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In a lot of science fiction series, such as Halo, Mass Effect and Gears of War, they show alien technology that is flatly human with a few added-on bells and whistles. It lacks the awe or feel of truly alien technology.

How can I make an alien civilization's technology, such as their vehicles, buildings and weaponry, feel alien and not like stylized human clones?

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    $\begingroup$ The book (and to a lesser extant, movie) Sphere does a really fantastic job of this. $\endgroup$ – Azuaron Nov 9 '16 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree that the Halo series shows human technology with "a few bells and whistles". The entire game design sharply contrasts the plasma-based, organic-shaped alien technologies with the ballistic, angular-shaped human technology. $\endgroup$ – March Ho Nov 10 '16 at 1:06
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    $\begingroup$ There are plenty of counter-examples, like Bradbury's martians with their harp-books and bee-guns and stuff, even something not so deep, for example, the movie "Predator" with its thermal vision face-mask and homing energy bolts. Just invent something crazy and illogical, then use it consistently and systematically, and never even try to explain why or how. $\endgroup$ – Headcrab Nov 10 '16 at 5:55
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    $\begingroup$ Read: Roadside Picnic to get truly alien feeling artifacts $\endgroup$ – Jacco Nov 10 '16 at 8:24
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with @March Ho: greate thing about halo was that humans, covenants and floods were really different (hierarchy, weapon, combat formations, vehicules, even ideologiy), and so are their rechnologies. Look at the scarab, it's basically a huge Hunter actually (Mgalekgolo). The flood became a giant supercreature (if you can consider this some kind of technology). In the newest halo, Promethean are pretty much like human compared to the other faction (which makes sense). $\endgroup$ – Asoub Nov 10 '16 at 10:57

18 Answers 18

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There are two fundamental problems

1. Outside - Aliens are humanoid, more or less

This is a big one. If aliens have the same basic build humans do, interfaces to their tech will be similar, too. We reached perfection in steering, input, output and so on. We are at the point where ergonomy has reached it's maximum and we tried everything we could think about in the way. That's why, for humanoid aliens, everything will look like human stuff, or retro-future.

2. Inside - Aliens use the same physics we do

And, to put it bluntly, we already tried everything that could work and more within the physics we know. Some things was better, some worse, but generations already thought of, and tried everything they could.


Now, when we have reasons well defined, all you need to do is remove them, as deep as you can.

  1. Outside solutions

    • Non-humanoid shape
    • Manipulators as far from hand-like as you can
    • Different main sense to eliminate screens
    • D'uh, make all senses different from ours
    • Make them resistant to some things that makes us ill
    • Make them feel sick from something that's OK for us (like bass sound of internal combustion engine)
    • Many of our tech is based on the fact we feel self. We feel units. We are separate beings. This may be different for aliens. (Thanks Jim)
  2. Inside solutions

    These are really, really hard. Can't change physics. Wheels will be wheels will be wheels, best tool to roll things around.

    • Give them materials we can't have, like room temperature superconductors
    • Change their environment, so they have different problems to solve
    • Handweave some important, basic principle of physics for them and build around that.
    • As Jim pointed out in his comment, you could remove human aesthetics - for this you need to remove need for symmetry (for us it's easier to build symmetrical craft), need for repetition (we need assembly lines), things like that.
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    $\begingroup$ Great answer: Would suggest also...change or eliminate the human aesthetic from everything. We prefer symmetry and minimalism, for instance. Alien tech might appear undesigned or random. No two the same even when the job is identical. $\endgroup$ – Jim Nov 9 '16 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ And you could imagine what tech would be like for a tech using creature that is not conscious/self aware. $\endgroup$ – Jim Nov 9 '16 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Jim symmetry is caused by physics - it's easier to steer symmetrical craft. And repetition is caused by industry methods. Added your ideas the best I felt I can. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Nov 9 '16 at 21:46
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    $\begingroup$ Wheels are wheels are wheels, but if your local fauna or flora likes to create a semi-regular grid of deep grooves - say, as their own road system - regular wheels will have trouble. And if you can't remove the grooves (say, because of animal welfare activists), you might have to invent a set of wheels that can navigate across / won't disturb those natural highways. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Nov 10 '16 at 2:06
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    $\begingroup$ Make your aliens think differently than humanity. Humans societies think that radical changes to individuals, especially without their consent is bad. Have the aliens use genetic manipulation or cybernetic implants to make other aliens or animals into computers or other techs rather than building them out of machines as humans would. There are many limits on technology that humans do not explore not because of the physical laws of the universe, but instead due to the way we think things 'should' be designed. $\endgroup$ – Mark Ripley Nov 10 '16 at 6:39
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Impossibly advanced technology

First of all, the likelihood of the aliens being at a similar technological level of advancement as we are is basically 0, given the timescales of the Universe. Again, imagine how an Apollo Rocket would appear to Stone Age humans, or even better, to annelid worms (a mere 518 million years old, younglings in the history of even our galaxy). Repeating the Clarke mantra about sufficiently advanced technology, the physical causation pathways would appear utterly mysterious.

Even if life is limited to evolve along similar pathways - Carbon and Water poor metallic-oxygen planets like earth, Carbon-based life using DNA to start, subject to the same apparent physical laws, hundreds of millions of years can refine their understanding of the universe, allow their civilization to transcend the limitations of DNA-replicators and thus change them beyond human recognition as a kindred organism.

Reductionist metaphors fail

I am instantly reminded of the book Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, which was made into a pretty good film by Andrei Tarkovsky. The alien in question is a planetary intelligence resembling an ocean of sorts. Human scientists had spent decades observing and categorizing the complex whirls and patterns exhibited on the surface without making any real progress in understanding it.

It is incomprehensible, fluid. It modifies from afar humans' perception of reality to the point where it is unclear what is real and what is illusion, or even that there is any meaningful difference between the two. Any anthropomorphic metaphors fail miserably in interacting with the aliens or their technology. These are not Rubber-Forehead Aliens. If the aliens can bend space, even the local geometry could be non-euclidean.

There is no mechanism to be seen, nothing subject-able to human's normal reductionist way of understanding reality.

Moreover, since the technology is not designed with human UX in mind, it may/should interact weirdly with humans attempting to use it. A bit like the Obelisks and Reapers husks in Mass Effect.

Incomprehensible Goals

It may be that the Aliens function on Blue-Orange morality, so their actions and goals, and thus the functionality of their technology literally make no sense to our minds. Our interaction with it could be similar to squirrels using roads and cars to crush nuts - a complete side-effect of the normal operation of (what is to squirrels) alien technology.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's not certain if your second paragraph, under :Reductionist metaphors fail" refers to Lem's "Solaris" or not, because if it does Solaris (the alien) created entities or beings indistinguishable from their templates of real human beings. There was no distortion of perception. If you're referring to a general case of incomprehensible aliens who can distort human perception, then it's fine. Although human understanding of reality isn't exclusively reductionist. But that's a different kettle of fish. $\endgroup$ – a4android Nov 10 '16 at 3:20
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry, if my previous comment may have seemed a bit carping. I was glad to see your answer broke out of the straitjacket of narrow physicalist determinism shown in most of the other answers. Truly superior aliens will be the most alien of them all; 'superior' in the sense of higher complexity and advanced science. $\endgroup$ – a4android Nov 10 '16 at 3:30
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    $\begingroup$ Relating to your last paragraph and aliens being truly alien in thought: I was first exposed to this concept when I read the books by C. J. Cherryh. Good examples are the methane breathing Tc'a, Chi, and Knnn, from her Chanur novels [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chanur_novels], who the oxygen breathing races couldn't clearly communicate with and would often act in unexpected ways (to the oxygen races). $\endgroup$ – Mark Ripley Nov 10 '16 at 6:50
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for Solaris, the book. I expected more emphasis on the ocean itself, and its seemingly-intelligent contorsions, than the humanoids it creates. $\endgroup$ – martin jakubik Nov 10 '16 at 14:12
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Alien technology is alien because the aliens are, well, alien.

My favourite example from SF is the Martians from "Last and First Men", a seminal work of SF from the 1930's. The Martians are particles the size of a virus which live in the upper atmosphere of Mars. They only become intelligent as they bind together into larger and larger groups, and their mode of life is gathering solar energy, so in their collective, intelligent form, the Martians resemble a sheet of organic material draped over a flat surface.

In the book, they eventually drift through space to Earth in order to escape some sort of environmental issue on Mars, and are very pleased to find Earth has a multitude of flat surfaces to rest on. Oddly, it never occurs to the Martians to ask why there are so many flat surfaces on Earth....

enter image description here

Wow, this planet is the best.....

Based on that description, the Martians can know, understand and potentially make technology to use and manipulate the forces of nature, but they certainly will not be doing it through any means recognizable or usable to us.

So the first step is to know and understand what it is that makes your species alien rather than people with rubber foreheads. Once you have that in hand, it becomes possible to consider how they would have to use technology to do things, which then becomes your alien technology.

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  • $\begingroup$ "they certainly will not be doing it through any means recognizable or usable to us." Usable by us? Surely not. But why would their technology be unrecognizable to us? For example, if they're going to move through space, they pretty much have to use some form of reaction drive or solar sail. $\endgroup$ – Nicol Bolas Nov 11 '16 at 2:16
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, they may be using reaction drive (I believe in the story they were forming together to make organic solar sails), but consider what sort of devices would be "scaled" to creatures with components as small as a virus, who don't have sense organs or manipulating appendages the way we do, and which are designed for purposes that are totally alien to our way of thinking (remember how the Martians considered Earth?) $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Nov 11 '16 at 3:42
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    $\begingroup$ For "completely alien", I feel like this idea's come up a surprising amount. I've seen at least two other stories with that sort of alien - Asimov's Nemesis, one short story I don't recall that I'm pretty sure was also Asimov, and I feel like there might have been something of the sort in one of Alan Dean Foster's Flinx books (though I can't place the feeling). $\endgroup$ – David Heyman Nov 11 '16 at 19:43
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First you should think about how you want your aliens to look and work. Are they bipedal with two arms and the head on top? They could have two strong arms for lifting stuff and a third, smaller, for fine manipulation. Perhaps the strong ones are tentacles, instead.

Our main sense when piloting a vehicle is sight. Just by assuming that a certain species of aliens has poor sight their vehicles would have to be utterly different. Any fast moving thing would be impossible for them to pilot without sensors helping them.

That would mean that they have no, or much less, use for windows. Instead they would use some kind of sensor array to help overcome that problem.

Or they could have some radar like sense and have "windows" not made of glass but some material specially transparent to their sense/wavelength. By that humans could not pilot that kind of craft because they would not be able to perceive the surrounding environment.

Now assume their bodies are accustomed to lower g forces. They could build their vehicles with more protection, perhaps have beds instead of seats.

Most of our personal vehicles have a motor - passenger - trunk design with two seats front and two or more back and have similarities in height/length/depth ratio. The aliens could change that, too and build arrow shaped vehicles.

Add a potential hovercraft design for exploration (they don't know in advance how planets they want to visit are accessible for tires).

You end up with a windowless arrow shaped thing without tires, the front lower than the back. If the humans find an opening they see a tube and don't know whether to enter head first or feet first or whether the aliens are just very small. And if they enter the right direction they don't see outside and still don't know whether to lie face up or face down. And existing "light" could be of a wavelength invisible and perhaps even harmful to humans.

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It is easy to fall into a stance of physicalist determinism where alien technology follows the same set of physical laws so it must be the same as human technology. But mostly it's a failure of imagination.

First, to dispose of physical determinism. If this was truly so, then all technology would look exactly the same if it had the same function. Look at the nearest piece of technology. Say, your computer or mobile phone (more correctly, called a cell phone by Americans) and while certainly there are many technological similarities different brands have even specific quirks and features.

Effectively every piece of technology is not merely shaped by the physical principles of its manufacture and its ultilitarian function, but cultural aesthetics and design also plays a major role. Technologies like aircraft and spacecraft are among our most highly functional and yet there are differences in style, configuration and appearance. These differences are as much as cultural as well as reflecting preferences in technical solutions.

There are already major differences in the ways technologies are used and applied in current human cultures. They reflect the social, political, economic and cultural institutions of their nations. Compare the cultural differences between two relatively geographically close Asian cultures. The Japanese have a minimalist and often highly restrained aesthetic, while the Chinese make and design things with a gaudy and exuberant aesthetic. The difference is in part due to Japan being resource poor and China resource rich, and yet they share many similar cultural traditions their expression is different. Compare and contrast American and European aesthetic traditions as a Western example.

Even humanoid aliens will have a multitude of cultural and aesthetic differences from Earth evolved humans, due to their distinct evolutionary histories, their social, economic and political institutions, their technology will have similar differences.

Primitive humans in making artefacts as simple as stone axes displayed a tendency to go that extra bit further, in making them more symmetric than purely needed for their function. An alien humanoid might is likely to add either embellishments of the same kind in ordering the shape of a blaster to be more symmetrical or have it conform to some cultural imperative like, say, a resemblance to a sword due to its species' long historical tradition with sword wielding (this is a trivial and a not very alien example; but you should get the drift).

Differences with non-humanoid aliens will be much more extreme. There will always be the same technical functions present in their technology, but their entirely biological and cultural histories will shape remarkably different perceptions. The style and use of their technology can be expected to be different. A blaster may still be a blaster, but its shape and form may be unlike a human-made blaster. For example, xenophobe aliens are likely to always shoot first. Since this might, traditionally, be only a warning shot, learn to duck first.

One example of a TV show where differences in alien technology was commonplace, and not remarked upon, was Babylon 5 where spaceships of every alien species was designed to be different. So different, that a viewer only needed to see a spaceship you know which species it belonged to.

This approach can be used for guidance in designing the technology of an alien civilization. Devise ways their technology looks or works and make it distinctly theirs. Do the same for every alien civilization in your story too. This includes humans too, after all we're aliens from the perspective of the other, well, aliens. This works at the level of cultural aesthetics.

The next step up the great chain of being is to try imagine alien civilizations with utterly superior advance technology operating on hitherto inexplicable scientific principles. Some of this technology may be explicable, in terms of humans knowing what it does and possibly how it does, but humans may still have no idea how to make it work themselves. For example, aliens with FTL spaceships while humans can see what is does without a clue how it does it.

Other advanced technologies may simply do things without anyone having a clue how it does it. For example, "locking" humans out their solar system in some entirely inexplicable manner. (To cite another recent question here.)

If you want to achieve alien technology that seems truly alien and awesome, be unafraid to use your imagination and to do it with style.

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    $\begingroup$ A better example of culturally-based diverse human technology might be buildings, where the technology to build them is so commonplace that aesthetics is pretty much the only thing that drives the design. (Compare the Taj Mahal with the Sears Tower, for example) $\endgroup$ – Izkata Nov 10 '16 at 15:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Izkata. Yes buildings are an excellent example. Although modern buildings are becoming more homogenized, but that is itself only a current cultural fashion. Another example is clothing where culture & aesthetics are major drivers. Appreciate you mentioning architecture. $\endgroup$ – a4android Nov 11 '16 at 2:57
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Change the primary means of interacting with the technology

The most obvious way to make something appear alien to your viewer or reader would be to change the interface workings so that sight and (to a lesser extent touch) is de-emphasized, and bi-pedal hands-free locomotion is no longer the norm.

Picture your humanoid scouting crew encountering the interior of an alien ship or surface habitation: No flashing lights (no lights at all), no buttons, no viewscreens. Howls, whispers and smells emit from protrusions all along the ceiling with weblike patterns of rungs connecting them.

In this particular scenario sloth like aliens walk along the rungs and use voice and smell to command the vessel. The humanoid scouting crew is in effect standing on the ceiling.

The vessel is undoubtedly alien, but not so alien that your users would get lost trying to work out that there were obviously functions carried out at certain stations, and that commands or information could somehow be passed into them.

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Alien (as in technology) is really a subjective thing. What one person finds alien, other might find Earthly, with a higher technological level.

If you wrapped yourself up in a reflective suit and held a smartphone, you could easily pass as an alien to people only a century ago.

For me, alien technology would be something that appears to defy the basic principles of science as we know them. Making a seedling transform into a tree within minutes would be perfectly alien to me. Being able to listen voices 1000 km away (without using transmitter-receiver method) is alien technology for me. Warping time and space is alien.

It's not the show that makes it alien, it's the substance.

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Change fundamental reference frames.

For instance, make them operate on a time-scale that is far from ours. There is a fundamental difference to how we think of objects like a sizzling firework, a flowing river or a moving glazier based on how fast we operate. We tend to turn phenomena operating the same speed as us as detailed and nuanced, while phenomena too fast or slow tend to be either generalized into simple blocks or ignored.

Beings where years are like minutes will see whole other classes of phenomena as nuanced or simple. Think of a machine that is driven by continental drift - it would be very difficult for human explorers to even recognize it as a moving machinery, it might look like a static construction of unknown purpose ("Weird shape.. probably religious in nature").

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I would suggest hiding it behind the scenes as much as possible. That way you can get something that 'feels different' but whilst being able to to handwave away a lot of the "why".

This is taking the 'sufficiently advanced seems like magic' line.

However for the sake of explanation - imagine nanotech and AI and neural links are core components of what they do:

  • Things get changed invisibly by nanites.
  • AI gives really incredible prediction and precision.
  • Neural links give 'invisible' comms and general situational awareness, as well as the ability to use nanite/AI without anyone knowing - or being able to 'steal' and make use of themselves.

So an alien might walk into a firefight, and casually walk in such a way as the bullets just don't hit, because it knows precisely where and when they're going to land - they're dodging, but doing so enough in advance that they're merely altering gait slightly.

And then people fall over - unconscious or dead - because an appropriate blood vessel or neural pathway has been 'blocked' by nanotech (ordered by neural link, driven by AI).

Similar principles apply to vehicles etc. - we have vehicles because the static overhead of production. But with rapid (nanite) replication, it becomes entirely plausible to make a house - or car, or spacecraft - a temporary and personalised 'structure'.

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You can introduce elements that just don't work for humans, either that they lack the strength of senses to pick up on it or there is some physical restriction. Another fun way to twist it is to go the opposite. Think of something that is Human tech that the aliens would not be able to use or have difficulty using.

If you want an exercise in how to make something useful but alien try doing a series of tasks with your non-dominant hand and then describe the feeling. Sure, you can, but it feels off. That sort of feeling is what you want to inject into your new alien teck

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  • $\begingroup$ Really great comment on twisting things to make aliens that have trouble using human tech. Arthur C. Clarke wrote some good stories that involve this - try "Rescue Party" and "History Lesson", where aliens are able to make a little bit of sense out of human tech and even get a little use out of it, but it is awkward and they would probably have been better off just leaving the human things where they found them. Maybe your aliens can learn to operate a human jeep left behind by an exploration party but the alien driver has to stand on his head and operate the steering wheel with his feet. $\endgroup$ – Robert Columbia Nov 11 '16 at 18:36
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There is also a chance, that they are not accustomed to our environment, and therefore are not meant to be here.

For example: A Plant raised in a container, with no flow of air, will break by the slightest wind around it.

So why not make them or their technology be effected by our environment? For example a spaceship, that moves with the wind (as a tree does)?

And, if you (your species) comes from outer space and have never had, or had heard about (our) athmosphere, you wouldn't know about this strange behaviour (aerodynamics mentioned in the comment below), would you? And maby they don't need aerodynamics (if they never had an athmosphere, they couldn't have accounted for this (and never build an aircraft that like ours, that uses this "feature of nature) and therefore invented a different kind of engine (maby magnetically) or something like this.

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    $\begingroup$ Such a spacecraft would not be designed for aerodynamic loads, and thus totally unsuitable for landing. Any beings intelligent enough to build, maneuver and maintain such a spacecraft would know about that limitation, and would not be taking it into an atmosphere (even disregarding the issue of heat management during aerobraking). $\endgroup$ – a CVn Nov 10 '16 at 8:39
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Good Point, but maby they don't even need to land and use a different technology, so that they don't need aerodynamics $\endgroup$ – Frezzley Nov 10 '16 at 8:52
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Have them communicate by vomiting, and licking each others vomit up, thus exchanging complex organic molecules which encode long chains of data.

Or some disgustingly messy other fluid exchanges

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    $\begingroup$ I bet chefs on their world are not easily offended :) $\endgroup$ – Wossname Nov 13 '16 at 12:19
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The best way to show that something is alien is showing how humans react to it.

The human characters will not understand it. They might be afraid of it. They might be repulsed by it. They might accidentally break it. They might accidentally operate it, with disastrous consequences. They might overlook it. It might not be easy, finding the door on an alien wall.

This can be contrasted with aliens using their own technology. They have no problems at all.

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If you want a simple suggestion, imagine this technology as if it were invented to be wore/triggered/used by a cat/snake/frog/octopus or other animals.

They live in our world, but have developed different sizes, sharper senses, weird appendages.

Then adjust as you see fit.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, Spyryto, thanks for your contribution. Answers here should have facts, information and reasons why to support their case. You can improve your answer adding a few. Hope to see more answers & questions from you. $\endgroup$ – a4android Nov 10 '16 at 10:50
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Make every gadget, machinery, computational device "organic" simbiotic living thing according to their "biology" and almost seamlessly integrated to them.

For example:

They use atachable / detachable "cell phones" that integrate their (let's assume they have ears) auditory nerve and vocal nerves or deeper integration corresponding functional brain regions.

  • can repair and "upgrade" (evolve) themselves
  • they are immortal
  • can breed sexualy or asexualy (self-cloning)
  • can use many energy sources including hosts native biological energy source
  • can change their shape and texture (like chameleon)

PS: In TV sci-fi series "Far Scape" has a living space ship called Moya. At some point Maya gave birth to another space ship called Talyn

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Humans are "Carbon based organisms". So anything that is also carbon based is likely to look like something we're used to seeing. Squid, trees, lizards etc.

So don't make your aliens carbon based! Scientists have long theorised about "Silicon based organisms" as a viable alternative.

It is very likely that we simply wouldn't recognise such a being as a living thing until it did something like move around or radiate some exotic energy (RF / x-rays maybe). They might even be entirely solid objects without moving extremities and move around using magnetic fields attuned to the local fields of the planet they live on.

They might drink Fluoroantimonic acid for refreshment (no sane human would drink something 10 quadrillion times stronger than 100% sulphuric right?).

They might be entirely powered by the photoelectric effect (they basically become temporarily dead at night, comeing alive again at sunrise).

Silicon has been explored before in SF literature, so why not choose another element and try to imagine a world where that element became more successful than carbon as a basis for life?

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  • Green or red characters on a screen
  • Pointy things coming out
  • Looks like a cockroach
  • Slime
  • Has a low hum
  • Interiors are poorly lit
  • Scientists will not be able to activate it, but the main character will do it accidentally
  • Mist (whatever color the screen characters were)
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A couple of ideas that is not still said: make your aliens communicate over radio waves. This will allow them to talk without making noise and they will be able to use their equipment without any external input or output. This may also help them to pick up our radio or TV broadcast.

Make them sightless, instead they could use their radio waves similar to radars. With different wavelengths and refraction patterns they could make out different properties of matter. But that would not be the color. For instance, their static text could be made out of variance in material properties such as density. That kind of text would look like a decoration of different materials to us. They could also be sensitive to our visible light, and live under lower frequency light. Thus their vehicles will have windows, but they would be opaque to us.

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  • $\begingroup$ Easy to defeat though. RF travels a lot further than sound. Plus you could simply jam their "thought communications" frequencies by using a simple spark gap and a big battery. $\endgroup$ – Wossname Nov 13 '16 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ We are trying to find a superior way of controlling things. That might be their weakness. One interesting thing about these aliens could be their "noise" isolation method would be faraday cages. $\endgroup$ – Cem Kalyoncu Nov 13 '16 at 13:06
  • $\begingroup$ A Faraday cage would prevent their communications also. $\endgroup$ – Wossname Nov 13 '16 at 13:15
  • $\begingroup$ Not inside the cage, from outside or to outside. It would be like our walls blocking noise from/to outside. $\endgroup$ – Cem Kalyoncu Nov 13 '16 at 13:48

protected by James Nov 11 '16 at 16:54

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