The Hive Brain Alien (Spoilers Galore)
Writing non-humanoid aliens who don’t speak a human language is no easy task. This post is preceded by three others. If you want the earlier insights, link to to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. It occurs to me that I ought to define dynamic. That word is in all four titles.
In terms of a dynamic literary character, I mean a character who is neither pure good, nor pure evil…a character that can change its/his/her mind, can act morally or immorally, and can find its way into the audience’s heart.
This post will be a study of ALIEN, BATTLE STAR GALACTICA, ANNIHILATION and ENDER’S GAME.
Hive brain aliens (or A.I. in the case of Battle Star Galactica) differ so much from human beings, in part because their societies resemble what would be perceived by humans, as dictatorships or slave states. Hive communities, though a perfectly reasonable way of life for many of Earth’s tiny creatures, when translated into human terms, feel unpalatable. All hive individuals think alike. All live for the queen. All work for her good and the good of the community, often at the expense of the individual. So, how does an author drum up empathy for these characters? In the case of Ridley Scott with his Alien creature…almost none. The exception would be in Alien Resurrection, the third film in the franchise, when the newborn hybrid alien is killed by its own mother, Ripley. The audience knows this is necessary, but still…it hurts to see that cute (not cute) little spawn (not little) sucked out of the spaceship.
So, these aliens in the Alien franchise are not interested in good of any other species aside from their own (seemingly). They do not make tools and have no technological civilization.
They are predators, with one goal…survival. Not only will they eliminate other lifeforms that may pose a threat to them, they will impregnate those who remain and use them to feed their young. Yeah…not a pretty picture, but still, that moment when Ripley turns her back on her offspring…it tugs our heart for a brief moment.
My husband and I have been re-watching Battle Star Galactica (which, by the way is fantastic; the writing, the acting and the overall production hold up to any tv series ever produced). In BSG, the Cylons are the worker bees of a hive mind (an A.I. computer searching for meaning). The Cylons have destroyed human civilization and are chasing down the remnant who are fleeing in space vessels across galaxies to find a place where they will be able to survive/start over. The Cylons are called “toasters” by the humans who shoot them dead (otherwise, they will likely die by the hands/guns of those Cylons). The Cylons are non-human with little or no individuality…until, the computer brain figures out how to create machines that are VERY human-like. Those Cylons infiltrate the human remnant and take on unique personalities. One even falls in love and is impregnated by a human. So…it all becomes complicated. Including, the episode we just watched which chronicles a Cylon called Scar. The episode is the 15th of the second season and is titled, Scar. It is free for for Amazon Prime members as is the entire series. (Update, as of January 2021, this is not true…hoping it will come back to screens for free again, sometime in the future).
This particular Cylon is not only named by the human fleet (naming a hive member changes the way the audience sees this character), it is feared by them. The fleet’s fear of Scar also puts it in a unique category. No longer is Scar a worker bee.
Scar has been able to kill more human viper pilots by learning. The implication put forward by one of the human-like Cylons (the pregnant one) is that each time Scar has been destroyed, its failure in battle remains in its brain. As that brain is downloaded into the new Cylon body, a new pilot is born, only it does not forget. Scar is able to access the lessons of its battle failures and grow more adept at fighting human pilots. In a previous episode of BSG, the human fleet has destroyed the Cylon “resurrection ship”. Therefore, this battle with Scar is to the death. Scar will not be coming back in a new body if it is destroyed this time.
In BSG, the writers want the audience to grapple with a morphing understanding of the Cylons. Cylons start out all evil, but don’t stay that way. Various human-like Cylons enter into human community and help it, many step in with critiques of human society, acting almost like prophets. The Cylons are monotheists, who believe there is a purpose to their existence. The human remnant is polytheistic, worshipping the gods of the Greek Pantheon. Wonderful fodder for philosophical ponderings within BSG.. Through the many episodes, the audience begins to feel more compassion for the Cylons. The entire series is worth watching if you are a writer who cares about humanizing characters that fall into the category of enemy or other.
In ANNIHILATION, the enemy is mysterious, hive-like in that it reacts en masse and not as individuals…In fact, it can’t be categorized as a hive-brain alien exactly. There is little clarity that the anomaly in Area X is actually an alien takeover. What emerges is the notion (at least in the novel) that the changes taking place in Area X are inevitable and may be good for Earth. The anomaly, however, is impersonal. The alien impact, or whatever it is, is spreading and seems to have no consciousness in the way we think of consciousness, but is more like a fungus or a virus. It has power to change its environment, but any actual “brain” that would become a military target, allowing our government to remove the anomaly is unclear. Lots of mystery, but the writer, Vandermeer, makes it work, especially in ANNIHILATION, the first novel of the Southern Reach Trilogy.
Area X is frightening because it consumes and/or changes all who encounter it. As a writer, ANNIHILATION is worth studying for the utter strangeness of the alien anomaly. There is no verbal communication with it, only physical and psychological encounter. The biologist character in the novel (Lina, in the film) helps the audience see the mystery as beauty. However, the ambiguity remains and is never truly resolved. It’s good to see an alien like this. The presence of it pushes the human characters to their limits and reveals aspects of our humanity that are important to recognize. Really great sci-fi ought to do this.
If you want to purchase ANNIHILATION, click here.
Lastly, ENDER’S GAME. The Formics are the enemies, (the Buggers) that Ender eventually destroys. The novel is about how he is trained to perform this act. Ender commits xenocide without knowing it. It’s worth reading or re-reading ENDER’S GAME to watch how Orson Scott Card pulls this off. The Formics are all evil until very close to the end of the novel. The turn takes place when the innocent, but talented Ender realizes how he has been manipulated and how his power has been used to “save Earth”, but while doing so, he has destroyed another species. His grief is immense. Ender will bear this guilt into subsequent novels. The audience, once it realizes that the Formics have been destroyed, enters into Ender’s regret. A young boy’s conscience has been scarred. The novel then portrays the Bugger queen communicating with Ender, giving hope to him that there might be a path to redemption. The audience wants this for Ender. The queen reveals that the Formics had initially assumed humans were a non-sentient race because they lacked a hive mind. She/they realized their mistake too late. In other words, the war was a BIG misunderstanding. The queen requests that Ender take a dormant egg that has not been destroyed to a new planet where this species can thrive anew and Ender agrees. Suddenly, the audience is rooting for the Formics.
That is a turn around worth studying! The audience goes from hating Formics and seeing them as a monolith, to empathizing with them and hoping for their rebirth.
Make sure you pick this novel up next time you’re at the bookstore or you can order it here.
A Study of Non-Humanoid Characters
(Beware. A Few Spoilers Below. For a no-spoiler review of the film, ANNIHILATION click here, for a review of the novel, click here )
Since my second viewing of the film, ANNIHILATION, I have been musing on my own sci-fi writing, thinking about how difficult it is to portray non-humanoid aliens in a novel, even more so on the screen or stage. The audience may not ponder this, but sci-fi authors grapple with the problem every time they sit down to write.
If you do a google image search of Star Trek aliens, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Scroll down and down and down to view many colors of skin, odd make up and costumes, but most of the images you see will be faces that look a lot like human faces. In particular, those aliens that become super villains are almost always humanoid…Klingons, for example. Why do Star Trek writers/producers seem to prefer the humanoid alien?
One theory emerges…
When telling stories, facial expressions and body language hold meaning. When my editor asks me to show and not tell in my story, I rely on movement, posture, actions as well as dialogue to show character. So, if my alien is a purple blob that does not speak human language and is flying a space vessel into lower Earth orbit for the first time and feels anxious, how do I show the reader its anxiety? My editor will scold me if I write: The blob creature was anxious as it flew into low Earth orbit? This is an example of telling and not showing. Substandard writing. She wants better and I pay her for that advice…so how does a writer manage? Maybe I decide the blob alien doesn’t have any feelings. It’s machinelike. I don’t need to show anything beyond the flying. That option is backed up by the way human beings often view the other, whether alien or human. That’s how people objectify the other.
It/he or she feels nothing = I feel no connection = I don’t relate = I can despise it, him, her.
The not-feeling portrayal of the alien works sometimes. A number of successful sci-fi stories deliver to its audience the alien as monster, a creature or entity both sinister and destructive. The Thing as well as the first Alien films are good examples. Both follow the script of the haunted house drama. Humans are in grave danger, trying to defeat a monster that has found its way into the sacred living space. It will use up and in the process destroy all the good guys, unless the good guys destroy it/them first. The monster is objectively all evil.
What about non-human characters that might not be all evil? Those are of interest to me as they are to many other sci-fi writers.
Back to the purple blob.
So, how would I portray the anxiety in my blob character? Maybe I show the blob sweating while it nears planet Earth. Okay…that won’t work. How about a trembling blob? Would my audience interpret a trembling blob as an anxious one? For all they know, the trembling is a physical reality of a ship entering Earth orbit. You see the problem, which brings me to R2D2.
R2D2, not an alien but wildly different than a human, holds one answer. Recall a number of Star Wars franchise films. R2’s personality makes his mark in all of them and does so as a non human…How do the writers pull this off? How does R2 connect with the audience, which he does in a big way? (Note: in the Star Wars universe, all droids are programmed male or female. R2 was programmed “male” which is why I use the male pronoun when referring to him.) How do we know R2 has feelings when he can only bleep, squeal, whistle, spin its carapace from left to right, roll here and there and lunge back and forth on his three-wheeled legs? He doesn’t have facial expressions, arms and doesn’t even speak a human language, but the audience, especially children, feel a connection and an affection for this character. Why?
Dig deeper into the screenplay of the earliest film…Notice how humans, Luke and Leah, or another verbal and humanoid robot, C3P0 interpret for the audience what R2’s squeals, bleeps and actions mean. The audience sees and hears C3P0 responding to R2D2 in STAR WARS, A NEW HOPE and comes to understand the determined personality of this character.
Here’s an early R2D2 scene most of us are familiar with…the droids have just crash-landed on Tatooine and are journeying together across the planet’s desert-like dunes.
C3P0: What a desolate place this is…
R2: squeak, whistle
C3P0: Where do you think you’re going? Well I’m not going that way. It’s much too rocky.
R2: bleep, squeak
C3P0: This way is much easier. What makes you think there are settlements over there?
R2: bleep, bleep, whistle
C3P0: Don’t get technical with me. What mission? What are you talking about?
R2: whistle, bleep, bleep
C3P0: I’ve just about had enough of you. Go that way. You’ll be malfunctioning within a day, you nearsighted scrap pile!
R2: (turns to the left and begins heading in a different direction than C3P0)
C3P0: (calls after a departing R2) And don’t let me catch you following me and begging for help because you won’t get it.
Clever writers! This is one way to give that bucket of tin a whole lot of personality…put him alongside another verbal character who will always react emotionally (even though he is a droid, who of us would deny that C3P0 is highly emotional?) and interpret bleeps and whistles for the audience. After a while, the audience doesn’t even need the interpretation. We begin to hear the difference between a happy squeak or whistle and a sad bleep.
Back to the purple blob. If another humanoid is flying co-pilot and happens to speak a human language…now I can have the co-pilot respond to the trembling.
Purple Blob: (trembling as flames erupt around the nose of its space vessel)
Humanoid Co-Pilot: I’ve never seen you tremble before, Sir.
Purple Blob: (squishes 2 hoots and a few groans out an opening on the side of its gelatinous body.)
Humanoid Co-Pilot: Well. I can see why you would be nervous. The gravity on this planet is stronger than we thought, but our heat panels should protect us.
Purple Blob: (squishes out 1 hoot)
Humanoid Co-Pilot: I’m just glad it’s you flying a not me.
That’s it for now. Thursday, I’ll tackle the fantastic aliens in the film and short story, ARRIVAL.
Don’t miss this film. ANNIHILATION is free for Amazon Prime members, or at least it was at the writing of this post.
Five Reasons to Watch ANNIHILATION
- The film puts forward a non-humanoid portrayal of an alien species invading our planet–always a welcome change in sci-fi land.
- Watch it for the tension, mystery and suspense (on par with films like Alien and The Thing).
- Watch it for the dynamic, mostly female cast. Realistic and flawed characters with agency and intelligence.
- Watch it for the beautifully imagined world. The CGI and other effects are a visual feast.
- I also enjoyed the creepy music. I expect it will make your skin crawl as it did mine.
ANNIHILATION is based on The Southern Reach Trilogy novels by Jeff VanderMeer. Watch the film and read the first book (in particular), also called Annihilation. To read my review of the first novel, click here. The film diverges enough from the novel, spoilers aren’t an issue. Both stand alone and give the consumer something different. The most important commonality in both is the main character: Lena, as named in the film. She is not named in the book, but is only known as the biologist.
Alex Garland wrote the screenplay based on the trilogy, but focused on the first book. He takes that novel told in the first person, a story relayed by the journal entries of the biologist, and creates something that makes sense for the screen.
In one of the film’s earliest scenes, a comet or asteroid hits Earth, near a lighthouse on the North-Eastern coast of the US. Within a few years (we learn later), an anomaly develops in and around the area where the asteroid hit. It becomes circumscribed by what the government people call, the shimmer.
The story of Lena opens with her sitting in a chair in a mostly empty hospital-type viewing room. She is dressed in scrubs, surrounded by men and women in hazmat suits, many of whom watch her through windows. One man is interviewing her about her journey into the shimmer. She is the only survivor who has returned from inside the shimmer out of a 5-person team. As he questions her, the story unfolds.
The casting of ANNIHILATION is strong, with nuanced performances by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh (as the psychologist and expedition leader).
This film was released on a February weekend in 2018, the weekend following the release of Black Panther. While the Marvel masterpiece sucked nearly all of the movie-going public into the theaters, one, two and three times to ooh and aah over that story as well as the graphics and the unfolding of a Wakanda power struggle, ANNIHILATION quietly drew its small and eclectic audience. It left the theaters before the Hollywood press had a chance to say much about it. In truth, even without Black Panther as competition for eyeballs, the film was rated “R”, and therefore would not have attracted the masses.
However, similar to a film like Under the Skin, this story is so creepy and alien, it pushes the imagination. The sci-fi fanatic will adore it…as should biologists, who will see their discipline elevated in a way not often witnessed on the big screen.
If you are a DVD watcher, here is a link for purchase.
I end with a favorite quote:
“Was it carbon based? What did it want? It came here for a reason. It came here for a reason. It mutated everything.”
The Short Review. Why or Why not Read ACCEPTANCE?
- I already consumed the first two in the trilogy and like to finish things
- I wanted to understand more of the mystery that is Area X. There was definitely more backstory to absorb in this volume
- I enjoyed the deeply flawed, but thoughtful characters
- I wanted to spend more time in the imaginative world of Area X
- The writing style was unique and often beautiful
Why avoid reading?
- Because the point of view was shifting all the time, it was a challenge to attach to any one character
- Disappointing ending
- The writing style grew stale after a while…lots of interior musings and struggles without enough plot or even conflict (the conflict is underlying, but too diffuse for my tastes)
- Not only does VanderMeer shift points of view with every chapter, he also moves back and forth between past and present
- I started this book on audio, but switched to print about a 1/3 of the way through because POV and time switching was too confusing
To buy ACCEPTANCE, click here.
To buy the SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY, click here.
The Longer Review of ACCEPTANCE
If you read my earlier reviews, you understand that I started out a big fan of Annihilation. Not only was the main character, compelling, but the mysteries that unfolded in the narrative created the perfect amount of tension to keep me engaged. I’m guessing this was true for many other readers interested in the interior life of this quietly observant biologist as she ventures into Area X. The biologist (she is never named in the book) is at the heart a true scientist and in certain respects more attuned to flora and fauna than to people, but she observes people with a scientific eye. She is spooky, highly intelligent and trustworthy as a narrator in surprising and interesting ways. I really loved this character. I loved that she was introverted and anti-social. She also had clear motivation to act because her husband had been on a previous mission into Area X and returned damaged before succumbing to death She is a worthy rival to the various human and monster challengers that get in her way. In fact, she is such a great character that Alex Garland (screenwriter) took the story and created a feature-length film around her, that character played wonderfully by Natalie Portman. I loved the film, but it is not the same story told in the trilogy, nor is it the same story told in the novel after which it is named. The film narrative diverges in significant ways. I will post my review of the film tomorrow. I ought not say more unless I spoil the story.
What to say about VanderMeer’s style? Be prepared for words like ziggurat to be on the page. His writing is lovely and intellectually gratifying if you’re interested in imaginative metaphors and curious juxtapositions. This language mimics the beauty and strangeness of Area X. Here is an excerpt:
In Control’s imagination, the entrance to the topographical anomaly was enormous, mixed with the biologist’s vast bulk in his thoughts so that he had expected a kind of immense ziggurat upside down in the earth. But no, it was what it had always been: a little over sixty feet in diameter, circular, located in the middle of a small clearing. The entrance lay there open for them, as it had for so many others. No soldiers here, nothing more unusual than the thing itself.
I’m not opposed to imaginative language, but the extensive descriptions did sometime bog down the story for me, especially when I was trying to consume the book via audio. With a passage like above, I would sometimes have to rewind…What did he just say? Did he say ziggurat?
Finally, my reticence to fully praise this trilogy is that the mystery is not explained to my satisfaction. Too many unanswered questions. I guess VanderMeer has another novel called Area X, but given this group of books, Annihilation, Authority and ACCEPTANCE are presented to the world as a trilogy…I want satisfaction by the end of the third book. I don’t want to have to pick up another novel to figure out the answers I need.
Regarding the audio experience. For whatever reason, my brain struggles to follow an audio narrative that jumps around in point of view and in the timeline like this novel did. I struggled with this same issue when I listened to The Three Body Problem. Annihilation as an audio book was easier to listen to. It was straightforward, narrated by one character in the first person and unfolded more or less in a linear timeline (with a few memories/backstory as a part of filling out the character). That narration works well for me. I’m curious for those of you who consume a lot of audio books if you have these same struggles? Drop me a line and let me know.
AUTHORITY, by Jeff VanderMeer, A Book Review Without Spoilers.
First, A Little Data About this Book Review
- I listened to the novel via Audible and felt it was difficult to follow and a little boring, this after loving the Audible version of ANNIHILATION.
- AUTHORITY is the second book in the Southern Reach Trilogy. ANNIHILATION being the first, ACCEPTANCE is the third
- I have not yet read ACCEPTANCE, but have been told by a trusted scifi-reading friend that the trilogy is worth reading overall
The Short Review.
I Give this Book a Semi-Enthusiastic yes. Read AUTHORITY for these reasons:
- The story maintains the overall tension as introduced in the first novel.
- It may not resolve completely, but the novel reveals enough enticing details to make the reading worthwhile.
- The narrator character is the protagonist and insists on being called Control. Though I’m not fond of him, he establishes a relevant relationship to someone who has survived Area X.
- The writing itself, as is consistent with ANNIHILATION, has lovely moments.
So…if AUTHORITY was a stand alone novel, I might not write a stellar review and I would give up on reading any other VanderMeer novels, but since I loved ANNIHILATION so much, I will read on. If you’re curious about my review of the first Southern Reach novel, click here for the ANNIHILATION REVIEW
In AUTHORITY, the narrator is a male who calls himself Control. His birth name is John Rodriguez. He is the new director of the Southern Reach. In an early introduction, he insists that his colleagues call him Control. I realize the title of this novel is AUTHORITY and that the book is much about who has authority in the confusing situation that is taking place in and around Area X. This was another reason I was annoyed by John Rodriguez’s moniker. It felt like the author was trying to make me think in a certain direction and less about a person. I didn’t like that.
Control seems like a weirdo, socially. I was not fond of his narrative voice, nor his behaviors or leadership. Control does not compel me. I feel a distance from this character that I think I’m supposed to feel compassion for. Since the story is being told by him, in the first person, I can’t get away from him. I would have stopped listening had I not been told by a friend that the final book and the whole arc of the three books make sense when you finish them.
Despite me not feeling a connection to this narrator character, I can see why author, VanderMeer, changes perspective in this book. He wants the reader to receive another view into Area X. That which is mysterious and difficult to describe, much less understand in Area X, is seen from another angle in this novel. Control provides the US military/intelligence/bureaucratic angle as well as some recent history.
Given that the reader knows the content of ANNIHILATION, that Area X has consumed a number military and government expeditions, the background is helpful to the larger story.
But, for me, the main silver lining around this new narrator was that the reader finally received a physical description of the narrator and protagonist from the previous book.
“The biologist’s hair had been long and dark brown, almost black, before they’d shaved it off. She had dark, thick eyebrows, green eyes, a slight, slightly off-center nose (broken once, falling on rocks), and high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian heritage on one side of her family…”
This description does make me bummed about the filmmakers of ANNIHILATION casting the biologist for the cinematic story as a white woman (Natalie Portman) with zero (or near zero) Asian heritage. Bummed for many mixed-race actresses out there who did not get this part.
I will listen to the next book, AUTHORITY, on Audible. I hope to enjoy it more than this middle novel.
Click here to buy ANNIHILATION, Bk 1 of The Southern Reach Trilogy
Click here to buy AUTHORITY, Bk 2 of the Southern Reach Trilogy
Click here to buy ACCEPTANCE, Bk 3 of The Southern Reach Trilogy