Tag Archives: xenology

Book Review: “Aliens and Alien Societies”

21 Mar

I just finished reading Stanley Schmidt’s book Aliens and Alien Societies: A Writer’s Guide to Creating Extraterrestrial Life Forms,  published by Writer’s Digest Books in 1995.

While the book is older, the basic concepts are valid. I wondered at first about the soundness of his overviews in the areas of biochemistry and astronomy. Then I read his chapter on language. Since my personal background is in linguistics (a master’s degree from USC), I felt competent to judge the accuracy and breadth of that overview. “Alien Language” is probably as good an introduction to the problems of human-alien communication as one can do in 15 pages. While I wish Schmidt had referenced Suzette Hayden Elgin’s Native Tongue trilogy or included examples from some of the very strangely structured Australian aboriginal and Amerindian languages, I have to give him kudos for covering the basics a sci-fi writer would need to know to not totally butcher the language issue.

I also give Schmidt bonus points for explaining why a “universal translator” is an impossibility in first contact situations.

One of my favorite features of this book is Schmidt’s use of published short stories and novels as examples to prove various points he makes. Since the book was published almost 20 years ago, many of the short stories are now available online for free, and I enjoy reading them. Here is a link to one of my favorites, “Microbe” by Joan Slonczewski: http://www.davidmswitzer.com/slonczewski/microbe2.html

In the final chapter, “A Xenologist’s Bookshelf,” Schmidt lists references that may prove helpful to aspiring science fiction writers. I will check out one that should help me calculate the “goldilocks” zone for planets circling different star types because I’m not sure I did it right for my current work-in-progress.

Because of the book’s age and the fact that the science is 20 years out of date, I don’t think I would pay the $15 Amazon suggests for a hard copy or the $10 for an e-book. I found my copy at McKay’s used bookstore for $2, and consider it a deal. If you could find this book used or at a library, I recommend picking it up, as it is definitely worth reading.