Recently I’ve been watching a slate of films in the Lost World subgenre, which has gotten me thinking about the dinosaurs and all the other magnificent archosaurs that once roamed the Earth (and still do in the case of birds and crocodilians!), and how they might serve as a better inspiration for science fictional aliens than the rubber-forehead humanoid variety, including for my own works and world, which have already drawn heavily upon dinosaurs, extant avian and extinct non-avian alike, as well as other archosaurs.
Glory to “Dinosaur Island” (2014)!
Lost World films I’ve seen recently range from 1992’s “The Lost World” with John Rhys-Davies, a good entry in the long list of adaptations of the original story, to 2014’s “Dinosaur Island”, which I love and adore. Dinosaur Island’s story is much like something I’d write to be honest; wonder and adventure at every turn as they romp through a fantastic world and all its sights, sensations, and perils.
The characters too. There are really only two characters; a 13-year-old boy (Lucas) and a 15-year-old girl (Kate) meet in the lost world, the latter being beautiful, cute, sweet, feminine, charming, and smart, a disposition superficially grading to the eccentric and nutty but in actuality more level-headed than anyone. Kate in “Dinosaur Island”, played by the lovely Kate Rasmussen (who according to IMDB has only ever appeared in that one movie!), would make a great Adamas Nemesis girl.
Anyway, the standout attraction of “Dinosaur Island” is, of course, the dinosaurs; aside from being beautifully animated, their depiction in this film (so many gorgeous feathers!) still stands as the most up-to-date, and I think by far the closest to how the dinosaurs actually looked and acted like. Less “terrible lizard” and more “terrible bird”; or wonderful bird, as is the case with Kate’s pet Mimos, who can fly around and talk much like our talking birds, but is unmistakably dinosaurian rather than avian.
Aside from birds and (far more distantly) crocodilians we don’t really have anything like the dinosaurs and pterosaurs around today, yet such huge and magnificent creatures once walked and flew on the Earth, making them an obvious inspiration for plausible yet otherworldly life-forms.
Dinosaurs of Star Wars and Star Trek
“Star Wars” has taken this idea and run with it over the years; dinosauroids might just be the most common type of alien in that universe, rivaled only by (to quote Tera Sinube) “fish guys”! According to this excellent blog post, dinosaurs have been a big part of Star Wars from the beginning, from the dewback to the Gungans, from a dinosaur Jedi Knight (he appeared at Geonosis) to the wildlife of Dagobah. Jedi Master Tera Sinube from “The Clone Wars” (most prominently appearing in Season 2’s “Lightsaber Lost”) is also quite dinosaurian.
That other big space-opera universe “Star Trek”, aside from “Distant Origin” in Season 3 of Voyager, where the Voth species turns out to have literally descended from dinosaurs, doesn’t indulge in dinosauroids nearly as often, instead preferring humanoids. In (especially visual) science fiction there are good reasons for this, but I try to stay away from this trope in my own work.
The Superiority of the Archosaur
Why use humans or even great apes as the template when dolphins, elephants, wolves, octopuses, squid, and, more to the point, crows and parrots are all highly intelligent? They’re all much more interesting, and additionally I would argue the birds and their dinosaur ancestors are superior to mammals.
Consider that birds have air sacs that make their respiration far more efficient, and their bones are hollow, enabling easier flight and growth to much larger sizes. Dinosaurs too had these features; one reason the sauropods could grow so large is because their bones were hollow. Our bones and lungs suck compared to the archosaurs.
As if that wasn’t enough, bird brains are far more efficient than ours; the blue jay is as intelligent as any non-human animal is, and its brain is the size of a walnut. Feathers also produce far more variety in both color and texture than hair or fur does. Plus the syrinx is apparently much better at producing sound than the larynx is.
It’s a Dinosaur’s Universe
With all that in mind the archosaurs honestly deserved to retain dominance and develop an intelligence, but it is what it is. Nevertheless the birds still dominate Earth’s more maritime and southerly reaches, so the dinosaurs have had a pretty good run even after Chicxulub. The pleasure of the worldbuilder, of course, is in imagining other planets where life-forms resembling archosaurs developed and did reach their full potential.
These worlds might be more common than many think; considering all the advantages archosaurs enjoy, in the aggregate across the cosmos the most successful complex land and air animals will more likely bear a resemblance to archosaurs than mammals, even if there are some worlds, like our own, that go a different way.
Worldbuilding Dinosaur Aliens
As for dinosaurian aliens, I have already imagined the Belperevians, basically sauropod dinosaurs up to a kilometer long covered in woolly white feathers (the winters are -200 degrees Fahrenheit…) and the Thalassans, basically sleek-feathered birds with wings thirty feet wide that share a few features with pterodactyls. The unnamed glowing butterfly-like aliens in “Calypso, Girl of the Crystal City” are actually supposed to be archosauroid, not insectoid; the butterfly comparison comes from how big and delicate their wings are. A reader who pays close attention to my books will notice that most alien wildlife described on most planets is either bird-like or dinosaur-like; mammal-like aliens barely appear.
In my next story the planet featured most prominently will be an ocean planet but for a few islands, one of which is the residence of leading girl Anastasia, and is also a hub for migrating and breeding local alien life that resembles the earlier flying dinosaurs as well as modern-day birds. Big creatures, comparable to a man, that can talk like modern talking birds and have wings with fully-functional forelimbs and mouths with fully-functional teeth, not to mention brilliantly-colored and whimsical feathers, will appear and will be tamed by Anastasia. I’m also considering a species resembling a giant owl, but perhaps a bit more dinosaur-like, to also be native to the place and tamed by the leading girl.
These creatures will serve not only as pets for Anastasia but also as helpers for raising her ten children; yes, she’s going to have dinosaur nannies. Them being sub-sapient and just imitating her speech would be cute, but it might be better to make them sapient so they can be better nannies. This, however, means that primitives would be inducted as domestic servants as soon as the fair blonde-haired blue-eyed girl comes from afar, which gives off a more colonialist vibe than I wanted, and isn’t entirely consistent with the hermetic-individualist nature of her culture anyway.
No, I think they’ll be pets, and while the idea of employing animals as babysitters might seem weird there are so-called “nanny dog” breeds; admittedly it’s more of a stretch to induct wild animals, even tamed ones, into such a role, but with robots to supervise and assist the children as well as some improvement in training techniques and much better identification of good temperament in the animals it’s really not that weird.
Say No to Shrink-Wrapping!
As I said earlier all these beasts will have abundant, vivid, and whimsical feathers on them, and plenty of fat and soft tissue. “Shrink-wrapping”, the late-20th-century trend to depict prehistoric creatures as nothing more than skin and bones, is atrocious and those who depict archosaurs should emphasize the soft-tissue structures that get lost in the shuttle of fossilization. You’d never know that small birds were puffy fuzzballs or that elephants had trunks from their skeletons. We should use our imaginations some.
Last but not least, let’s keep in mind that archosaurs don’t just include dinosaurs and birds. Pterosaurs are also archosaurs, as are crocodilians, the latter of which has a much more stereotypically reptilian appearance. In the marine realm, plesiosaurs are an entirely separate reptilian lineage from the archosaurs, and the mosasaurs are squamates, the same lineage that produced lizards and snakes.
Huge Alien Snakes? Ooh…
Speaking of snakes, lately I’ve become quite interested in their means of locomotion, how an alien world that was dominated by slithering creatures, in particular ones that were huge, with at least one variety being sapient, might be very interesting; it’s been suggested that such creatures might become dominant on worlds with very high gravities, though the most plausible scenario might be a bit more random than “high gravity=snake world”.
I considered introducing giant alien talking snakes into my leading girl’s lifestyle, but that would make the atmosphere much creepier than I wanted. Perhaps I’ll include a creepy snake girl in a different story.
Anyway, I guess this post was a bit of a rambling, but I wanted to share my thoughts on this topic while they were still fresh in my mind and I was enthusiastic about them, and that is sort of the point of a blog, isn’t it? I guess an increased willingness to write and publish such posts is why my rate of posting has become so torrid recently, but I think my readers are enjoying seeing the more “raw” output as much as I am enjoying writing it, so it’s all good!
If you found any of this interesting I encourage you to surf the Web and do a deep dive on the dinosaurs and other ancient reptilians; it’ll be worth it, believe me.