How to Punk Your Steam Part 5: Make it Alien
Welcome to the fifth installment of “How to Punk Your Steam“, which is all about practical applications (and implications) of ways to punk the steam era. So, “onwards and upwards”, as they say, with special emphasis on upwards because today’s article is all about outer space.
In my Steampunk meanderings I have run across several instances of alien contact both in classic scientific romances and contemporary fiction. Invasion from a distant (or maybe not so distant) world, traveling to the stars through incredible technological advances and borrowing these advances from our “visitors” are common tropes in Steampunk literature, games and films. I thought the best way to approach the question of how to incorporate aliens into your own project is to look at the different kinds of alien life forms that have been hypothesized in these works, and what today’s scientists have to say on the matter.
Scenario 1: Cephlapod Aliens (aka, Tentacles!)
One of the most famous works in classic sci-fi is, of course, War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. This story was first published in 1897, and I think we can give credit to this work, as well as the Cthulu tales of H. P. Lovecraft, for making octopuses the (un)official Steampunk mascot. Cephlapods, like octopuses and squid, are highly intelligent creatures but their way of life and appearance is so foreign to us they might as well be aliens. Their intelligence gets lost behind all those creepy arms and giant, unblinking eyes. In reality, the large beasts in this family have extremely large brains for their body size, and they’d have to be smart in order to manage eight or more limbs. I sometimes have trouble keeping track of all four of mine! They are also masters of camouflage, which takes an enormous amount of coordinated brain function that they do automatically.
The pitfall with this basis for aliens is that they have extremely soft bodies and no skeletons. They need water in order to keep themselves from collapsing, and are more or less useless on dry land. Then, there’s this guy:
This was obviously a short burst out and quick return to water, but it does have possibilities. But the need for water aside, cephlapods are extremely vulnerable because of their lack of armor (though nautilus do still have a shell). The fact that they don’t have a skeleton does aid them in their ability to squeeze through any crack as long as their eyes fit through, but it certainly would be a disadvantage in combat. Wells’ solution was to give his be-tentacled aliens incredible vehicles to protect their soft bodies, and they would certainly need them.
If you want to see some Steampunk cephlapods, check out my gallery.
Scenario 2: Insectoid Aliens
War of the Worlds was not the only time Wells wrote about an encounter between humans an aliens. In 1901 he wrote a story about traveling to the moon and going deep inside called The First Men in the Moon. The protagonists discover a vibrant and intriguing race of aliens who resemble a colony of ants gone wild and inhabit a network of tunnels that criss-cross the interior. The “Selenites” have a society that is extremely segregated and specialized, and if a member’s expertise is not needed, they are simply put to sleep to conserve resources. In this way, the book serves a criticism of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution that relegated laborers to a lesser status like the worker ants in a colony.
Though the Selenites resembled ants in many ways, they had soft bodies. The reduced gravitation of the moon and their cooperative society rendered the need for external armor unnecessary. In reality, insects depend on their rigid exoskeletons to keep them safe (not to mention to keep all their fluids in place.) Exoskeletons can take on a wide variety of forms and functions to suit an insect’s particular niche and environment. Because insects reproduce so quickly, they are able to undertake the natural processes of evolution much more quickly than mammals, which accounts for both their prevalence and variety on our planet, and the case would presumably be the same on other worlds. The ancestors of land-dwelling insects lived in the ancient seas of our planet and had segmented bodies. Some of these ancestors ventured onto land and they found a lush world full of plants to eat, while others remained in the sea and became today’s crabs and lobsters.
The difficulty in translating an insectoid form to a large enough size to be threatening to humans is the amount of fluid that needs to be regulated in their bodies. Insects do not have blood, nor a closed circulatory system, like most of the rest of animals. They have a fluid called “hemolymph” that fills them up, but unlike blood it does not carry oxygen. Most insects actually breath through their exoskeletons, which is a throwback to when they got their oxygen from the sea. There is a maximum size that insects can reach in our current atmospheric conditions because they simply could not get enough oxygen to their brains if they got too big. In the past, there were examples of hawk-sized dragonflies and some other extremely large insects, but this was at a time when there was more oxygen in our atmosphere (Read more). So any aliens that function like terrestrial insects would have to evolve in a highly oxygenated place, and they would still need to wear space suits just like us to survive on another planet.
Personally, what I want to see is story where a huge swarm of tiny insects are released and wreak havoc on our population. Sure, they wouldn’t have built the spacecraft themselves so there would have to be a primary alien race that is separate from them, but can you imagine the devastation they could bring? Too often I see depictions of aliens and alien planets with only a single race of beings, but if our incredibly interconnected world is anything to go on, there would be myriad species on any planet in order for ecosystems to flourish.
Scenario 3: Humanoid aliens
This is probably the form that aliens most often take in popular science fiction. The inhabitants of the alien worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars, for instance, are almost always four-limbed, one-headed and bipedal. They express themselves using vocal language more often than not, but sometimes have telepathic abilities or employ sign language which they convey with their five-fingered hands. In some ways, this portrayal comes out of our tendency to assume that human beings are the “most highly evolved” species on our planet, so other intelligent species elsewhere must look like us. Evolutionary scientists tend not to use this term, preferring instead to refer to the degree of derivation, ie how much a species has changed from its ancestors. In this way, humans are certainly highly derived, but we are by no means the pinnacle of “progress.”
One advantage of using a humanoid shape is that it allows a creator an opportunity to draw parallels between the human race and other aliens. The more alike we are at the same time that there are key cultural, social and physical differences allows for interesting commentary and situations. But, walking on two feet is not the most stable means of transport. If you think about it, the only thing more tippable than a person is a person standing on one leg, and the animals such as snails that only have one “foot” are actually highly stable and have no trouble getting around. Luckily (or rather, evolutionarily) for us we have five toes on each foot which aids our ability to balance. What a bipedal lifestyle does offer us is the freedom to use our dexterous hands to manipulate objects and build amazing structures. But there is really no reason to stop at just one pair of hands. What about an alien species with eight limbs? That would give them the stability of a quadruped plus four hands to explore their world.
What do Scientists Think?
One of the prevailing theories in regards to the prospects of contact from another world has a lot of potential in Steampunk. Many believe that because of the dangers of space travel and the great distances that would need to be covered that our first contact will more than likely be with a machine from another planet, not a biological being. I would love to read a story about an encounter between Vic-Wardians and a super advanced computer or automaton from outer space! There is a lot of potential here just waiting to be explored.
Looking for more fun ways to “Punk your Steam?” Check out the series!
This article, as well as the rest of the “How To Punk Your Steam” series will be expanded upon when they appear in my upcoming nonfiction book, The Steampunk Handbook. Stay tuned for more news on this exciting project!