By Taylor Marvin
I recently watched the 2013 film Ender’s Game, which brings to mind a science fiction pet peeve. In the film, humanity faces off against an insect-like alien culture, whose spacecraft mirror their appearance. This is a common motif in science fiction. In Star Trek: Enterprise’s third season, a reptilian alien species’ ships recall their scaled and spiked appearance, and the robotic attackers deployed by the alien invaders in the 2007 computer game Crysis resemble their creators. Across science fiction, the vehicles of particularly “exotic” aliens — that is to say, not human-like — frequently feature an “organic” design scheme of curved lines and bright colors that brings to mind the aliens themselves.
Of course, this is partially due to the constraints of visual media. Directors want audiences to be able to link spacecraft with the alien culture that built them, so deliberately draw visual similarities between the two. Writers and artists also often wish to suggest that aliens are alien, and craft spaceships as far from real-world designs as possible.
But there’s a problem with this logic. Humans are fleshy creatures, but our spacecraft don’t resemble chunks of meat in various shades of brown. Why should aliens, particularly aliens who build their vehicles out of metals and composites, just as we do, be any different? Why should alien spacecrafts’ visual aesthetic recall their creators’ bodies, while humanity’s do not?
This isn’t to say that aliens would be unable to learn about humans from our vehicles. The design of a fighter aircraft, for instance, reflects a human species whose individuals tend to be about five to six feet tall, who get most of their sensory information from swiveling visible light sensors mounted on top of their body, and who are unable to be upside down for long periods of time. More speculatively, perhaps alien attackers would draw cultural information from the fact that the combat air vehicles that fly off the humans’ bigger sea vehicles tend to be more brightly decorated with subcultural markers than the air vehicles that take off from the ground — though I’m not sure how helpful this information could be to an alien attacker.
All this is to say that while intelligent aliens would likely think and behave extraordinarily different from us, there are only so many ways to build a solar sail or fusion rocket. Particularly when limited by the universal constraints of physics and weight optimization, it wouldn’t be surprising for an alien spacecraft to roughly resemble human designs.