Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Favorite Alien

When a science fiction novelist—or the creators of a SF TV show or movie—populates the galaxy with various alien species, the success of his creative endeavor depends in part on just how cool his aliens are. And there are a lot of cool ones out there.

Star Wars (though that actually isn’t OUR galaxy) has Wookies, Hutts, Rancors and a plethora of other cool aliens. Star Trek has Vulcans, Klingons and Romulans. Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League future history has dozens of nifty alien species. (Anderson had a particular talent for building internally logical alien civilizations based on their biology and environment.)

I’d have a hard time picking my absolute favorite science fiction universe. But I think I can name an absolute favorite alien species. For that, we go to Larry Niven’s future history that includes the classic novel Ringworld. My favorite aliens are the Puppeteers.

The picture above shows you that they are a pretty bizarre looking bunch. They’re called Puppeteers by humans because the first human who saw one described them as headless, three-legged centaurs with two Cecil the Sea-Sick Sea Serpent puppets on its arm.

A puppeteer manipulates and handles things with its mouths, where knobs work like fingers. That hump between its necks houses the brain. And, boy, do they have brains!

They’re the smartest species in the galaxy and get rich selling transparent and nigh-indestructible space ship hulls to just about everyone else.

But it’s neither their appearance nor their intelligence that make them my favorite aliens. It’s the fact that they are all cowards.

Every puppeteer is a coward. Survival—both as individuals and as a species—is the prime motivation of every single one of them. They don’t do anything without making sure it’s absolutely safe. Their leader is referred to as the Hindmost.

And this is normal for them. In fact, a puppeteer who shows physical courage is not only acting immorally, but is also likely insane.

This trait gives them a rather strange (at least from a human point-of-view) moral code, which includes freely using blackmail and the genetic/social manipulation of entire species to make them less dangerous.

All this actually makes them cool. Especially Nessus, who plays an important role in the novella “The Soft Weapon” and the novel Ringworld. Nessus is actually capable of dealing directly with dangerous situations. That’s because he’s a manic-depressive.

But this also makes him ideal for his people to make him a point man in potentially dangerous situations. Of course, when he acts bravely, he often feels a deep sense of shame over it afterwards. But he does manage to get his job done.

I like Nessus. Heck, I like Puppeteers in general, even though they are often manipulative so-and-sos.

Klingons are cool, but the galaxy is filled with other war-like species. Vulcans are cool, but the galaxy if full of other insufferable smarty-pants species. Hutts are cool, but the galaxy is full of vicious criminal species. Puppeteers are, I think, unique. There aren’t any other species I can think of who make such an art out of pure cowardice.

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