Most sci-fi stories depict aliens as humanoid; walking upright, having two arms and two legs, and a head on top. Sometimes the number of appendages varies, but they more or less resemble humans in overall shape.

This does not seem realistic to me

The likelihood of almost all intelligent, sapient life being humanoid strikes me as incredibly small, and is most likely put in stories for the sake of practicality and simplicity:

  • Aliens should appear or be described to move in a way that seems natural, something that might be difficult to express with an alien biology that does not exist in real life.
  • Humans interacting with non-humanoid aliens becomes much more complicated. For example, fighting scenes would need to be much more carefully planned.
  • By making aliens humanoid in shape, they can be portrayed fairly easily in fiction by human actors wearing costumes and makeup.

For example it is much easier to design a character that is human in shape but has tentacles on his face than it is to design a squid-like character with a completely unique shape.

I believe that aliens of near-human intelligence would vary widely in size, shape, and even basic anatomical functions. Even here on Earth, the variation is very high.

How can I break down the task of designing alien commodities and items?

For example, an intelligent squid species that slithers and slimes their way across the ground would not simply be sitting in an ordinary chair. These creatures would have developed their own versions of "chairs" or "beds" or "doors" or "ovens", etc. most of which would not resemble how we know them today.

An interplanetary bar used by different alien species would almost certainly have a "bipedal" section, a "quadruped" section, and any other sections for housing the most common alien races that visit. This differs drastically from Star Wars, where literally everybody is sitting in ordinary chairs just like human beings would.

A snake-like alien with human-level intelligence wouldn't have hammers, or basic tools the way that we know them. However, an intelligence of that level would enable them to have developed their own unique and fascinating ways of doing things. This should be breathtakingly different and inspire awe, which is what I'm striving for. But a giant snake holding a hammer in its mouth would arguably look stupid or comical.

My focus here is trying to design the end-result of centuries of an alien race's ergonomic development. This is a very daunting task to me and makes me feel pretty overwhelmed.

As long as the designs appear to be specialized for a certain race, that is fine to me. It does not need to be "perfect".

Answers should:

  • Include any tips or strategies for designing alien commodities. I want a list of steps from people that have faced this problem before, breaking down the task into manageable sections that don't look daunting by themselves
  • Be detailed. Describe your approach to the problem so that not just I understand it, but other people who find this question can understand it too.
  • I don't want any opinions. Use examples, tell me how you have actually resolved these issues before. I don't want "maybe you could do this" answers, I want "Having run into this problem before, here are some steps that might help you and many others with this" answers.
  • Be generally well-received by the community. (will also be judged based on number of upvotes)

The best answer will:

  • Have the most detail
  • Be intuitively or easily understood (should not require follow-up comments asking for clarification)
  • Be considered helpful (has upvotes)

Please use this helpful answer to the very well-received and helpful question How can I break down the task of creating a world into manageable chunks? as an example of what I am looking for.

  • $\begingroup$ How do you expect the most details if you don't bother giving us any on the species your are targeting? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Nov 27 '19 at 15:06
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch-ReinstateMonica I could do that, but how will that help me the next time I design an alien? I don't want all of the work done for me, I want help with the process itself. $\endgroup$ – overlord Nov 27 '19 at 15:08
  • $\begingroup$ So you need a generic system to generate tools, furniture and cities for aliens? $\endgroup$ – Erick Silva Nov 27 '19 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ The lazy way would be to use what others have created before and adapt to your needs. Movies often have aliens that are very very humanoid, books a lot less so. I recently read Iain Banks 'The algebraist' which has a whole collection of interesting aliens quite different from humans. $\endgroup$ – quarague Nov 27 '19 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ @overlord-ReinstateMonica Ok, sounds very ambitious, I will try my best. $\endgroup$ – Erick Silva Nov 27 '19 at 15:57

Well, I guess I'll just use the same kind of answer as last time.

Step 1: Assume they aren't going to be that different.

Both the 'basically-human' aliens and the 'Cthullu-esque uncomprehensible' aliens are fun tropes to play around in science fiction. The truth, unfortunately, is that the probability favors the former far more than the latter, especially when it comes to technological innovations. That is, while they aren't necessarily going to look like us, they're going to have very similar technology. Because technology likes being efficient, and thus it'll develop the same.

All living things need food and shelter to survive. So they'll have houses. And their houses will more or less be like ours - efficient shelters designed for living quarters. Their food may not be like ours, but it's safe to assume they'll develop agricultural and/or husbandry (depending on their diet), because a constant and dependable source of food is great for developing species.

And then you have the four basic machines! You kind of need them to develop things. It's highly unlikely that they won't have, for instance, four wheeled transports. Why? Because while it's one above the minimum number of wheels for a stable configuration, makes for great maneuverability. A six-wheeled vehicle is great for moving it a straight line, but it's unlikely that they wouldn't want efficient vehicles.

It's at this point, I feel the need to stress something important. Just because you can imagine an alien race doing something different doesn't mean they will - the universe is a large place! You can construct very specific events and planets to have species develop weird stuff to the point where it looks like a Dr. Suess book, of course, but the going assumption should be efficiency, because technology loves being efficient.

Step 2: Figure the base function for the product you want

Let's take an instrument, it's a fairly complex item that can almost be guaranteed to be used by any species that makes use of verbal communication. There are some really fun and interesting variants that I'v seen, but if you want to break it down, then look at the simplest function - instruments make music. That means that what you want is a device which was explicitly designed to make music.

Even something as odd of a race of insect might want instruments, if they developed complex speech. But your design perspective shouldn't be 'How can I adapt a flute to the insects', it should be 'What music would an insect listen to?'. Find a frequency range that makes sense, and work from there.

Step 3: Form Follows Function

Now, adapt an Earth object to the base function you want. Feel free to use as weird of an Earth object as you want, or make one up yourself, so long as you make sure its efficiently designed. That is, model it after something like a wind instrument, strings, or something of that sort. Do not come up with a brand new way of making music on your own! It's unlikely to be as good as the methods humans have come up with over the millenia. (And if it is, why are you writing fiction? Patent it and make a fortune!)

Adjust as necessary for your aliens. Do they have four arms? Adjust. Do they lack opposable thumbs? Adjust. Do they all somehow suffer from Chromesthesia and thus would have a color palette on the instrument as well? ADJUST! This is also where your creativity comes into play and where get to reskin things. Once you've got the basics, adjust the trivial and non-important parts to give it some alien flair, if you feel like it.

Step 4: Peer Review

Same thing as last time. Once you've done all the legwork and research, (you've done research, right? Excellent!) then show it to someone who's well versed in sci-fi and see what they say. There's an off-chance that you might've hit the uncanny valley equivalent, so feedback is also important to adjust.

And that's it! A simple 4-step process.

  • $\begingroup$ Answers like this are precisely why I love asking questions here. $\endgroup$ – overlord Nov 27 '19 at 20:50
  • $\begingroup$ @overlord-ReinstateMonica If you like it that much, you could always accept it... and my other answer to your other question you asked like it. Just sayin'. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Nov 27 '19 at 23:19

I think a way to achieve a generic processes to design alien commodities or items, is designing a list of generic questions we can answer, and having some considerations about each question to make it easier to answer.

Ok now, let's try find the right questions:

How did the species get the intelligence to produce tools?

Evolution is not random at all, species develop what helps them to survive in a very slow process of random changes. It is possible that we achieve this intelligence level because we are designed to use tools like most primates. Smarter humans were more able to create better tools, and use it on more creative ways. Is a smart snake interested in using tools?

How is their body prepared for using tools?

Similar to the first point. We have hands, maybe some alien could use tentacles, sophisticated claws or a trunk like an elephant, without a specific body part to manipulate tools it is hard to think how they start to produce their things.

Which necessities are they covering with those items?

A big mistake here is thinking how is it going to work, for example, a chair for alien smart birds, instead you have to focus in which necessity we are covering with a chair, maybe a branch would be more appropriate for them. Having this in mind, we can work on it until we get something as advanced as the level of technology we want to achieve.

Is art a thing?

Art is something usual for us, we try to express our ideas or feelings in many ways, so we produce art. Is an alien with mental connection worried about how to express themself? If they don't need support for communication, probably they will not understand the idea of writing or painting, maybe they are more worried about disconnect themself in a kind of meditation perhaps.

Where do they live? Which materials do they have?

It is interesting to think on the materials, we have worked on stone, wood and metal for centuries. A crystal world would have different necessities and different approaches to the same problem. Imagine the possibilities if we had huge turtles living on our world or a kind of wood that is able to repair itself.

Family, community and culture

The way we interact, the way we talk, the way we love, even the way we make war, all the interactions have a repercussion on the way we think and design our things.

Finally, why do we have to think aliens like animals or insects? Could plants be smart enough? What about robots or virtual minds ables to control matter? Maybe a mix? The space and imagination is big enough for everything. There is no a perfect process to write a book or build a world, take what helps you to create a more interesting world.


Adapt Human Technology and Solve Problems

I would start with your aliens and a general human tech level equivalent. Your species will at least need to be able to create tools, so we know they are intelligent and have appendages with precise dexterity for creating tools.


I am going to build a modern society with human sized dragons. They have wings and 4 legs, and when laying down to support their weight they can use their front limbs like arms.

Now that I have a baseline, I can quickly decide which things will and will not exist in my world. TVs are till useful, so yep, their in. Same with computers, although I will need to change some things. They've got to be on the floor, and since typing with claws is dangerous, they will either clip their claws or use special gloves to type. Sofas are out, but I still need something with that function. Maybe a giant pillow in a basket on the floor.

Now let's think about unique characteristic dragons have and how that would change their world. Flight, they can fly at around 35 MPH, so no need for cars except for the very wealthy. Trains would probably work for long distance travel. If I fly to work, I'll need a way to carry my laptop there, so there's a flying harness, which would basically be a backpack worn on your stomach. Don't want bugs to get in my eyes, so goggles are a must. And since I'm going to be covered in bug guts when I get to work, I either better carry a special towel or everywhere needs a cleaning station in the entrance. Ect.

By going through and adapting what already exists and solving the specific issues their anatomy would have, I will end with a tech level that is both familiar, yet different.


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