a second, and then collapses under the burst of quasi-neural energy involved, starting the process over again. Quite alien, a bit different than Solaris, and as a bonus you get to play it.

One thing that's interesting about Alpha Centauri, and I think quite telling of the culture that produced it, is that it's more or less taken as a given that the player wants his people to stop being human and become part of an immortal world-sized alien/human hybrid entity. I mean, duh, isn't everybody into that?
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:43 PM on September 29, 2009

Another video game, Star Control 2, some of the races are more "funny bipeds" but some are super-intelligent spore clouds or hunter-prey collectives or living rocks or untranslatable time-shifters .

And Alpha Centuari is one of the best sci-fi games ever so there.
posted by The Whelk at 12:14 AM on September 30, 2009

Oh and How's the Night Life on Cissalda has aliens that communicate via extreme pleasure. It doesn't go well.
posted by The Whelk at 12:17 AM on September 30, 2009

The wormhole aliens on Deep Space Nine had no corporeal form, and could not initially understand the concept of linear time.
posted by Rangeboy at 12:39 AM on September 30, 2009

Brin has already been mentioned and he's got a ton of weird aliens in his Uplift series, the Jophur I particularly remember.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:44 AM on September 30, 2009


Jabba the Hutt
posted by orme at 4:32 AM on September 30, 2009

The Konny and Czu comics from Matt Howarth contain no humanoid characters and try to eliminate anthropomorphic language as well (so a character with no visual senses won't say "I see what you mean.")
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:28 AM on September 30, 2009

The most alien aliens that are coming to mind immediately for me are in Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue trilogy. In this series, humans have of course discovered aliens, and the way to communicate with aliens is, of course, to raise your human babies having regular contact with the aliens so that they pick up their languages. (The linguists in the room are nodding.) One of the plot threads in the first book involves a race that is so completely alien that any child who is exposed to the alien to try to learn its language either dies or grows up to be very, very crazy. I think it's hard to get more alien than that.

(The trilogy is also famous as a work of feminist SF for which the author invented Láadan, a complete, usable and linguistically-interesting women's language. The other two books are really kind of strange and IIRC involve plot points like learning how to stop eating food and live on music, so you only need to read the first if you're interested in the basic idea.)
posted by sineala at 7:05 AM on September 30, 2009

Stephen Baxter has the photino birds, aliens made out of dark matter which are trying to accelerate the life cycle of stars.
posted by penguinliz at 7:56 AM on September 30, 2009

Seconding the Tines from A Fire Upon the Deep. Intelligent dog-pack individuals with bronze age technology! For me, they are the most memorable of all literary aliens.

Also from teraflop's comment and the same novel by Vernor Vinge: the Skroderiders. These are mobile beach plants who were "uplifted" eons ago when someone gave them little wheeled pots to move about in. They display emotion by shaking their fronds, making a rustling sound.

Also, the hyper-paranoid Pierson's Puppeteers from Larry Niven's Ringworld. They maybe the best realized aliens I can think of. Their braincase is actually in the chest, and the two arms/necks up front hold two big eyes as well as mouths with versatile lips used like fingers. As mentioned, they see cowardice as sanity, and even refer to the most important individual in their society not as their "leader" but as the "Hindmost."

Finally, another collective-type species: in Greg Bear's Anvil of Stars are the Brothers. They are basically non-sentient wiggly hollow tubes who latch-onto each other and form intelligent individuals in groups.

posted by General Tonic at 8:02 AM on September 30, 2009

For the opposite perspective (humans as incomprehensible aliens) check out Terry Bisson's They're Made Out of Meat.

Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand features a number of non-humanoid aliens and is at least partly about functioning among so many different cultures.
posted by natabat at 9:36 AM on September 30, 2009

The aliens (or possibly alien) in Peter Watts' Blindsight are thoroughly unlike humanity on a crucial and fundamental level. I can't go into details without completely ruining the surprise, but the point near the end of the book when all the details fall into place is incredibly creepy and unsettling.

posted by teraflop at 12:11 AM on September 30

+1. A lot of sci-fi aliens can be summarized as "like something here on Earth, but With A Twist!", but the fundamental strangeness of Blindsight's life forms completely blew my mind. Most of the plot centers on discovering the nature of the aliens so going into any detail would be spoileriffic, but if there's anything I've read that fits your question, this is it.

(You can read the book online here. And hey, it has vampires too!)
posted by The Lurkers Support Me in Email at 10:17 AM on September 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

the Amnioni from Stephen R Donaldson's Gap Cycle series.

"a humanoid sea-anemone with too many arms."
posted by banshee at 10:25 AM on September 30, 2009

I agree with the other posters about the Pierson's Puppeteers, they are thoroughly alien. The planet Ygam, as depicted in the film La Planète sauvage, is very alien and nothing like Earth, though the dominant species, the Draags, are humanoid looking.
posted by smoothvirus at 12:14 PM on September 30, 2009

Wow. There's a lot of of great stuff here. Here are a couple of good ones that haven't been mentioned yet. The central alien creature in "The Cosmic Rape" by Ted Sturgeon. The aliens in "Slaughter House " by Kurt Vonnegut.
Now I've got some reading to do!
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 12:58 PM on September 30, 2009

Can't believe I forgot Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin. It's a collection of short stories about visits to alternate "planes" of reality, each of which has a different twist. None of the populations are physically too different from humans; the psychological and social differences are more interesting. Particularly relevant ones:

"Feeling at Home with the Hennebet": people look and sound pretty normal, but at some point the protagonist realizes there's something truly incomprehensible going on in their heads.

The Seasons of the Ansarac: the inhabitants of a planet with a solar year 24 times longer than earth have developed a lifestyle tied very closely to the long seasonal cycle.

"The Nna Moy Language": kind of like a cross between "Darmok" and "Story of Your Life".

Also, The Word for World is Forest, one of Le Guin's Hainish Cycle novels, might fit what you're looking for.

Finally, the all-time weirdest "aliens" I can remember are from Charles Stross's Accelerando [warning: 950KB HTML page]. It's hard to summarize, but basically, what appears to be a vast interstellar communications network turns out to be the remnants of an alien economy that burned itself out in a technological singularity. The only remaining inhabitants are sentient pyramid schemes and self-modifying virtual corporations. It's complicated.
posted by teraflop at 1:03 PM on September 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

The aliens (or possibly alien) in Peter Watts' Blindsight are thoroughly unlike humanity on a crucial and fundamental level. I can't go into details without completely ruining the surprise, but the point near the end of the book when all the details fall into place is incredibly creepy and unsettling.

posted by teraflop at 12:11 AM on September 30
+1. A lot of sci-fi aliens can be summarized as "like something here on Earth, but With A Twist!", but the fundamental strangeness of Blindsight's life forms completely blew my mind. Most of the plot centers on discovering the nature of the aliens so going into any detail would be spoileriffic, but if there's anything I've read that fits your question, this is it.

posted by The Lurkers Support Me in Email at 10:17 AM on September 30

+1, I second this as well. Blindsight by Peter Watts is very creepy, very clever and has the most utterly alien aliens I have ever come across. But once you understand what they are, it makes perfect sense. A great book. You can read it here for free. But its probably better to buy a copy. And I originally found out about it thanks to metafilter!
posted by memebake at 3:32 PM on September 30, 2009

Rebecca Ore's Becoming Alien trilogy has some thoroughly convincing alien cultures. Their physiology follows the familiar take an animal on earth and make it different strategy, but she does a better job of creating truly foreign motivations and world views than most authors.

Asimov's The Gods Themselves involves some classic and thoroughly foreign aliens (at least, in habitants of another universe), if you don't mind a bit of heavy handed allegory built into your fiction.

Finally, I'll second an earlier mention of Vernor Vinge's work, especially A Fire Upon the Deep, and to a lesser extent A Deepness In the Sky. It's hard to beat Vinge for strange environments, wild body-plans, and their carefully reasoned consequences. But, most of the characters have very human motivations and thought processes.
posted by eotvos at 4:01 PM on September 30, 2009

In terms of being about as far from human as possible, one of the best ideas that I've seen is the idea of the alien as meme--they're an idea that spreads via some kind of contact, usually inhabiting different species (like us) parasitically. Warren Ellis used this in one chapter of his Global Frequency comic; the idea can be said to date back to "Mimsy Were the Borogoves", although it's arguable whether the children really became alien in nature. There are also variations on this theme; the alien(s) in the Species movies were created by synthesizing a genome that was originally picked up by SETI.

Star Trek had the whole range, and the Deep Space Nine Technical Manual has a notional "Weibrand logarithmic developmental scale" for sentient races whereby godlike aliens like the Q Continuum and the Organians are at 100, being so advanced that most other races can neither fully comprehend nor affect them, and the Federation is at about 23. The aforementioned Prophets (aka the wormhole aliens) are at 90; they can be affected by various Treknobabble devices.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:17 PM on September 30, 2009

The Consu from John Scalzi's Old Man's War and The Last Colony are a kind of insectoid race that have evolved technology far beyond human understanding, to the point that they created another alien race, the Obin, a kind of atonomon collective.

Also, there are some messed up aliens in John Varley's Gaean series.
posted by T.D. Strange at 4:34 PM on September 30, 2009

As several of us have mentioned Blindsight without actually saying what the aliens are like, here's a ROT-13 spoiler for those that are curious:

Gur nyvraf va Oyvaqfvtug ner ynetr fgnesvfu-yvxr perngherf, tebja vafvqr gurve fcnpr unovgng juvpu nyfb frrzf gb or nyvir. Gurl ner snagnfgvpnyyl vagryyvtrag, ohg ner abg pbafpvbhf - gur obbxf qvfgheovat gurbel orvat gung pbafpvbhfarff vf abg n irel hfrshy ribyhgvbanel genvg. Gur obbx rkcyberf gur vzcyvpngvbaf bs guvf, sbe gur nyvraf naq sbe hf, va irel jryy gubhtug bhg jnlf. Qrfcvgr gurve aba-pbafpvbhf angher, gurl pbzzhavpngr jvgu gur uhznaf ng bar cbvag va gur obbx, va Ratyvfu. Vs lbh'ir rire jbaqrerq jung n pbairefngvba jvgu n aba-pbafpvbhf ragvgl zvtug ybbx yvxr, frr Oyvaqfvtug. Gur obbx nyfb unf n enatr bs uhzna punenpgref jvgu irel qvssrerag glcrf bs pbafpvbhfarff - gur aneengbe vf na nhgvfgvp thl jvgu unys uvf oenva zvffvat. Bar bs gur bgure punenpgref unf 4 crefbanyvgvrf qryvorengryl rzorqqrq vagb ure zvaq. Orfg bs nyy, gur obbx fhccbfrf gung inzcverf qvq bapr rkvfg nf n frcnengr uhzna-yvxr fcrpvrf, naq va gur obbx gurve QAN unf orra erpbafgehpgrq. Gurl nyfb unir n qvssrerag glcr bs pbafpvbhfarff (gurl rkcrevrapr gvzr qvssreragyl) naq ner zhpu zber vagryyvtrag guna abezny uhznaf. Fb gurl chg bar va punetr bs gur svefg pbagnpg zvffvba, anghenyyl ....
posted by memebake at 11:18 PM on September 30, 2009

Memebake, you collosal jerk! Due to having evolved in an environment where cryptological prowess is necessary for everyday survival, my species can read rot-13 effortlessly. And I was looking forward to that book!
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 6:00 AM on October 1, 2009

How about the crystal "life" form in The Andromeda Strain or the energy-aliens in the Final Fantasy movie? (no sci-fi cred with these answers, I know, but they were what popped into my head!)
posted by Bergamot at 10:19 PM on October 1, 2009

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