Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 and the taxonomy of aliens

I watched Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2 this weekend. It was a fun bit of fluff. I’m also a fan of movies that portray god-like aliens as inherently inimical to humans and evil by nature, and that therefore our purpose, if we have any at all, is to kill gods. And then there are lots of space battles with funky ’70s music and funny one-liners. Groot is adorable, but my favorite character had to be Drax.

But, I have to say, I was also distracted by the horrible science. I know, I know, this is a fantasy story based on a comic book, but I am compelled to judge.

First up, the video game-style space battles. They’re fun to watch, but come on — World War I dogfights and weapons with such high energies that you can use them to carve your way to the center of a planet? And when your ship gets hit by them it might chip the paint but otherwise just bounce off? Also, those streams of little ships in formation getting zapped by the good guys, I recognized those — I played Galaxian in my misspent youth.

Secondly, everything in this galaxy seems so cramped and close-up. “Radio” your coordinates to the galaxy at large, and in minutes hordes of space ships show up to hunt you down. Activate your doomsday device on your remote world and all of the evil death weapons start blossoming simultaneously on worlds separated by a hundred thousand light years. It’s a cartoon, but I miss the idea of the vastness of the universe.

My biggest gripe, though, is with the lazy biology. All these alien races from the far-flung corners of the galaxy, and mostly what they are is humans with different colors of body paint. This is less like a congerie of aliens and more like Burning Man costumery, only with less nudity.

But really, the movie was good mindless fun and I’ll see it again. I confess, though, in slow moments I was thinking about a SF taxonomy of alien universes. And I sort of assembled a preliminary draft in my head, which I’ve now set down in bits on the interweb. Basically I looked at these aliens and thought about how long ago these creatures would have hypothetically shared a common ancestor with Earth humans as a measure of how far out of the box the creators were thinking. The answer is usually not far at all — most aliens are Weird Americans In Space.

Here’s my classification scheme. Please do argue with it.

I. Every alien is human. They might have latex bumps on their forehead or fluorescent purple skin, but any Earth-type person is capable of breeding with them. Also, they tend to conveniently speak English.

These stories cannot comprehend the idea of a different species, and typically portray every distant alien world as having diverged from American culture roughly 100 years before.

II. Every alien is humanoid. No, you can’t mate with them, and probably don’t want to. They don’t speak English, at least, but they do have a vocal apparatus that produces sounds of the same type and range as ours, with concepts that are easily translatable.

These aliens are basically members of our genus, possibly family, and divergence occurred sometime in the Cenezoic, typically within a million years.

III. Every alien is a vertebrate. They have a head, paired eyes, jaws, a small number of limbs. They may be based on Earthly reptiles, for instance, but are often strangely distorted into a bipedal form; faces tend to be flattened and made expressive to human eyes.

Divergence is at the level of class/order, representing maybe 100 million years of evolution.

IVa. Every alien is a member of a terrestrial phylum. One type might be insectoid, another squid-like, another reptilian. Every form fits into a familiar type, although again usually the main characters will be humanoid.

Divergence at the level of the phylum implies maybe 500 million years of independent evolution.

For an interesting take on this category, Russell Powell points out that we seem to constrain ourselves to fixed sets of morphological modules that are only coupled by evolutionary contingencies, so we shouldn’t expect to see Type IVa aliens.

IVb. Every alien is a chimera with characteristics of multiple phyla. Put insectile compound eyes on the face of a humanoid; tentacles on your 4-legged vertebrate iguanoid.

The components might be separated by 500 million years of evolution, but the combination implies some kind of anastomosing lineage with fusion of wildly different species. This doesn’t happen.

V. Every alien clearly has a completely unique evolutionary history and is not in any way related to any Earthly form. There may be some convergence in general form — they may have legs, for instance, for locomotion — but they are completely different in detail — different pattern of joints, for instance, and they don’t necessarily terminate in a radial array of digits.

These represent billions of years of independent evolution from a different starting point.

Aliens like this don’t exist in movies, because they’d be visually disturbing. You know how some people freak out at the sight of spiders? It would be like that for the entire audience, who’d be struggling to interpret what the creature is doing and trying to fit it into a threat/non-threat category. You occasionally find them in science fiction novels, where the author doesn’t have to show you every distressing detail in every scene.

How about some examples?

The Star Trek universe is Type I across the board, unrelentingly vanilla. They even have a totally bullshit rationalization, that all those species are related. Also, the idea that two species could have radically different internal anatomy and physiology (green blood and two hearts in one, red blood and one heart in another) yet still look superficially similar and be able to interbreed is painfully stupid.

Speaking of painfully stupid, James Cameron’s Avatar managed to have a Type I main species (they were just big, blue, long-limbed people) with a visually well-developed background fauna with unique biological characteristics that would never in a billion years have produced the Na’vi.

The Star Wars is primarily Type I; almost all the main characters are indistinguishable from Homo sapiens, but there are a few exceptions. Chewbacca is Type II; a few of the background characters, like Admiral Ackbar or Jabba the Hut are type III.

Babylon 5 is an interesting case. Once again, it’s primarily Type I — this is simply a necessity to allow human audiences to identify with the cast. So you have Earth humans plus Centauri, Minbari, and Narn that are basically Type I humans with varying degrees of latex appliances. But then you also have the Shadows, who are Type IVa insect-like aliens, and the Vorlons are the very rare Type V, conveniently hidden away in strange-looking environment suits so you don’t have to see them…and the creators don’t have to portray a truly alien species.

The heptapod aliens in Arrival are space-faring octopuses, putting them squarely in the Type IVa category.

For the horror fans, the Alien xenomorph is Type III. It’s not that alien, sorry. It really relies on its similarity to familiar predatory morphologies to provide the scares. I just wish Cameron would stop fucking the story up with his totally bogus bad evolutionary biology.

The Predator from those movies is Type II. Those are some impressively elaborate mouthparts glued on, but it really is just a standard humanoid with some strange facial prosthetics.

As for the Guardians of the Galaxy series, it’s once again a biologically boring Type I universe where the primary species delineator is, distressingly, skin color. The colors tend to be Day-Glo hues of blues and greens and purples and oranges and gold, and fortunately no one seems to be judging people by the color of their skin, but it’s otherwise completely retro, with aliens that are only a shade different from what we got in Star Trek.

And that’s OK. These movies are for the entertainment of Earth humans, not thought-exercises in alien evolution for the delectation of freakish biologists. Don’t let my obsessions ruin what is definitely a fun movie for you.

One godless thumb up for god-murder, one primate thumb up for humor and action, one chitin-sheathed mucus-oozing appendage down for unimaginative biology, one electromagnetic flux capacitor down for bad physics, one protruding ciliated sensory apparatus emitting fluctuating phase fields radially for zgrarrl!(ptang). Obey the digits that correspond best to your cognitive and perceptual biases.


  1. mykroft says

    I suppose the Horta (Star Trek old series, sentient silicon based life form) would be type V, but not intrinsically scary.

  2. says

    I’d love to see someone try to make a movie out of the Sector General novels. They’d never get it right.

  3. Dunc says

    Farscape did better than most, including having a a weird multi-limbed insectoid symbiotically joined to a gigantic living spaceship as a principle character… Is that Type IVa or Type V?

  4. Stardrake says

    The roleplaying game TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE by Mike Pondsmith actually had a similar system (with less biological rigor, naturally). There were four types in it. Humans (standard Earth humans). Near Humans (your Type 1–funny ears, foreheads, skin colors, etc–but can easily pass for human). Not Very Near Humans (can maybe pass for a human in a dark alley with a big trench coat–Predators, Wookiees, etc.). Real Weirdie–just ain’t gonna pass for human (Daleks, Shadows, hyper-intelligent shades of the color blue, Kaiju, etc.). The game’s premise was that the aliens are here–and in our high schools. Apparently only Earth developed teen culture, so Earth is the coolest planet in the galaxy. It’s a silly game, but fun.

  5. Larry says

    I didn’t see the original until recently when it was being shown on endless loop on one of the cable stations. It was watchable, humorous, had a decent cast, and a silly plot but it was enjoyable. Enjoyable enough such that I’ll probably go to the theater to see the second one once the hype has died down.

    Regarding the biology of sci-fi aliens, I’ve always wondered if they need to pee and/or poop. For some reason, these activities are never mentioned or referred to so the question does arise. If they do, do they have similar waste elimination organs as humans? If not, what other mechanisms are there for both humanoid types and the Jabba-the-Hut creatures?

  6. birgerjohansson says

    The Prador in the books by Neal Asher are quite convincing crab-like monsters (type IV).
    Asher even has convincing biological explanations for why the Prador are “obligate assholes”.
    — — —
    Ha! I found a type III monster, sub-phylum Conservativae
    “All cats are Thatcherites, confirm experts”
    Cat Tom Logan said: “I am in favour of privatising the NHS because I want most of you to die.”

  7. cherbear says

    I’ve always tried thinking of this as a what-if game. If we did find life on an ice bound planet with a liquid ocean underneath and a chemical source of energy, what would that be like? (looking at you Enceladus)

  8. anchor says

    Personally, I’d love to see ‘distressing’ alien anatomies and behaviors that seriously explored plausible realistic possibilities, and I’d be willing to wager such a treatment would have superior box office performance too.

  9. says

    I shared this view even long before I ever believed evolution! Just from looking at the variety on earth, I thought there would have to be more variety elsewhere, I guess?

    And I was very annoyed by what I called “Star Trek Aliens”, too boring. I loved some of the variety that Star Wars had to offer, and I loved the Zerg from Starcraft, stuff like that.

    Not just aliens though, even fantasy things like zombies and orcs and elves. I still find them too boring. Dragons are good, so are Argonians from Morrowind.

  10. strangerinastrangeland says

    For some good type V aliens I can recommend C. J. Cherryh’s “Chanur” books. Ok, there are some type IVa & b (including the main characters) but the most interesting ones are true type Vs. Half of the time people (and I don´t mean humans, there is only one involved) are trying to figure out what the other species might do and why, with no real way to communicate and fully aware that a wrong assumption might have disastrous consequences. Very entertaining!
    Cherryh also has some other books with well described alien aliens, 40000 in Gehenna & Serpent´s Reach for example.

  11. cherbear says

    Ok. I remember reading a book called “Barlowe’s guide to Extraterrestrials” when I was a yute. It was really interesting as some of the aliens would probably be… type V maybe? Not sure if anyone else has seen this book. I loved it, and one of the alien illustrations looked a lot like Ian Banks Homulan(?) from the Culture series. Anyhow, I would like to hear others opinions on this book.

  12. Kandosii says

    Oh dear. I really should resist the urge to spew Star Wars trivia, but I just can’t.

    Star Wars definitely has a contingent of IVa or IVb going on, or even V. These are particularly clustered in the original movie’s Cantina scene and in Jabba’s Palace, though I wish we saw them more. Most obvious among them are the dianoga in the trash compactor and the sarlacc, but there are others. Of special note are the Type V Wol Cabbashite (A small, sapient invertebrate stuck to the ceiling, who attempts to initiate communication by attempting to lick C-3PO), Type IVa Riorian (worm-like bodies with exoskeletal pincers at the midsection and green tufts of hair, with Jabba’s accountant included among their number), and Type IVb Lamproid (a hand puppet with many mouthparts that I will fully admit to being terrified by as a child. The Extended Universe materials went on to declare the one in the movie was in a relationship with the wolfman at her table.).

    There is one that I’m not sure what category to put it in, because it’s so obviously a person in a great big lumpy mask, but that mask is so weird that it’s unmistakably not inspired by the terrestrial: Vuvrians, who have one difficult to see appearance in the original movie, have asymmetrical heads with as many as twelve eyes and two drooping antennae, seemingly placed at random intervals. It’s a startling look, and sadly there isn’t a huge amount about them in the Extended Universe. Despite the biological implausibility of their configuration, it’s got great character, as do the others I listed above.

    Of course the main cast is depressingly human in spite of all the creativity shown around them, but I will give the movies some points for making a three-legged, warbling trashcan a beloved character.

  13. felicis says

    Cherbear @#15 – I remember Barlowe’s! I had a copy as a kid… From one of those book clubs, I think. I see you beat me to Banks – the Culture (and “The Algebraist”) are definitely in category V – sapient life is portrayed every which way in those books!

  14. says

    @15, cherbear

    When I was young I liked the Extraterrestrials: A Field Guide for Earthlings, among others.

    Which reminds me, when you google pictures for it, one of the pictures that comes up is by abiogenesis on Deviantart but the link goes to…a post by PZ on scienceblogs! Back before I started reading Pharyngula, I’m pretty sure I encountered that page and just moved on, unaware that fate would bring me back one day :P

  15. doublereed says

    The video game Masters of Orion (which is kind of like Civilization but in Spaaaaace) has a variety of alien races which is Type IV or V. They’ve got fancy humanoids like the telepathic humans. They’ve got other animal-humanoid variants like insectoids, birdpeople, and lizardpeople. They’ve also got the Trilarians who are essentially squidpeople.

    There’s also the Silicoids, creatures made up of rock and crystal, and who are supposed to be so repulsive to other races that they have barriers to diplomacy.

  16. Snarki, child of Loki says

    If you want something that is REALLY ALIEN, just look at a Mantis Shrimp.

  17. doublereed says

    Judging by your criteria, I’d just say it’s Type IV as the Silicoids, along with the other races, are still relatively humanoid in features (although they look like they’re missing a head).

  18. doublereed says

    How do cyborgs and the like fit into this Taxonomy? What are the Daleks, for instance?

  19. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    I take a “middle ground” on the what they are is humans with different colors of body paint. issue.
    The movie is a story “about” the events portrayed. The story is presented by actors representing the various creatures. So they don the body paint and other accoutrements to tell us, visually, what they are representing.
    The “middle ground” is still accepting the story as “real” without having to question the presence of the camera at these events. The film we watch is simply a dramatic recreation, not a live action newsreel of the actual event.
    etc. etc. blah blah blah
    that’s my form of suspension of disbelief

  20. lakitha tolbert says

    greenspine & cherbear (15/21): I made a point of collecting as many of Barlowe’s books as possible. I managed to get my hands both of those, and I love them.. Barlowe also has a website (which he hasn’t updated in some time), but the books can probably be bought there. Nowadays he mostly works on movies. If you’ve seen Pacific Rim, or Hellboy I & II, he did a lot of work on the creatures for those movies.

    I’m partial to the aliens from the novel Heaven by Ian Stewart, which features sentient coral reefs, with intelligent, tool using,mobile polyps

  21. lotharloo says

    Sci-fi is full of bullshit biology. My favorite example is from the video game Mass Effect that possibly has the dumbest set of races I have ever seen. Case in point: Asari

    A mono-gender race, the asari are distinctly feminine in appearance and possess maternal instincts. Their unique physiology, expressed in a millennium-long lifespan and the ability to reproduce with a partner of any gender or species…

    And the whole point of having them is that the player has some “hot chicks” to look at.

  22. says

    By the way, good taxonomy, makes important distinctions! I admit that I rarely actually aim for type V, and most of my creations seem like vertebrates.

  23. Pierce R. Butler says

    strangerinastrangeland @ # 13: … C. J. Cherryh’s “Chanur” books

    For quite a while, Cherryh did a string of Type IVa books about aliens based on terrestrial species – the Chanur books featured lionlike spacers coping with (mostly) chimpoid and rattish antagonists, for instance.

    One of my favorites was Cuckoo’s Egg, centered on a wolf-like sort-of samurai tasked with raising a human baby.

    For the last decade or so, Cherryh has (sfaik) written a dozen or so books dealing exclusively with one human on a world of large humanoids with subtle differences from Earthlings; I for one eagerly await her decision to expand her scope again.

    Our esteemed host needs a Type VI (or at least V+) category for the a-biological aliens, such as Hoyle’s and Tiptree’s intelligent nebulae, Stapledon’s & Herbert’s talking stars, etc.

  24. kevskos says

    Brian Herbert;s “Sudanna, Sudanna” has a great Alien. Roughly bipedal but no eyes, nose or ears but a sensory bar. Weird story but centers around their culture and outliers of their culture. And their heads can blow of and they have six minutes or so to find their head.

  25. ld7412 says

    China Mieville’s Arieka in Embassytown are probably type 4, maybe type 5, since he only provides partial descriptions of features.
    He describes the confusion caused by differences in base level conceptual frameworks. It would be a challenge to turn it into a film.

    Star Trek: NG had at least one non-humanoid creature. In “Home Soil”, there’s a crystalline life form. The episode doesn’t pull it off well, which shows the difficultly of portraying a complex concept without the shorthand of human physiology/ culture.

  26. monad says

    I think the Alien xenomorph is more type IVa or IVb, with lots of arthropod features. The adults do end up very human in shape. But they still have things like a queen with a distended abdomen, beeswax, and internal parasitism, and at least the made the larvae like giant fish lice.

    You could also add a type IIIb: every alien is a chimera of multiple vertebrate classes. That’s in case of Greek mythology. :)

  27. brett says

    Do the friendly aliens from Galaxy Quest in their undisguised forms count as Type IV or Type V? There’s some resemblance to earth-like organisms, but the whole “mound of tentacles capped by a skull with forward-facing eyes” seems quite different.

    In any case, I wish they’d at least make the Type I aliens highly different in how they perceive the world and understand things culturally even if they look superficially similar to humans for production reasons. Instead they tend towards one-culture alien races, where the one-culture is an almost caricatured version of a culture from back on Earth (see The Predator sequels).

  28. multitool says

    Why not type IVB chimeras?

    Why can’t creatures with bones also have compound eyes, if they evolved on a completely different planet? Sounds plausible for the Cambrian explosion.

    Also, if we saw real type V aliens, our brains would probably force them into some familiar template rather than see them for what they are.

  29. strangerinastrangeland says

    Pierce R. Butler @ 32:

    The lion/chimp/rat-crocodile type IV species in the Chanur books are the main protagonists but I found the other four mentioned species, all clearly type V, much more interesting. The Knnn for example were a “methane breathing species, multi-legged tangles of wiry black hair” and none of the other species could really communicate with them or understood why they were doing the things they did.

    Cherryh’s “Foreigner” Series that you mentioned, and which she mainly published in the previous years, is fine in my opinion, but lacks the real “alien” aspect for me. The atevi are always mentioned as being different from humans but she is not selling this aspect to me well enough- they are “only” type II. I am currently reading the latest book of the series (available in paperback) called “Visitor” which has a third alien species at its topic, so I hope she goes back here to old form.

    But thinking about Cherryh´s books, which put an emphasis on different psychology among aliens, the classification system of our esteemed host is based purely on morphology. As we are talking about intelligent species here, maybe the alien psychology / culture needs to be added? Behaviour and culture of aliens in films, books, games etc. also often follows a boring and simple system that is too similar to humans, e.g. all Klingons are honorable warriors (as humans understand honor), all Ferengi are greedy (for material wealth, like humans) and so on. So, like type I on a cultural / psychological level.

  30. microraptor says

    I did like the joke that despite both looking attractive to humans, Drax and Mantis found each other physically repulsive.

  31. mykroft says

    Sheckley and Ellison wrote a story “I See A Man Sitting In A Chair, and the Chair is Biting His Leg”, in which some form of algae in the ocean becomes sentient. It was able to aggregate and assume any shape. In that case, morphology becomes irrelevant. Type VI?

  32. Matt says

    Trying to think of some Type V’s in written fiction. The aliens in Peter Watts’s Blindsight are incomprehensible in form, motivation, and characteristics. Some of the alien menagerie in Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee sequence surely qualifies. Alastair Reynolds often has artifacts (though rarely direct contact) from incomprehensible alien species in his novels.

    Would the Blob be a Type V?

    The uplifted arthropods in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time represent an interesting example of a Type IVa.

    Also, Cameron was only ever responsible for one Alien film–my favorite of the bunch. Ridley Scott is the one screwing it up.

  33. stwriley says

    John Scalzi actually does a pretty good job of pushing the Type IVa-V line in the Old Man’s War universe. He does tend to have a fair number of bipeds (and other peds) but makes it very clear in the descriptions of many of the aliens that his characters encounter (in a very crowded universe of life) are only approximately like Earth-life, and only in the eyes of the humans who see them and attempt to categorize them by what’s familiar to them. He also stresses the whole “unique biology” angle of every world, where worlds with biology even chemically similar to Earth are extremely rare and most places are different enough that they must be completely terraformed for humans to live there at all (and this is true of all the other intelligent races too.) He pushes it about as far as you can and still have a universe where species are able to find ways to communicate and interact, albeit not without both difficulty and incessant conflict.

  34. says

    Ridley Scott, not Cameron, has been repeatedly tinkering with the biology of the Aliens. Cameron only did Aliens. So he’s responsible for making them part of a hive with a queen, but that’s about where it ends.

    A lot of the stupid stuff comes from a bunch of other directors and screenwriters. The seeds of Aliens showing host morphology characteristics came from Alien 3, which was Fincher, then the whole terrible cloning/hybrid stuff in Resurrection (Jeunet and Whedon), and then it’s gets super-stupid with Alien V Predator and PredAliens and all that garbage, and THEN it comes back around to Ridley Scott who started re-tinkering with biology with the Engineers and black goo and all sorts of crazy bullcrap.

  35. says

    In the Guardians movie, the bad guy is a god and could appear as anything it wished yet shows up in the form of a human brain? That had to be for conservatives who think humans are “gods” of the earth to what they wish.

    I also would have loved the movie more if David Hasselhof had been the Star Lord’s dad instead of Kurt Russel

  36. Katie Anderson says

    Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky is a good example of Type V in written fiction.

    The humans refer to them as “spiders” but it’s also pointed out that it’s become a generic term for bug-like things on planets. The scenes with them describe their actions in very anthropomorphic ways that make it easier to relate to them and their motivations, but you realize throughout the story how different they really are. Eventually the reasoning behind writing them in human terms becomes an interesting plot point.

  37. michaelwbusch says

    Caine @ 5: “I’d love to see someone try to make a movie out of the Sector General novels.”

    Endorsed for pacifist space opera medical procedurals with interestingly-alien aliens. But when I re-read the Sector General series a few years ago, James White’s pervasive sexism and racism regarding the human characters in the series was _really_ grating. That should be fixed in an adaptation.

    Larry @ 8 and others later:

    Two other works that address waste elimination / disposal for aliens, in passing: Sector General and Babylon 5.

    In Sector General, there are multiple different bathrooms in just the oxygen-breathing water-as-liquid sections of the many-different-lifeforms hospital; to accommodate all of the different ways the staff and patients get rid of waste. There’s one group that sheds waste products into the surrounding atmosphere from their skins, if I remember right; which presumably means very effective air filtering and surface cleaning is needed to keep the hospital clean.

    In Babylon 5, most of the aliens are humans-with-rubber-foreheads, as PZ wrote. The Type 1 and Type 2 aliens use human-like toilets and urinals – except for the pak’ma’ra, who eat only carrion. They get separate facilities; but that may simply be due to others objecting to the smells of their waste, rather than any differences in the appliances.

  38. Callinectes says

    The Thing was about as Type V as you can get.

    The Hoovooloo from THHGTTG must be the previously proposed Type VI (a hyper-intelligent shade of the colour blue, possibly a reference to Lovecraft’s The Color Out of Space)

  39. ShowMetheData says

    A friend in mine invented a live 4X strategy game with self-created species we could use.
    I played a race of giant amoeboids who ran around in motorized petri dishes

  40. auraboy says

    H.R.Giger suggested the ‘Xenomorph’ of Alien wasn’t strictly an alien at all. Originally Scott agreed with him. It was a biomechanical weapon system that developed from the host as a chimera adapted to the environment/instincts of the principal target species. Hence the actual alien in the chair had much larger ‘chestburster’ wounds as the weapon developed quite differently in its biology.

  41. vole says

    Douglas Adams mentions in passing (a couple of times I think) an alien that is a superintelligent shade of the colour blue. I’m claiming a VI for that. Maybe a VII.

  42. says

    The Na’vi in Avatar’s Physiology is implausible like a lot of other fictional aliens. The large eyes remind me of lemurs but apparently, they are considered humanoid in appearance.
    Despite that, they may need a new category IVc because they don’t reproduce with DNA and don’t use RNA to make proteins.

    “The Na’vi cell nucleus does not use nucleic acids to encode genetic information. Therefore, their genetic makeup is not considered to be DNA (thus they most likely do not utilize RNA in the synthesis of proteins.”

    So that is billions of years of a split with life on Earth.

    However, the avatars that humans inhabit to live among them are said to be 5 toed rather than 4 toed because of mixing of genetic information. So they must have some compatible system on some level. Which sounds like horsefeathers because what if there are only certain chemical compounds within all the elements that produce organic compounds? Is carbon indispensable and are there only the known amino acids that make up life and is that universal?

    A genetically engineered introduced species? They have some differences with some of the native large fauna like they don’t have two pairs of eyes.

    Type V should also include aliens that evolved convergent traits independently. Wouldn’t you expect to find certain karyotypes like the rat form on Earth that makes a kangaroo rat not actually a rat. Also, ichthyosaurs and dolphins a marine reptile and marine mammal with a similar form.

    Certain niches form similar shapes. So the Na’vi being arboreal (though the trees may just share a form with Terran trees) possibly evolved a convergent form.

  43. says

    Jabba the Hutt is definitely a vertebrate. Two eyes, two nostrils, a mouth, a tongue, two arms – there’s nothing slug-like about him.

    Clearly you need to work on a deeper appreciation of molluscan morphology.

  44. says

    One last quibble with Type II.

    There is a distinct difference or should be between humanoid and hominid.

    Humanoids are human-like and the term could be used to differentiate them from close relatives of our Genus the Hominids.

    Humanoids can be totally unrelated because of convergent evolution on a different planet from a totally unrelated species. They could be Type V. Though that is a boring piece of science fiction I suppose.

  45. says

    I’m surprised no one mentioned the Medusans from original series Star Trek. They were non-corporeal, and their appearance was such that viewing them would cause most species to go mad. Space: 1999 had a similar plot in “The Immunity Syndrome,” where an alien’s attempt to contact Moonbase Alpha’s landing party causes several members to become irrational.

    Most of Space: 1999’s aliens were humans of some sort, including one group that breathed chlorine but were apparently otherwise human. (It’s possible they’re all descendants of a race of humans called Arkadians, who we learn in “The Testament of Arkadia” visited Earth tens of thousands of years ago.) The ones that weren’t were the kind that could be played by stuntmen in rubber monster costumes. A notable exception was the lethal tentacle thing in “Dragon’s Domain.” We never seen the aliens from planet Ariel in “The Last Sunset,” so it’s possible they’re not human either.

    Stargate: SG1 came up with a quite reasonable explanation for humans being everywhere in space, they were taken as slaves in ancient times by the parasitic Goa’uld. Unfortunately they then dropped the ball by introducing human looking aliens that weren’t descended from Goa’uld slave colonies, including the Nox and the Ancients.

  46. michaelwbusch says

    timgueguen @58: “including one group that breathed chlorine but were apparently otherwise human”

    As a planetary astronomer, chlorine-breathing fictional aliens bother me. Ignoring for the moment just how noxious chlorine gas is (although oxygen gas is plenty reactive), chlorine is _very_ rare in the universe. There’s less than one-tenth-thousandth as much of it as there is oxygen or carbon, because of how nuclear fusion in stars works. That makes it seem a poor choice for a primary ingredient in a biochemistry.

  47. shadow says


    I have that book. It is interesting (Hoyle’s “Black Cloud”) and “Mother” are examples of what may be Type V.

    I always looked at TV and movie portrayals of aliens as limited to what they could get actors/actresses into. Star Trek also had the Space Amoeba, several cloud/energy creatures but those were represented by a, for want of a better term, ‘light show’. Then again, CGI wasn’t available in the Original series (or “Lost in Space”, “Space 1999”, etc.).

  48. magistramarla says

    I think that Dr. Who does a good job of introducing a variety of different (and often spooky) aliens. The most recent episode had bug-like aliens (Type IVa) which lived in the wood floors, walls, etc. of a spooky old house and fed upon hapless residents.
    Dr. Who episodes have a knack for making common things spooky.
    There is now a spin-off called “Class” that follows an above-mentioned idea that Earth teens are the coolest and therefore are visited by aliens. There are Type I teen aliens who are fitting in at the high school, but some of the aliens that come through the rift to attack the teens are pretty creative.

  49. magistramarla says

    BTW – Loved Guardians of the Galaxy, vol 2. We took a seven-year-old grandson with us and had a wonderful time.
    cadfile @47 – I disagree with you. I think that Kurt Russell was perfect as Starlord’s father. He seemed to be having a wonderful time with the part, too.

  50. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says


    Examples of non-humanoid aliens and indeed public waste facilities (and indeed birthing facilities) show up in Diane Duane’s Young Wizard series.

    I admit though that it is much easier to have human actors doing human roles, it’s only in the last decade or so that CGI has allowed for non-humanoid characters to be played plausibly. Of course BBC’s Doctor who as already mentioned has been doing so for a fair amount of time even with shaky effects. I wonder if we’ll ever see Alpha Centauri again.

  51. Ben says

    PZ, I disagree about Star Trek. The Changelings, the primary villain race of Deep Space Nine, are Type V, even though they spend most of their time onscreen in the Form of Type I.

  52. John Small Berries says

    In addition to the Horta, Medusans, giant space amoeba, and the numerous pure energy beings already mentioned, Star Trek (the original series) also had the extragalactic aliens in “Catspaw”, whose true forms we caught a glimpse of in the end; the (also extragalactic) Kelvans in “By Any Other Name”, whose true forms we did not manage to see; the Excalbians (the other silicon-based life form) in “The Savage Curtain”; the eponymous aliens from “The Tholian Web”; and possibly the aliens who sent Gary Seven to Earth in “Assignment: Earth”, though at least one of the forms his handler took was illusory.

    (And that’s just counting the demonstrably sentient species; not the tribbles, giant space amoeba, or the flying fried eggs from “Operation: Annihilate”.)

  53. microraptor says

    Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD @64:

    No, we could do non-humanoid characters prior to the rise of cheap CGI, it just required good puppetry to do so (Pilot from Farscape being a good example).

  54. methuseus says

    @timgueguen #58:

    Stargate: SG1 came up with a quite reasonable explanation for humans being everywhere in space, they were taken as slaves in ancient times by the parasitic Goa’uld. Unfortunately they then dropped the ball by introducing human looking aliens that weren’t descended from Goa’uld slave colonies, including the Nox and the Ancients.

    Didn’t they handwave the issue of the Ancients looking like human because they (we) are a seed species created by the Ancients? The Asgard are humanoid, too, though. I don;t remember much about the Furlings, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were humanoid.

  55. says

    Someone mentioned the Teenagers from Outer Space (TFOS) alien scale- is it safe to mention that, within the game, the slang term for a “real weirdie” was “Squid”?

    I know of one person in that game who had a PC who really *was* a squid, mainly so he could play a Real Weirdie who wasn’t an alien.

  56. Anton Mates says

    Following up on John Small Berries, here are some non-humanish aliens from Star Trek after the original series.

    ST: The Next Generation had the Chalnoth for Type II humanoids, and the neural parasites from “Conspiracy” were Type IV or V. There were silicon-based lifeforms: the Sheliak, and the “microbrains” (who described humans as “ugly giant-bags of mostly water”). There were several giant space critters: the Crystalline Entity, Gomtuu (the Tin Man), and those energy-sucking space whale things that latched on to the Enterprise once.

    There were assorted swirly energy/gas beings like the Paxans and the Calamarain, and the “two-dimensional lifeforms” that lived inside a cosmic string. (Never quite understood why they weren’t one-dimensional.) And there was Armus, that evil tar monster what killed Tasha Yar, although he wasn’t naturally evolved.

    ST: Deep Space Nine didn’t have many non-humanoids onscreen, possibly because it was more about politics and less about exploration.. But the Changelings were the main antagonists, as Ben notes, and the Bajoran wormhole aliens were important throughout the series. The Jem’hadar, the Letheans and Lurians probably count as Type II humanoids.

    ST: Voyager went to town on the CGI, so they had lots of extremely non-humanoid species that weren’t just glowing rocks or swirly energy or a puddle of goop. Species 8472 had the biggest role as the nemesis of the Borg, but there were also the Nacene, the Ba’neth, Fennim and Bevvox from the Think Tank, some more space whaley critters, and that “cytoplasmic lifeform” who used Torres as a life-support device. More traditional swirly and goopy aliens included the Silver Blood, the solar-system-sized “nucleogenic cloud beings,” and the intelligent spatial distortion ring. The Hirogen were Type II humanoids.

    ST: Enterprise, I don’t know very well, but the Xindi were the main antagonists and they were a collective of five species, including non-humanoid Aquatic and Insectoid species. The Arboreals were Type II humanoid, the Reptilians were Type II or Type III.

  57. birgerjohansson says

    A British SF TV series for teenagers (ca 1970) -I think it was named “Object Z”- had aquatic aliens that looked like huge butterflies when swimming in the ocean.
    One of the first TV attempts to go beyond the ordinary morphologies.

    I also enjoyed the book Expedition – alas, it was stolen and the few available copies are quite expensive.

    A TV CGI “documentary” about alien species on a planet (ca 2010, I forgot the name) seemed based on Barlowe’s ideas, possibly with input from John S. Lewis, professor emeritus at Arizona.

  58. gijoel says

    I have to admit I almost got and shouted, “Since when do plant have a cardiovascular system.” In the first five minutes of the movie no less.

  59. stwriley says

    @keithb #61,

    Triffids aren’t aliens in the original Wyndham novel. They are definitely Earth-life, though the speculation on them by the protagonist holds that they were bio-engineered in secret in the USSR. Bill Masen (the protagonist) is a biologist who worked with triffids before the disaster and is clear that they have a terrestrial origin and are biologically of Earth. Even the “meteor shower” that causes the mass blindness of everyone who observes it and starts the book’s apocalypse is speculated to be an event of terrestrial origin, with Masen believing that it was an orbital weapons system gone wrong.

  60. Saganite, a haunter of demons says

    I like how it works in Stargate, although that whole bit about the Ancients from the show is quite a mess. Still, in the movie, the “aliens” were humans who were abducted by non-human aliens. They spent quite a bit of the movie talking about their language, a further evolved form of ancient Egyptian and even had the characters learn each others languages. In the show, they kind of messed it up by having everybody talk English with a rare “alien” word thrown in, but I pretended that they were talking ancient Egyptian while off base and that it was simply in English for the viewers’ convenience. As for actual alien creatures, the show’s primary antagonist was a sort of worm parasite species rather than humanoid, the Ancients were a previous civilization of humans who ended up interbreeding with our ancestors when they fled their realms and let their society crumble. There are a few humanoid aliens, though, such as the Roswell greys making an appearance and a different host for the worm parasite species, but other than that they had a nice variety of aliens, I think, from crystals to bugs to energy clouds (hello, Star Trek) to replicating robots and so on. I guess it makes it easy to avoid having a ton of human-like aliens when you can simply have humans as the “aliens” directly. Hell, even the worm parasites were mostly simply played by humans, seeing as they used them as their unwilling (or, in some cases, willing) hosts.

  61. andrewkiener says

    First, want to second an earlier call-out for mieville’s Embassytown as an interesting look at the implications of truly alien language and thought patterns. Second, since no one has mentioned it yet, David Brin came up with some pretty great type V’s in the Uplift books.

  62. Rob Grigjanis says

    Saganite @75:

    They spent quite a bit of the movie talking about their language, a further evolved form of ancient Egyptian…

    The cultures of Terran origin weren’t just Egyptian. There were Norse (two of them), Greek, Celtic (again, two of those), Salish, Mongol, and so on as well. That they all spoke English required a major suspension of disbelief, but I didn’t mind. Maybe my favourite SF show after Babylon 5.

  63. cartomancer says

    Donald Trump is clearly a hybrid between a type III (the main host – a kind of bipedal blobfish with its skin painted orange) and a type IV (a sentient sea slug).

  64. cartomancer says

    I meant symbiotic relatonship of course. And that should probably be “barely sentient”. Can a creature count as sentient if it has no sense of self-awareness at all?

  65. tonyrfgo says

    I once toyed with the idea of a story which had an alien which looked like “a Gaines burger, slightly turned.”