Science Fiction & Fantasy

CHOSEN ONES

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Nonfiction

Vulcanize, Wookify, and Alienate Yourself

The alien creatures that populate the worlds of science fiction films draw people in because of their strangeness. Aliens represent singular ways to experience the world, from heat vision, to deep logic, to a bracing day of hunting commandos for sport. The allure of running out to see the alien is, by definition, its divergence with everyday life. It’s the ultimate escape.

People are always trying to bridge the gap between the alien and the human. Costumes, languages, philosophies, and whole conventions are constructed to bring the different worlds together. But if aliens were to step off the screen and into the real world, they’d see nothing more than crude imitations: papiermâché and facial putty.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The ever-advancing field of genetics sees the potential for the alien in the human, and the potential for bringing it out. So if, one day, these aliens did come to Earth, we might be able to meet them with exact copies. 

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Wookify Yourself

Most people, upon watching Star Wars, want to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker, but there are a few who gravitate towards the subtler charms of bellowing, Life Day, and multiple gun belts. For them, it is Chewbacca the Wookiee who they wish to imitate. The two main characteristics that make a Wookiee different from a human are full body hair and extreme height. Both are accomplishable by medicine right now.

The earliest record of someone with hypertrichosis was in 1648. It’s a painting of Petrus Gonzales, who, above the starched collar of his robe, has a face entirely covered in hair.  Hypertrichosis can cause hair to grow only on the face or in strange patterns on the face and body, and, in certain cases, entirely cover the face and body. Most of the time, it is congenital, but it may manifest in people at any age, under certain conditions. Drugs like phenytoin, cyclosporine, and minoxidil all cause different levels of hypertrichosis. It was initially thought that the drugs alone caused hypertrichosis, but it was found that certain head injuries caused it as well. With some study, scientists can isolate the exact changes in the brain, or the hormonal system, which causes such a condition, and can recreate it at will.

As for height, the pituitary gland stimulates growth by releasing growth hormone.  Although injecting growth hormone into adults is associated with growth in muscle mass (as well as a host of health problems) and nothing else, adolescents with a large amount of human growth hormone can grow extremely tall. Generally, the methods for stimulating the pituitary gland aren’t pretty—usually resulting in hormonal imbalance, injury, or a tumor. Eventually, though, there could be ways to stimulate the gland in a controlled manner, and thus it may become possible for any one of us to choose to be Wookie-sized.

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Vulcanize and Get Klingy

Vulcans and Klingons are probably the most human-like of all alien species. They act as the main protagonist and antagonist of the long-running TV shows and well-established movie franchises of the Star Trek universe. To imitate them, most of what’s needed is an attitude adjustment. Klingons are prideful and aggressive. Vulcans are arrogant and logical. Imitating them is mostly a matter of attending a few creepy summer camps.

But there are some outward physical characteristics. First, there are pointed ears, a feature shared by both species. This is a simple matter of surgery. A vertical incision is made at the top of the ear, and the cartilage is sewn back together in a point. In some cases, the procedure isn’t even done by a doctor. A body-modification specialist can do it with topical anesthetic.

Harder to emulate are the ridges that grow on the forehead of the Klingons. It might be possible to purposely create something like them on a human, assuming they are made of bone. Bone spurs are fairly common growths that form on otherwise healthy bones. They usually occur when the bone tries to repair tears caused by constant rubbing or stress. Most people have some bone spurs without even knowing it. Unless they press against joints or ligaments, they don’t cause any pain.  Enough rubbing, and some stretching and callusing of the skin on the head, and people might be able to get Klingon faces now.

Klingon and Vulcan anatomies do not only diverge from that of humans on the outside, though. Vulcans have a second eyelid, which protects them from too much light. Klingons have an entire second set of organs, which helps them heal otherwise catastrophic injuries. These organs are not within our capabilities to manufacture. However, if the Vulcans managed to peel up a human’s eyelids, and the Klingons ever got to inspect a human’s internal organs, the game would probably be up anyway. Continuing to fool them would be the least of the human’s problems.

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Become Predatory

The Predator would be an easy alien to imitate, at least at first contact, since it is mostly covered in armor at all times. A cunning enough costumer could duplicate a Predator’s clothing, and even the long, hair-like strands that attach to their heads.

People who want to sense the world the way the Predator does and meet them on their own terms have to go further. Predators can see in the infrared spectrum. Predatory snakes like pit vipers have pits on their heads that detect infrared light. The pits are filled with nerves that connect to the snake’s sensory system and, when snakes have two or more pits, let them build a three dimensional view of the world. The exact mechanism of this system is not known, however, so humans are far away from having the ability to biologically implant it. Better to just add an infrared camera to the helmet that Predators wear.

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Alienate

Xenomorphs (the aliens from the Alien franchise) are by far the most vicious of the science fiction creatures, and sadly the toughest acts to follow. With their elongated heads, their ultra-thin bodies, and their massive tails, it’s impossible to completely imitate them by any means currently known. The one advantage people have is that aliens come in many forms. Considering the fact that the movie only shows the forms that they take when they form in the host bodies of humans and dogs, it’s possible that they could look like almost anything. If humans can take on one or two characteristics of aliens, it’s possible that the aliens may consider them kin and leave them alone.

Superficially, the difference between Xenomorphs and humans is that Xenomorphs have a hard outer shell. Humans make their own version of these, to a limited degree. Keratin covers our fingers and toes in hard shells, and grows out of our heads in long strands. And although it doesn’t seem so, it’s present in skin as well. Tiny little keratin fragments are embedded throughout the skin, strengthening it. When rubbed enough, the filaments undergo a process called cornification. Keratin fragments group together into filaments, the filaments form tiny envelopes underneath the walls of the cell, and the nucleus and organelles of the cell disappear, and eventually the entire cell becomes a tough plate of keratin. This process happens anywhere the skin feels stress. It also happens in nail beds and in the follicles of hair. It happens in the cells that produce huge plates of baleen in whales. Humans have the potential to cover themselves in keratin and blend in well, if they find out how to stimulate that process in cells.

A tougher thing to imitate is the acid blood that is characteristic of the Xenomorphs. One of the challenges of killing a Xenomorph is negotiating a way to slice into it without getting sprayed with the caustic substance. Humans don’t have heavily acidic blood, but they do carry around acid of their own making. The cells that line the stomach, termed parietal cells, produce acid with a pH as low as one, that helps digest food. The stomach also produces bicarbonate, to bring up the pH of the acid, and cranks out mucus, which protects the stomach walls from getting dissolved. The acid is no substitute for blood, but if stomach-like pouches could be hidden under the skin—by manipulating existing cells or by implantation through surgery—humans could mimic the effects of acidic blood. These sacks could crank out acid while protecting themselves with mucus. Any cut in the skin would spray the attacker with acid. With a tough outer shell and an acidic interior waiting to melt the faces of an attacker, humans could be as feared as the Xenomorphs themselves.

Not a bad transformation for what should just be fleshy prey.

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Na’vision

Perhaps the most sought-after alien forms—in terms of imitation anyway—are the Na’vi. Avatar showed a culture of peace, freedom, and great physical joy springing up on Pandora.  Strangely enough, these accepting creatures may be the hardest to join. Everything seems to be stacked against humans. For one thing, the Na’vi are blue. On Earth, there is no blue species of mammal and there is no blue pigment on the human body. Even blue eyes are the result of scattered light, not actual blue coloration.

There may be one way humans can imitate the Na’vi functionally. The Na’vi have long tendrils that travel from their head and connect to other creatures. Human nerves are puny in comparison, but there are some creatures that have famously huge nerves. Axons, the long strands of the nerves that carry information from one end of the nerve to the other, can be several feet in length, but human axons are tiny and fragile. The giant squid, however, has an axon like a strand of fishing line, about a thousand times wider than human axons. It’s currently being studied in hopes of finding ways to repair and rebuild axons of humans who have suffered spinal damage. If scientists find a way to build and strengthen nerves, they might be able to engineer nerves tough enough to be connections to the outside world. The Na’vi seem friendly enough.  Perhaps they will cast aside ideas about appearance, and look more to emotional connection.

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There are ways to rig the human body to experience new sensations with current technology, and there will probably be more to come. Unfortunately, even within one familiar species, two people rarely experience the same thing the same way. Bodies lock everyone into their personal point of view. Even the best technology can only give humans an approximation of the alien experience they so obviously crave. Perhaps groundbreaking fiction, and a vivid imagination, will always be the best anyone can hope for.

That, and acid pouches.

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Esther Inglis-Arkell

Esther Inglis-Arkell has a degree in physics from Dartmouth College. She’s a contributing editor at io9, where she writes science pieces about how to calculate the distance from the earth to the moon and why warm beer goes flat. When she wants to break free of physical reality, she writes criticism of superhero comics for Comics Alliance and 4thletter. She currently lives in San Francisco, and hopes the layers of fog can give her an aura of mystery. It isn’t easy.