Science Fiction Tropes: Humanoid Aliens and Faster than Light Travel

By D.G. McCabe

I may or may not have mentioned on this blog that, concurrently to this project, I’ve also been working on a science fiction novel for quite some time.  Recently, I was browsing the internet, looking for a few ideas and I came across two concept that, apparently, are on the outs within the science fiction writing community.  The first is “humanoid aliens,” the second is “faster than light travel.”  I’m going address both these concepts one at a time to explain why I don’t think there is a good justification for eliminating either concept as a science fiction concept.

Humanoid Aliens

We all know the reason why Star Trek aliens look like humans – and no, not the canonical explanation put forth in Star Trek: The Next Generation – I mean the real reason.   The budget for a 1960’s TV show wasn’t exactly robust, so Gene Roddenberry and friends had to make do with what they had, which wasn’t much.  For the sake of the continuity of the series, the aliens were mostly kept humanoid.  Star Wars and other films/television series have mostly humanoid aliens, although there is far more diversity than in Star Trek.

I have read a few articles, and the comments to those articles, which find humanoid aliens to be implausible – the elements of soft science fiction and fantasy.  The justification goes that just because life evolved a certain way on Earth, doesn’t mean that life would evolve that way on other planets.  In fact, judging by what we know about our own Solar System and problems posed by the Fermi Paradox (odds are we should have encountered some aliens by now, why haven’t we?) it appears unlikely that aliens would look like us.

I take exception to stating that humanoid, sentient aliens are implausible.  First, look at the sheer number of “humanoid” animals on Earth (if we count anything that walks upright as “humanoid”).  There are all other primates, bears, kangaroos, penguins, meerkats, and prairie dogs to name a few.  “Humanoid” seems like a pretty low bar to hit when describing another animal.

Secondly, and more importantly, if we use the same standard in which we judge other science fiction concepts (hard and grounded in real science versus soft and grounded in fantasy), it follows that humanoid aliens are more plausible than not.  First, we have to assume that Earth is not that unusual or unique.  If life developed on Earth, it would likely develop on planets similar to Earth.

If life develops on Earth-like planets, it follows that it would develop in a similar fashion as on Earth.  To assume otherwise would be to say that the laws of chemistry and physics are consistent throughout the universe, but biology is “crazy” and anything can happen.  The potential for mutation is limited to what actually works in an environment.  If a planet is similar to Earth, it follows that the environment wouldn’t be so radically different that these mutations wouldn’t follow a similar path.

We then have to think about why humans are sentient and have civilization and other species, say, dolphins, do not.  The answer is basic and well known – we have hands and dolphins do not.  Other factors include our relatively long life spans compared to most animals and our adaptability to different environments.  In short, if an alien species evolved to a level of sentience on an Earth-like planet, the most logical result would be that they would generally look humanoid, if by humanoid we mean a creature with its hand free and a head on its shoulders.

Faster than Light Travel

This one is trickier from a scientific point of view.  According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, matter cannot exceed the speed of light.  The piece of matter would need infinite energy in order to do so. There are a few theories out there using wormholes and warp bubbles that would work around this, but these methods would require an amount of energy that may be impossible to generate.  In other words, it looks like we’re kind of stuck.

First of all, let’s explore why we need faster than light travel in science fiction.  Without it, you are stuck with telling stories that are: 1) mostly about humans; 2) mostly about the effects of time dilation (time moves at different speeds at different accelerations and locations); or, 3) stories about humans experiencing the effects of time dilation. Speculative scenarios involving humanity’s place in a larger universe are effectively off limits, since there is no larger universe that is practically accessible.  You need faster than light travel to enlarge the scope of the story you are trying to tell.

Granted you can tell a lot of good stories about humans, time dilation, and the effects of time dilation on humans, but why limit yourself?  Yes you would need an explanation as to why this thing exists that shouldn’t – a thing whose existence would challenge our very understanding about either general relativity and/or the production of energy. But who says there won’t be such a discovery?  In all of human history there is only one Albert Einstein and one Issac Newton after all, why not someone to come up with something that solves the problem of practical interstellar travel?  My point is that, just because we don’t know something now, or it would challenge our understanding about how the universe works, doesn’t mean that someone won’t think of it.  In conclusion, I don’t think “well that’s not how the universe works based on our current understanding of science” is a good reason to categorize all speculative fiction with solution to the faster than light travel problem as “fantasy,” as long as the solution has some grounding in reality.  After all, what’s the difference between that, and assuming that a sentient alien species can evolve on an Earth-like planet that looks absolutely nothing like what evolved that way on our planet?

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe