Insidious Parasites in Sci Fi can be repulsive or beautiful

Photo by Nick Fewings (

N.K. Jemisin designs a horrific parasitic overlord

N.K. Jemisin, a winner of both Hugo and Locus awards, writes about human-designed parasites that took over the world in her short story, “Walking Awake” in the 2019 short story collection Sunspot Jungle: The Ever Expanding Universe of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vol. 1.

Alien woman's face

“They were created from other things. Parasites–bugs and fungi and microbes and more–that force other creatures to do what they want.” Most human bodies on Earth are controlled by the parasites, called the Masters, and the remaining humans serve them. The parasite itself has waving head-tendrils and a stinger.

When a Master needs a new human host, it visits a transfer center, where human hosts are raised. The transfer is gruesome and painful for the old host and the new one.

“When the Master came in and lay down on the right-hand table, [the girl] Ten-36 fell silent in awe. She remained silent, though Sadie suspected this was no longer due to awe, when the Master tore its way out of the old body’s neck and stood atop the twitching flesh, head-tendrils and proboscides and spinal stinger steaming faintly in the cool air of the chamber. Then it crossed from one outstretched arm to the other and began inserting itself into Ten-36. It had spoken the truth about its skill. Ten-36 convulsed twice and threw up; but her heart never stopped, and the bleeding was no worse than normal.”

Stephenie Meyer imagines beautiful, peaceful parasitic creatures

Stephenie Meyer, who wrote the paranormal Twilight Saga, also wrote a beautiful Sci Fi novel, The Host. The parasites have taken over the dominant species on at least seven worlds. Earth was one of their most recent conquests, but only a few human rebels remain.

The parasites, which call themselves “souls,” also have a procedure in a lab-like setting where they insert a parasite into a human body, but the human body is unconscious and the procedure seems much more peaceful.

Up-close image of a blue eye with a ring of pale blue on the inside of the iris

“[The Healer] Fords concentrated on the unconscious body; he edged the scalpel through the skin at the base of the subject’s skull and with small, precise movements, and then he sprayed on the medication that stilled the excess flow of blood before he widened the fissure. Fords delved delicately beneath the neck muscles, careful not to injure them, exposing the pale bones at the top of the spinal column.”

. . . .

“[The assistant] Darren’s hand moved into view, the silver gleam of an awaking soul in his cupped palm.”

“Fords never saw an exposed soul without being struck by the beauty of it.”

“The soul shone in the brilliant lights of the operating room, brighter than the reflective silver instrument in his hand. Like a living ribbon, she twisted and rippled, stretching, happy to be free of the cryotank. Her thin, feathery attachments, nearly a thousand of them, billowed softly like pale silver hair. Though they were all lovely, this one seemed particularly graceful to Fords Deep Waters.”

. . . .

“Gently, Darren placed the small glistening creature inside the opening Fords had made in the human’s neck. The soul slid smoothly into the offered space, weaving herself into the alien anatomy. Fords admired the skill with which she possessed her new home. Her attachments wound tightly into place around the nerve centers, some elongating and reaching deeper to where he couldn’t see, under and up into the brain, the optic nerves, the ear canals. She was very quick, very firm in her movements. Soon, only one small segment of her glistening body was visible.”

Design your own parasite

Caterpillar with black head and back and translucent underbelly
Photo by Holger Link (
  • Will it possess humans, cats, elephants?
  • Will it look horrific or strangely beautiful?
  • Will the host remain conscious? What will it think?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

What makes a GOOD ALIEN in science fiction?–Must they share human traits to be likable? How alien is too alien?

Headline image of feminine, punk-style alien with mohawk wearing headphones

If you love Sci Fi, you probably love a good alien encounter. But do you love the aliens or love-to-hate the aliens?

Humans have difficulty connecting with aliens that are too, well, alien. The more human they seem, the better are able to connect with them. This should not be too surprising given that we humans are social animals that (generally) thrive with social interaction with other humans.

Photo of smiling man's head and shoulders
A “mugshot.” Photo by Joseph Gonzalez (

I even learned in journalism school that people enjoy seeing photographs of people more than anything else. We were taught to include photos of people to liven up dull newspaper pages.  And if all you have is a “mug shot”–a photograph of a person’s face and (sometimes) shoulders–then use it! Readers are more likely to read a story that includes a photograph of a person’s face than a story with just a headline and text.

Photo by Garrett Jackson (
Photo by Charles Deluvio (

Babies? What’s so great about babies?

I have also read that humans are attracted to animals that superficially look like babies.  (After all everyone loves babies, even though they are mostly useless!) That is supposed to explain the popularity of certain breeds of dogs and cats with large eyes and round faces.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that toy makers seem to make stuffed toy cats and dogs with bigger and rounder eyes every year.  (That drives Mrs. C crazy. She finds “big-eyed” dolls to be creepy.)  

Babies: Cute, adorable, mostly useless. Photo by Chayene Rafaela (

My Theory

So I’m proposing the theory that readers prefer creatures that approximate human appearance, habits and speech.  Also, I think we will accept close cousins, that is, creatures that remind us of the class of mammals. So things that appear warm-blooded and covered in skin or fur; things that look like cute dogs or cats or Teddy bears.  We also like these. It’s OK if they have six legs or six eyes. That’s the cool part that makes them alien; alien without being too alien.

Readers prefer creatures that approximate human appearance, habits and speech.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro (

Reptile Men and Women

What about reptile men?  Well, if they have two arms and two legs, that’s a good start. If they have a face with two eyes and a mouth, then that’s pretty humanlike, even if they have forked tongues and scales instead of skin.  I still think they are more likely to be cast as baddies than good guys, especially in a movie. But in a book, if such a creature rescues a kitten (or a human child), I think we can all get on board with that. (Remember, kittens and babies are cute and people like them!) 

What about reptile women? Well, generally, the same goes for reptile women as reptile men. But, well, guys–meaning readers who are human males–seem to like almost all alien women. Why? Well . . . why do sailors like mermaids? That’s a subject for another blog.

What about dragons?

Cover of The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

I think we all have a challenge liking creatures that are more reptile, amphibian, or even possibly avian than human, especially the intelligent ones.  Dragons may be the one exception. People do love dragons.

And, yes, there are plenty of dragons in Sci Fi. They are not only in fantasy. See Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series.  Grand Master McCaffrey excels in disproving my point and making large, intelligent reptiles–reptiles that look nothing like humans–very lovable.  (Or is she the exception that proves the rule?)

Ruth, the white dragon, is a favorite of fans of the Pern series. Image from Read more about Ruth the white dragon.

What is the problem with aliens that are not humanlike?

I think there are a couple of things at work here.  One is a natural fear of certain types of creatures found on Earth.  So, for example, if we are familiar with certain dangerous animals, such as snakes and spiders, then I propose writers will have a hard time making likeable aliens that remind us of those creatures.  And they make wonderful “bad guy” aliens.

Large boulder in Avebury, United Kingdom. Photo by Zoltan Tasi (

The second is the challenge of making likable creatures that are so alien that readers have no way to connect to them.  For example, consider a creature that looks like a large boulder.  A creature that has a mouth but no eyes, ears or nose. A creature that thinks love and passion and excitement are all pointless. Does that sound appealing?

If an alien is not full of the same emotions and desires as humans, then it’s hard for us to connect.

A creature that has learned no form of communication other than to shove aside its brother as a signal that it is rolling too close.  A creature that enjoys listening to the vibrations of the stars as music and is tickled by gravitational waves, so it has no further need for entertainment or socializing.  If it is not interested in human pursuits, if an alien is not full of the same emotions and desires as humans, then it’s hard for us to connect. It’s hard for us to care.

So those are some of my theories.  Do you agree? Do you have examples you like that prove or disprove this?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Weird science that makes giant arthropods impossible

Some of Sci Fi’s most interesting aliens look like or share traits with Earth’s arthropods.  Arthropods include insects (like, ants), centipedes and millipedes, arachnids (like, spiders) and crustaceans (like, crabs and lobsters).  Think of the giant sandworms of Arrakis in Dune, the spider-like buggers of Ender’s Game, and the Bugs of Starship Troopers, which are very cool alien space bugs.  All of these aliens are human-size or larger.

But on Earth, physics and genetic history have kept arthropods much smaller than humans.  The largest arthropods alive are certain crabs and lobsters, and even the largest of these, the American Lobster, does not grow to 50 pounds.  Yes, that’s big for a lobster, but not exactly the match of a human in a gladiator ring or in a space battle.  It’s certainly not large enough to develop the large, complex brain needed for sentience.

Photo of crayfish. Crayfish exoskeletons form natural armor. Photo by Anton Ahlberg (
Crayfish exoskeletons form natural armor. Photo by Anton Ahlberg (

On Earth, arthropods developed exoskeletons (skeletons on their outsides), which provide great protection from enemies and allow the evolution of an amazing range of weapons and tools.  Consider the giant claws of a crab or the sting of a scorpion.  But exoskeletons restrict how large arthropods can afford to grow.  Molting — the process of replacing an exoskeleton as the animal grows — takes longer the larger the animal grows.  Some crabs take an entire month to climb out of their old skeleton and allow the new one to harden up.  Exoskeletal legs are also basically tubes filled with muscle and tissue.  If an arthropod grew to human size, the exoskeleton would not be strong enough to hold up the ‘pod’s weight.  And the arthropod’s muscles would not be strong enough to move the exoskeleton around.

Arthropods also evolved in a way that their cells get oxygen through gills, their skin, or tubes in their bodies, called tracheae, that open directly to the outside air.  Humans and other vertebrates have lungs and feed oxygen to the cells through the blood.  As ‘pods grow larger, it becomes harder and harder to get enough oxygen through their skin or tracheae to every cell.  A ‘pod as large as a human might easily suffocate.

As ‘pods grow larger, it becomes harder and harder to get enough oxygen to every cell.

But a ‘pod-like animal that evolved on another planet might not have those limits.  For example, we can imagine an alien “Pod” that evolved from simpler ancestors with both an internal and external skeleton.  Such creatures might have an internal skeleton in their arms and legs to support the weight of a large body.  But with a partial exoskeleton, the Pod might have a natural helmet for its head, giant claws, or possibly a scorpionlike tail.  With lungs instead of tracheae, the Pods could breathe like we do.  Finally, on an alien world with different elements in the rocks and soil, the Pods might evolve with exoskeletons made from lighter, stronger materials that would allow them to grow mighty armor and still move quickly.

Photo of two red crab claws clasping. Could a Pod with giant crablike claws evolve on some distant planet? 
Photo by Joshua Théophile (
Could a Pod with giant, crablike claws evolve on some distant planet?
Photo by Joshua Théophile (

Check out this great University of California at Berkeley website that explains the reasons that limit the size of arthropods on Earth.

Photo of bee.  Bees and wasps can fly AND sting. Photo by USGS (
Bees and wasps can fly and sting.
Photo by USGS (

Design a Pod

Let’s design our own alien Pod.

What two features that exist on Earth’s arthropods would you add to your Pod?  Would they make it a fearsome foe?  Would it have any weaknesses?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

What is that?–ANSIBLE-Science fiction writers create fictional devices–like the ansible–to allow characters to communicate quickly across the vast reaches of outer space. Let’s explore ansibles and physics.

Image: Radio telescope dish beneath a starry sky. Text: What is that?–ANSIBLE-Science fiction writers create fictional devices–like the ansible–to allow characters to communicate quickly across the vast reaches of outer space. Let’s explore ansibles and physics.
Photograph by VM_Quezada (

Ansible — a machine used for instant communication across vast distances of space.

Sci Fi writers have created many fictional devices that allow people to talk, write, or send messages instantly or very quickly across the vast empty stretches of space.

This is a phonograph. It plays records or discs. But for some reason, I always picture one of these when I hear the word “ansible.” Photo by Sudhith Xavier (

The legendary Ursula LeGuin created the word “ansible” in her 1966 novel Rocannon’s World. She described a device that could be used to send instant text messages to anyone else with an ansible.

LeGuin used the ansible in later books as well. By the way, “ansible” is a shortening of the word “answerable,” so-named because the device allowed a person to type a question that could get an “answerable” reply in a reasonable amount of time.

Why do Sci Fi writers need a fictional device?

Why did Le Guin need a fictional communication device? Why couldn’t her characters just send messages using an antenna that sends radio waves?

The problem is the speed of radio waves and the great distances between solar systems.

The Speed of Light

In empty space, radio waves travel at the speed of light. According to the great physicist Albert Einstein, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Even though his theory is more than 100 years old, it is still hard for most people to understand. That’s probably because in our daily lives, the only thing we see traveling at those speeds is light itself. And individual light particles–called photons–are too small and too fast for us to detect with our eyes.

Photo by Jon Geng (

Light has no mass. It is pure energy. That’s why it can reach such a high speed. But for things with mass–things made out of atoms like you and me and everything we own–we gain mass the faster we travel. At the fastest speeds that humans and machines can travel, the change is barely noticeable. But if you send a ship rocketing through space, the closer it gets to the speed of light, the more its mass grows.

A spaceship floating in space has no weight. But it still has mass. To push it forward faster than it is already traveling requires more energy. Einstein’s law says that the faster you make the ship fly, the more mass it has. That means each time you try to add speed, you need more energy than the last push. Before the ship could ever reach the speed of light, you would run out of energy.

Radio telescope antennas capture radio waves. They can pick up a radio signal, but not send one. Photo by Matheo_JBT (

What does the speed of light have to do with communication across space?

In science fiction, we often write and read about people traveling to planets in far away solar systems. It takes years for light–even traveling as fast as light does–to reach a planet in another solar system. That means that a communication system that uses radio waves, light or lasers to send messages to a planet outside our solar system would take years. More than a lifetime, if the planet is not near one of our neighboring stars.

Why don’t Sci Fi writers use something real–some technology that we know–other than light or radio waves to send messages then? Well, because nothing travels faster than the speed of light.

Photograph by VM_Quezada (

Long distance communication in Sci Fi

It’s hard to write a gripping Sci Fi story if the heroes on a distant planet send an urgent message back home to Earth and then must wait 20, 50 or even a 100 years to receive the reply. Sometimes Sci Fi writers want to tell stories where humans living on different worlds or in spaceships far apart can still talk to each other or communicate in some way.

That’s why LeGuin created the fictional ansible. So her heroes could send messages back home and receive orders from their superiors.

Create your own device!

What kind of fictional device can you imagine to instantly communicate between Earth and a space ship light years away? What would you call it? How would it work?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Space Bugs–Giant bugs make some of the scariest aliens in science fiction. Let’s compare the Bugs in Starship Troopers and the Buggers in Ender’s Game

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein features an alien race called the “Arachnids” or “Bugs.”

Cover art for Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Cover art for Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. Image grab from

Beware the Arachnid threat!

“The Bugs are not like us.  The Pseudo-Arachnids aren’t even like spiders.  They are arthropods who happen to look like a madman’s conception of a giant, intelligent spider.”  And they are organized!  Like ants or termites, they work together, under “the ultimate dictatorship of the hive.”

Strengths of the Bugs

The Bug warriors, controlled by a brain Bug hiding below in tunnels, fight without care, fear or mercy.  They never flee or surrender—humans are not even sure if the warrior Bugs can surrender.  They do not rescue their wounded and, if they can kill a human with their weapons, they will do so even if it means killing one of their own kind.  They are the Mobile Infantry’s most dangerous enemy!

“Their warriors are smart, skilled, and aggressive—smarter than you are, by the only universal rule, if the Bug shoots first.  You can burn off one leg, two legs, three legs, and he just keeps on coming; burn off four on one side and he topples over—but keeps on shooting.  You have to spot the nerve case and get it . . . whereupon he will trot right on past you, shooting at nothing, until he crashes into a wall or something.”

The Formics of Ender’s Game

Cover art for Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Image grab from

In Ender’s Game[Enders Game Review] by Orson Scott Card, the ant-like Formics invade Earth to colonize it.  The Formics, called Buggers by most humans, look something like giant ants.  “Though their internal organs were now much more complex and specialized than any insects, and they had evolved an internal skeleton and shed most of the exoskeleton, their physical structure still still echoed their ancestors, who could easily have been very much like Earth’s ants.”

In Ender’s Game, humans and Buggers battle in space but rarely meet face to face.  By the end of the book, we learn that Buggers and humans largely go to war because they do not understand each other.

Buggers can communicate without speech over any distance in space.[*Ansible]  So they have no language, no speech and no writing.  And humans, who do not understand this, have no way to plea for mercy or offer peace.

Strengths of the Bugs

Like the Bugs in Starship Troopers, the Buggers are directed by a single mind.  For Bugs in Starship Troopers, that mind is a “brain” Bug.  In Ender’s Game, the queen directs the Buggers.  “To them, losing a few crew members would be like clipping your nails.  Nothing to get upset about.”

What makes Buggers scary is their technology and their vast numbers.  “[T]he buggers are out there.  Ten billion, a hundred billion, a million billion of them, for all we know.  With as many ships, for all we know. With weapons we can’t understand.  And a willingness to use those weapons to wipe us out.”

Which one do you think is the most fearsome?

What other bugs, insects, and creepy crawlies have you found in science fiction?

For some more ideas, consider how arthropods evolved on Earth and how aliens could have evolved differently.

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross