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On Origins of Species

Aka: the morphology of Science Fiction.

Over in Unleaded this week I talked about science fiction that lacks variation in phenotypes among alien species.  Here I’d like to talk about science fiction that has an abundance of variation in morphology.  And, oddly, just as I used the Na’vi as an example of a lack of the one, I’m going to use Pandora as an example of the abundance of the other.

Look around you.  Okay, perhaps not right now, because you’re at your computer and not in the middle of the zoo.  But perhaps you can see non-human mammals from where you are.  Pet dogs or cats, a gerbil or a hamster.  While there are a lot of ways they differ from you, they’re smaller, they’re fuzzier, depending on their species they poop in a box.  But they have faces.  Two eyes, two nostrils on one nose, two ears, one mouth.  They have four limbs.  Go to the zoo.  Look at the mammals.  Look at the reptiles.  Look at the birds.  Look at anything with a backbone, and what will you see.  Two eyes, one nose, two ears, one mouth, four limbs.  Even going back to the dinosaurs, there’s the same quantities of the same five features.

This is common descent at work.  Evolution found a formula that works, works well, and even while whole scale changes happen to species those few constants have remained.

Now look at Pandora.  Lots of six-limbed creatures, lots of four-limbed creatures.  Enough of a combination between the two that, during the movie, I had to work out just how such different morphology came to being on Pandora.  Which species shared common ancestors.  The fauna presented just didn’t offer enough similarities to the Na’vi for me to feel like there was a common ancestor.

Is this a big problem?  Probably not.  Are there people reading this who never gave a second thought to that?  Absolutely.  But it is one of those things to keep in mind when creating a new world, first to ask yourself whether it’s something you care about, whether you care if other people care about it, and then if you decide you do…what exactly you want to do about it.  This may involve another phase of your world building, but the resulting world will potentially be deeper and feel more cohesive in the end.

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