All Those Humanoids Out There

With all the advances in astronomy over the past quarter century, we’ve learned a lot about the universe, especially about out own galaxy, the Milky Way, and even more about the area within a few hundred light years of own home planet.  We’ve learned that there are planets orbiting other stars, stars relatively nearby in our little corner of this galaxy, and that some of them are, potentially anyway, havens for life because they could have liquid water on their surface.  If there is life out there, what does it look like?  In all probability it won’t look like us.

But if you watch science fiction shows and movies, and read science fiction books, the largest majority of aliens are humanoid in appearance, i.e., they look like us.  It’s as though we’re stuck giving aliens human characteristics and foregoing the expense and difficulty of designing aliens in other forms.  We like our aliens to look like us.  As I wrote once in a blog post on this blogsite, if I see an alien that looks like a human but just slightly modified, (like, for example, the alien that was supposed to have landed near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947) I always know it’s a fake and isn’t likely to be real.  Real life from another planet will almost certainly not look like us.  Yet we continue to portray extra-terrestrial life as humanoid.   Why is this?

I’ve come up with three reasons I believe aliens are so frequently portrayed as humanoid.  First, and this is true in movies and TV, it’s easier to dress up an actor in a humanoid costume and have him/her play a role.  Getting an actor into a non-humanoid costume would be much more expensive and time-consuming.  Easier to have it with two arms and two legs and a head with most of the sensory organs built in.  (The evolutionary process of sensory organs settling in an anterior head is known as cephalization.)  The cantina scene in the 1977 movie Star Wars: A New Hope, is a classic example.  Most of the patrons of the bar were generally humanoid.  Some were shaped a little differently, some had more hair than humans generally do, one had green, scaly skin (I think his name was Greedo, and he got blasted) and the bartender would look right at home on the streets of USA.  A bit gruff, perhaps, and annoyingly unfriendly, but he wouldn’t stand out as unusual.  Not to mention Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi . . . the list goes on.

Second, I believe it’s easier for us as readers and viewers of science fiction books and visual displays to accept an alien as humanoid.  We’re so used to humans that an alien is automatically more acceptable to us if he’s only a little bit different.  Green, perhaps, or arms that reach to the alien’s knees with fingers as long as our forearm, but generally like us.  We’ve come to accept these creatures because we’ve seen them so often.

Third, it’s easier for us science fiction writers to invent an alien that is near to human in appearance because it takes less to describe it, and we know our readers will immediately accept it.  The reader doesn’t have to work too hard to visualize it.  I have to admit that most of the aliens in my (as yet unpublished) novels and stories are humanoid, probably because it’s easier to work with them.  And if they’re human in appearance, I suspect we feel that they will be human in action and demeanor.  The more human they look, the more human they will act.  All of this simplifies writing and description.  I have submitted a novelette (around 24,000 words) for publication that uses aliens that are distinctly non-humanoid, but still they have two arms and two legs, though they haven’t gone through the process of cephalization to obtain a head filled with sensory organs.  I’m not sure how this will go over with the publisher, but it represents my attempt to break with humanoid characters, and do something different.

So, we appear to be stuck.  Aliens are humanoid much more in fictional stories on Earth than they would ever likely be in outer space.  I would like to see more distinctly non-humanoid characters in movies and books and stories.  How do you feel?

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