I’ve just finished reading Neal Asher’s Prador Moon (2006), chronologically the first story in his Polity Universe timeline, spanning 16 novels (and counting). In the novel, mankind has spread across the stars, powered by instantaneous travel (using gates called Runcibles) and AIs. The novel begins with the first direct meeting between humans and a sentient alien race, the Prador. The meeting turns out to be an ambush; the Prador demand fealty and when this is naturally refused, they open fire and start an interstellar war. The Prador are a frightening race – carnivorous, crab-like creatures between 2 and 5 meters across. While they have not developed AI tech, they are highly skilled in metallurgy; their spaceships are made of a self-repairing alloy that absorbs energy from projectiles and energy beams, which then powers their own energy weapons. They are extremely cruel and subject captured human prisoners-of-war to a variety of cruel experiments and depredations, after which they eat the surviving humans! The aggressive Prador (they frequently kill their own kind) have absolutely no redeeming qualities and it takes a huge amount of weaponry, technology, luck and smart thinking to destroy even one Prador spaceship. Likewise, in individual combat, they are well protected by their hard, outer carapace and the only sure way to kill them is to attach a mine onto their carapace and blow each one up.
It got me to thinking about other alien races from other scifi books that have posed similar level of threat to humans.
In R.M. Meluch’s fantastic (and also misogynistic and pulpy) Tour of the Merrimack series – six books published from 2005 to 2015 – the good guys are from the US of A, and are engaged in an intergalactic Cold War with the New Roman Empire (yes, you read that right). In the midst of this, humanity encounters a frightening alien species called the Hive. These tentacled aliens appear to be made of some dark amorphous goo-like substance (described by one reviewer as giant space meatballs with tentacles and teeth!). The Hive exist as multiple individuals, called Gorgons, but have a single hive mind, because of which they can communicate instantaneously with each other across light years of space. And they are nearly indestructible – the irony is they can best be killed by swords rather than by projectiles or energy weapons, so that’s what the humans use when the Hive invade their ships. The Hive are semi-sentient beings, whose only reason to live is to attack and eat other forms of life. Their survival instinct is so strong, that they can learn about the enemy’s attack strategy which makes it virtually impossible to hit them twice with the same strategy.
Marko Kloos’ Frontlines series – six novels published from 2013 to 2018 – also has a cold war going on between the USA and the Sino-Russian Alliance. But the human must put aside their hostilities when their colonies start getting attacked by a race of 80-foot tall aliens, nicknamed “Lankies” (disappointing name)’; the space infantry call them “Big Uglies”. The Lankies land on a planet, set up a giant terraforming stations that rapid fill the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and basically ‘smoke’ out the humans from the planet. The Lankies move surprisingly fast for their size and with their height and thick skin, it takes an incredible amount of concentrated firepower to kill them on the battlefield. Destroying their mile-high terraforming structures can only be done with nuclear weapons, which then makes large parts of the planet unfit for human habitation, even if they manage to flush the Lankies out…a losing proposition either way! In five years, humanity’s footprint across space has shrunk from a hundred colonies to less than seventy. Marko Kloos paints a very realistic portrait of life in the military, dealing with war and politics (and in this case, an enemy that’s almost impossible to defeat).
Robert Heinlein’s classic 1959 novel Starship Troopers tells the story of an interstellar war between humans and an alien species known as Arachnids or Bugs. The 1997 film by Paul Verhoeven is a somewhat loose adaptation; it was a bit of a box office disappointment, but has risen to cult classic status over time. The Bugs are sub-divided into different castes, and we get to see the warriors as well as the plasma bugs. The Bug attacks in the movie are truly frightening, with the warrior hordes descending in wave after wave, spearing the humans and killed only by highly concentrated large caliber automatic weapons fire.
It’s not a coincidence that the three examples above are all from the military sci-fi sub-genre. I guess you need to create a formidable enough adversary in order to justify the use of substantial firepower!
While this post is about aliens from scifi books, not movies, the most well-known and scary alien in popular culture is the Xenomorph introduced in Ridley Scott’s seminal 1977 space horror film Alien. The plot of Alien is broadly similar to a storyline from the episodic novel Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. van Vogt, which consists of four different adventures involving the crew of the Space Beagle. In the first adventure, an intelligent alien creature named Coeurl (which looks like a cat with tentacles around its neck) infiltrates the ship and kills off several crewmen one by one. The author of the novel filed a case against the film makers, who denied stealing his idea and ultimately, the two parties settled out of court. When I read the novel in the 80’s, I was immediately struck by the similarity to the film’s plot. And in fact, I found Coeurl to be a more frightening alien than the Xenomorph, because it is cunning, unlike the instinct-driven killing machine that the Xenomorph is portrayed to be.
And finally, in Peter F. Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, a chance presence of an energy-based lifeform at the exact moment of the death of a human on an isolated human colony planet accidentally opens a gap between our universe and another dimension, which contains the souls of all humans who have ever lived and died (sort of an eternal purgatory). With the opening of the gap, souls are able to cross over and ‘possess’ live humans, their intrinsic energy imbuing the physical body they possess with tremendous powers. In no time at all, the ‘possessed’ overrun the colony planet and before long are spreading across the galaxy, impervious to normal weapons. Although these are not aliens, the possessed humans in this trilogy are equally scary and unstoppable, posing an existential threat to humanity just like the above-mentioned aliens. The humans also face a moral dilemma, as killing the possessing souls can only be done by killing the host human body, an innocent life (which in turn could potentially come back as a possessing soul!!!). It ultimately requires all the human factions to band together, tap into an obscure and long-lost alien technology and exercise some esoteric quantum science to subdue the extra-dimensional/ supernatural threat and perform a mass exorcism of humanity spanning all populated worlds across the galaxy.
While aliens on TV and in the movies tend to be more well-known, virtually none of them (except the Xenomorphs from Alien and possibly the Borg from Star Trek) are shown to operate at the same scale and lethality as the Prador, The Hive, Lankies or Arachnids. If any of these stories were to be adapted to screen, we would have a whole new pantheon of sci-fi villains to be terrified of.