on August 1, 1999
This is a good overview of the basics of realistic SF aliens. However, I found it a bit too basic, and wished for more specifics. But the subject matter is just so broad and protean that anything more than a general overview like this would be very hard to achieve. Perhaps the most valuable portion of the book is its bibliography, referring the reader to numerous fiction and nonfiction works offering more detail. In many ways, this is as much a guide to the mechanics of writing about aliens as to the physics, psychology etc. of designing them, and it contains some good insights. I found the chapter on alien languages pretty interesting. Overall, it's certainly a useful reference, though I'm sure that supplementing it with works from the bibliography is necessary to get a fuller picture.
on September 23, 2004
I wanted this book in order to help me design alien races that would appear scientifically credible in a science-fiction universe. After having read its 220 pages what can I say? All the useful info could take a mere dozen pages.
There is lot of advice that could really be summarized like this: 1) be logical and think about the environment before inventing your race's characteristics; 2) read all you can about ethology; 3) Humans are obviously a scientifically credible race, thus in creating humanoid races you cannot be wrong. Ah great! I am glad to have read a whole book to learn just that. Then, here and there are a few tid bits of info really interesting, but in the end most of the text teach you very little on this subject.
Overall, I found this book disappointing.
The answer is no ... or yes, depending on what form and/or market your writing is goaled toward. If a science fiction novel was written to include every element presented in this manual, it would be as boring as reading a detailed summary of how to climb a step ladder. If you get too lost in the guidelines, you'll lose your creativity. A being with rubbery skin can live on a wet planet, but you don't have to detail that being's evolution from primordial ooze to rubber man down to the details of its DNA.
Writing "hard" science fiction is much different from writing "fantasy" science fiction, or "softer" science fiction. Mieville's cactus people wouldn't exist if he'd followed the restrictive rules of hard sci-fi, and they are intriguing. Mieville didn't build a world with climate, rotation, axis position, mean distance from a sun, the type of sun, or any other hard facts, he just made his species absorbable and intriguing. The presumption that even "hard" science fiction is for mathematicians, physicists, professors, scientists, and total numbers-geeks is preposterous and insolent.
You'll have to ask yourself, as a writer, "how far do you want to go?" Are you writing science or science fiction? Is this a thesis or compelling imagery? Schmidt pointed out that certain people write in to the publisher when the hard facts are shaky, but remember that these are guys portrayed by the "comic book guy" in The Simpsons. Do you cater to the few who don't have a life or do you use your creative talent to entertain the majority?
Even one of the stories mentioned by Schmidt, Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" didn't follow such strict guidelines as Schmidt presents, and still created one of the most intriguing aliens to have ever graced the written word. Weinbaum didn't explain Tweel's evolution, or any evolution on Mars, he didn't explain the rocket propulsions or the thermal sleeping bags or the reason Earth beings went to Mars, but he created a story that holds intrigue throughout many generations and is classified as "hard" science fiction (with humor). Heinlein rarely went into the details described in this book, nor Norton, but they are still classic Sci-Fi writers. Both Star Trek and Star Wars have broken apart Schmidt's theory of "necessary fundamentals".
Actual "writing about aliens" doesn't start until chapter eight, continuing through chapter nine. Many readers may give up before then. Science Fiction (IMHO) 'supposedly' takes for granted the fact that warp travel, or faster-than-light travel is accepted, I find no need to extrapolate a hard-science based core for this, whereas the author seems to think it's mandatory. I honestly don't believe the modern science fiction reader requires an extensive physics lecture to believe in faster-than-light travel.
Still, this book, IMHO, should be required reading for anyone who writes "hard" sci-fi or "fantasy" sci-fi. While the physics of the writing may seem overwhelming, the ideas you can (and will) develop from reading over the intricacies of foundation writing are invaluable. For the "hard" sci-fi writer this will be a beginner's manual, for the "fantasy" sci-fi writer it will be a guideline and an inspiration. Schmidt says, "The very essence of science fiction is that you'll be creating situations that no one has had to deal with before - and then inventing ways to deal with them." He quotes Hal Clement as saying, "Work out your world and its creatures as long as it remains fun; then write your story, making use of any of the details you have worked out which help the story." If you work within the strict guidelines of this book, Michael Crichton's "Jurassic Park" is "hard" science fiction rather than general fiction. (as would be many of Crichton's novels)
The Pros: The book is heavy with great references in both non-fiction and fiction, though the fictional references seem to be highly restricted to a clutch of about ten books rather than the broad range offered by hard sci-fi authors, plus there is an extensive reference, a glossary, and an index.
The Cons: With all the technical physics, technical astronomy, bioengineering, evolutionary and anthropological sciences introduced at the beginning, a budding writer might lose hope or interest before getting to the meatier parts of the book. These chapters, however, are necessary.
My recommendation is that if you are serious about either "hard" or "fantasy" sci-fi writing, you should pick up a copy of this book, but not as a "starter" for goals or inspiration. Rather, this book will fill out your thoughts and creativity after being stimulated by other, easier to read writing introductions. Good luck, and Enjoy!
on February 27, 2001
The book is not just about aliens and alien societies. It also deals with making proper stars and planets and what alien science might be like. Could of used more details on the subject of planet building, but there are other works that get into the nuts-and-bolts of that subject. This book touches lightly on alien culture, view points and history, not just the science of building an alien creature. Also, some of it might be outdated with our increasing knowledge of other planets and solar systems. It looks more and more like our idea of planet forming and how systems form might be slightly incorrect (if not out right wrong). That is why I held back a star.
on July 20, 2014
I'll admit that I rejected this book after reading only the Kindle sample. I wanted to read the whole book, but was too annoyed by the writing style. Here's an example: Chapter four is entitled "Biochemical Basics." Since "Biochemical" is an adjective, it means that that chapter is about some basics that are biochemical. I'm sure he means, instead, "Biochemistry Basics."
One more example. He says "The world a raccoon lives in ... could illustrate much of what I'll say. So could many other Earthly species." He means "So could the worlds of many other earthly species." Those kinds of things appeared often in the sample. If that doesn't bother you, or you don't even see the problem, then this book might be fine for you. I knew I'd be too annoyed, and I abandoned the book.