I believe there is a serious lack of imagination in science fiction today. At least in one particular facet of the genre.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s take a look at some recent results that have come from the world of astronomy. For more than four years, the Kepler Space Telescope has been observing a star called KIC 8462852, looking for planets that might orbit it. The telescope has not merely identified a potential planet it by the tiny dip in the amount of light the star emits when the planet moves across the face of it—as seen from Earth, of course—but has actually recorded a remarkable variation in the light emitted, much more variation than could be caused by the transit of one planet. What’s caused the variation? No one really knows, but some astronomers think it could be due to a swarm of comets or other asteroidal material around the star. Or it might be might be variations in the light from the star itself. But the explanation that became the most popular, and the one the press jumped on, is the possibility that the variation is caused by the inhabitants of one or more planets around the star building a Dyson sphere, and their partially completed structure is responsible.
To this I say, nonsense. It’s possible, of course, and I don’t have any information to rule that out, but what concerns me is the lack of imagination that brought that possibility to light. If there is as civilization on one or more planets around KIC 8462852, the chances are that they would be so vastly different from ours that the possibility of a Dyson sphere might never occur to them. The concept of a Dyson sphere originated here on Earth. We’ve never seen a Dyson sphere anywhere. Why should we be so arrogant in our thinking as to ascribe it to a totally alien civilization? We see some variation in the light from a star and we automatically say “Dyson sphere.” If a civilization exists on a planet around that star, they may have other ideas, ideas that might never occur to us.
Let’s look at this from another viewpoint. I’ve been watching the older Doctor Who episodes recently, and it and other well-known sci-fi programs such as Star Wars and Star Trek have one thing in common: the aliens are overwhelmingly android in appearance. That is, they are just variations on the human anatomy. Even the aliens that supposedly came from the spaceship that crashed near Roswell, NM, are android in appearance. Green in color, but generally human. No matter where Doctor Who went, the aliens were largely humanoid. Again, extremely unlikely.
I think we have to keep in mind, both scientifically and science-fiction wise, that aliens from other planets are not going to look like us, either exactly—think of Luke Skywalker—or only vaguely, as the Roswell aliens. They’ll be wildly different in anatomy and physiology, so different, in fact, we may not even recognize them if we see them. And if they’re different in anatomy and physiology, they’ll be different in their ability to conceptualize too. A good example is H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. The creatures inside the pods that blasted London back at the turn of the 20th century were not humanoid at all, and I’m surprised more authors didn’t jump on that idea and continue the trend. I suppose it may be easier to get readers and movie viewers to identify with an alien if they’re generally human in appearance—think of the cantina scene in Star Wars-A New Hope. But each instance of that just perpetuates that (most likely) erroneous concept.
I have to admit that I’m as guilty as anyone in adopting that notion. All three of my science-fiction novels use aliens from other planets that are generally humanoid in shape and structure. I did write a novelette about two humans (from Earth) caught by aliens who were not humanoid at all, but as yet I haven’t gotten it published because it’s hard to get a story of about 22,000 words published when you haven’t published anything else in sci-fi at all.
In short, forget about running into Klingons out there. It isn’t going to happen. We need more stories about non-humanoid characters. I suppose in the movies, especially, it’s easier to get an actor to dress up in a monster costume than it is to construct a non-humanoid one and mechanize it so precisely that it looks like it could be real. Admittedly, that could be very expensive. But in books and short stories, authors aren’t bound by that limitation. The characters take shape in the reader’s minds, and that’s not limited to anything.