OnLine of Departure

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OnLine of Departure Support Wargames by Jim Werbaneth




Supplements and Player's Aids



Originally Published October 5, 2001

By Jim Werbaneth

As a life-long science fiction fan, I am familiar with most of the really outstanding alien races of the genre.  The Star Trek universe gave us some of the very best and, though originally portrayed as opponents, they had enough attractive qualities to be more than single-dimension villains, especially with the introduction of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  The quintessential Star Trek opponents, the Klingons, developed into creatures of honor and the warrior ethic, worthy though emotionally unruly allies of the Federation, a kind of samurai race with forehead ridges and dirty hair.

Similarly, the Romulans were aptly-named in that they always maintained a very Roman sense of dignity and decorum, tempered by an equally Roman penchant for cutthroat politics.  The Next Generation went even further than it did with the Klingons, by introducing the notion that the Romulans were redeemable.  They were long-lost kinsmen of the Vulcans, and when last we saw Spock he was sowing the seeds of their redemption through a promising missionary effort, bringing them Vulcan philosophy of logic and self-control.

The Vulcans themselves amount to a Faustian bargain, in which the barbaric and violent traits of their nature is vanquished with their rejection of emotion.  But, the original series continually asked, what good was discarded along with the evil aspects of that emotion?  This conflict, embodied in the half-human Spock, was eternally compelling and vital to the series.

Babylon 5 further demonstrated the conflict of emotion and logic, on a several different levels.  The humanoid Minbari religious caste was similar to the Vulcans in their penchant for meditation and internal peace, opposed by their own species’ violent and ambitious warrior caste.  At the same time, the Centauri presented another contrast, of a race given to Macchiavellian politics, hedonism, loud emotion, and extremes of kindness and awful cruelty.  Further enhancing their uniqueness, they were a people with multiple sets of sexual organs, a collective drinking problem, clothes borrowed from an eighteenth-century European court, and haircuts stolen from a peacock’s ass.

They were also tragically doomed.

Of course the central conflict on Babylon 5 was an archetypal one of the hidden Vorlon race, representing order and obedience, and the Shadows, another old race representing chaos, conflict, and social Darwinism taken to extremes that would make a Nazi wretch.

In literature, my favorite alien race is the Moties from The Mote in God’s Eye and its sequel The Gripping Hand, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.  They are so far removed from human norms of anatomy and physiognomy that they are asymmetrical in the layout of their limbs, with enhances their ability to function as the galaxy’s greatest tinkerers, which leads them into epic feats of inadvertent vandalism.

They further embody conflict, being doomed to repeat cycles of self-destruction and rebuilding on their home world.

Any mention of the word alien has to include the movie Alien and its sequels, featuring an H.R. Giger nightmare come to ravenous life.  As with the Moties, this species explicitly rejects an important aspect of human anatomy, in this case the presence of eyes, while embracing the insectoid exoskeleton, spiked and flailing tail, slime-dripping mouth, and rending claws that trigger elemental emotions of fear and dread in the base of our reptile brains.

Even this is just the culmination of a lifecycle calculated to shock, and bearing no resemblance to anything on this wet blue planet.  Whereas the Star Trek and Bablyon 5 races tended to be mirrors of different aspects of the human psyche-----after all, one could always reason with a Vulcan or drink with a Centauri, as long as you didn’t trust the latter not to cheat at cards-----the beings of Alien are entirely outside the realm of human reasoning.  They kill.  They reproduce. They eliminate any human whom they encounter.  End of discussion.

But for me, these are not the most disturbing fictional aliens. That honor has to go to the Zerg of the Starcraft real time strategy game, from Blizzard Entertainment.

Playing as the Terran, my introduction to the Zerg was probably similar to most Starcraft players, and that was as the target for a massive alien attack.  The “Zergling” warriors look and act on the screen something like a cross between the creatures in Aliens, although in even larger numbers, and the Arachnids of Starship Troopers (more the movie than the book version).

Zerglings and their larger combatant cousins swarm over everything, winning through sheer insect-like mass as much as anything.  There comes a time, and it is liable to happen many times, that a strong human defense suddenly looks like the speed bump that it really is, regardless of bunkers, tanks, and aircraft.  Marines might kill Zergs, and even kill a lot, but if they really want to wipe out the Terrans there are always more, and if the defending military units are wiped, even a few acting with impunity can wipe out an entire base.

The game’s designers created a social structure and lifecycle for the Zerg that is as creative as anything in science fiction, including novels.  As with the Arachnid “Bugs” that Robert Heinlein created for Starship Troopers, Zerg lack individuality.  For most, their pitifully primitive brains can handle none but the most basic functions and directives.  For higher mental powers, they rely on Zerg “Overlords,” which float over the game like malformed jellyfish, and perform much the same function as Heinlein’s “Brain” Bugs.

These in turn are subordinate to the Overmind.  The Overmind is the central reasoning and decision-making entity of the entire Zerg species and, like the Borg collective of Star Trek, assimilates all the knowledge of the species that its servants assimilate.  But most unlike the Borg, who have concern for the biological attributes of their victims, the Zerg also assimilate their DNA sequences.

Both the Zerg and the psionically-gifted Protoss, the other alien species of Starcraft, were created by long-lost Xel’Naga race, given to manipulating the genetics of selected species to improve them in the creators’ own image.  But the Zerg, in an act of rebellion that goes beyond the Biblical, rose and overwhelmed their creators, with the Overmind absorbing their mental essence and physical genetic material.

In effect, the Zerg killed and ate their gods, and thus became gods themselves.

The Zerg concern for DNA is vital to their character, as they are a metamorphic race, capable of altering themselves genetically to adapt to a specific purpose.  This goes right to their heart of their lifecycle.

They begin life as larvae.  A Zerg larva is the t-cell of its race, as it can be changed into any of the more specialized subtypes: In the beginning these are the worker drone, the overlord, and then the fighting Zergling.  As time goes on and capabilities build, they can also morph into more advanced warrior types that crawl or fly.

The crablike drone is not necessarily done with its changes.  The Zerg do not build structures, as the humans do.  Instead, they become structures.  For example, whereas Terran workers would build a gas refinery, a Zerg drone would move to the gasfield, and actually metamorphize into a refinery.

The same goes for all the other structures that add capabilities.  Just as larvae do when they enter an egg state before becoming more functional types, drones become disgusting, pulsating sacs of flesh anchored to the ground.  Then they hatch with a revolting, squishy sound and the rending of the sac.

The creep is the most disturbing Zerg characteristic of them all.  Very few of their living structures can be built on normal land.  What they need is a carpet of alien secretion that Starcraft terms creep.  Specialized Zergs spread it to enlarge the colony, and one can often judge its age and vitality by the amount of creep surrounding it.

This is the final element in portraying the Zerg as something familiar to many Earthbound humans: They are cancer.  I have seen cancerous lesions up close and personal, and can attest that creep looks very similar.  In fact, I have never seen anything on this Earth that looked so alien as cancerous tissue, and firmly believe that if I even did meet a real alien, I would be less horrified.

Creep does not just look like cancer, it acts like it too.  Creep spreads from the center of infection, and covers, and chokes, all terrain in its path.

Furthermore, many of those other Zerg changes bear resemblance to tumors as well.  Even when they do not, the game does an amazing job of making them look just plain wrong.

The word “infestation” occurs more than once in Starcraft when it comes to the Zerg.  They can infest human assets, and people, thereby turning them to Zerg purposes, again much as cancer hijacks cellular processes to replicate its own mutated cells.

These are the most disturbing, often disgusting, fictional aliens I have ever encountered in literature, film, television, or gaming.  In Starcraft, the Zerg are an alien species, and much more.  They are a disease, and the game uses all the images to call cancer to mind.  I would find it extremely difficult to believe that this was an accident, or that the designers and artists had never seen a tumor or lesion with their own eyes.

Science fiction is full of species that can be described as malign.  But the Zerg stand out as being genuinely malignant.  If the creators of Starcraft intended to originate a species embodying dread and horror, they have succeeded admirably.  For some, the cancerous nature of the Zerg might hit too close to home for comfort. Yet that elemental discomfort is what makes them a most horribly memorable and effective instance of alien evil.