The biggest takeaway for me was recognizing that a certain amount of similarity between an alien character and the human reader is necessary for there to be insight into the human condition. An alien who is too different becomes more like scenery or environment. Among the aliens who straddle the line gracefully, the panelists frequently made mention of China Mieville’s Embassytown, in which the aliens think so differently from humans, the mere presence of human settlers on their planet creates problems with their language and therefore their thinking.
Another important point made by the panelists was how important it was to make the physiology, philosophy, politics, and behavior of your aliens matter to the plot. If some aspect of your aliens’ design doesn’t serve the plot, it is like an extraneous character.
For my own writing, I realized that as exhaustively as I tend to plot out my alien worlds, there is still a lot of stuff missing when you consider all the niches that, for example, life on Earth exploits. And in that process of filling out my world, I have to stop going for easy analogs like viruses, insects, squirrels, dogs, and, of course, humans.
by Mark Salzwedel