Review: “Aliens: Cauldron” By Diane Carey (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for horror fiction and, since it’s been quite a while since I last read an “Aliens” novel, I thought that I’d check out a second-hand novel I found online a few weeks earlier called “Aliens: Cauldron” (2007) by Diane Carey.

Although this novel tells a self-contained “Aliens” story and can probably be enjoyed without having seen any of the films, it’s probably worth watching at least one or two of the first four “Alien” films before reading this just so that you have a better idea of what the alien monsters look like. Even so, they are described in this novel.

So, let’s take a look at “Aliens: Cauldron”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2007 Dark Horse Books (US) paperback edition of “Aliens: Cauldron” that I read.

The novel begins in space, on the cargo ship Virginia which is caught in a moon’s gravity and close to spiralling out of control. Directed by their charismatic captain, Nick Alley, the crew barely manage to keep the ship under control and, after a small crash with the ship they are meeting to exchange cargo with, both crews breathe a sigh of relief.

Later, in the cargo hold of the Virginia, a couple of crew members carefully doctor the ship’s records to disguise a rogue cargo container containing several dead alien specimens that they’ve been paid a lot to smuggle. However, due to a bizarre series of coincidences, the container gets opened and it turns out that the alien specimens aren’t quite as dead as they had been led to believe.

Meanwhile, on the cargo vessel Umiak, several space cadets are getting ready for a tour of duty before being dropped off at university on the terraformed planet Zone Emerald. The ship’s harsh captain, Pangborn, hates the cadets – not to mention that the cadets don’t exactly get along well with each other either. Still, the tour of duty promises to be a boring one – with the highlight being an upcoming automated cargo transfer with a ship carrying stasis-frozen livestock to Zone Emerald. That ship is, of course, the Virginia….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I both loved and hated it. In short, this novel was one that slowly grew on me when I was reading it. Even so, when it is good it is good and when it isn’t, then it really isn’t.

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements and these are really good, if somewhat different to what I’d expected. Although there are a few well-written moments of gory horror, cruel horror, tragic horror and/or monster horror, the bulk of this novel’s horror comes from suspense, tension, claustrophobia and the characters. And this is handled expertly – whether it is several creepily unsympathetic characters who are trapped in space together, the inexperienced cadets facing danger, the constant feeling of fractious tension between the Umiak‘s crew or the many moments of claustrophobic suspense. Although this novel probably won’t frighten you, it’ll certainly make you feel nervous or uneasy at times.

The novel’s sci-fi elements are also fairly complex too, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, all of the futuristic technology etc… in the story feels well thought-out and very “real”. On the downside, this is achieved through lots of slow-paced descriptive segments (especially in the earlier parts of the novel) that almost seem more at home in a more sedate “Star Trek” novel than a thrilling “Aliens” novel. In other words, all of the cool sci-fi stuff actually tends to weigh the story down a bit too much at times. Even so, all of this meticulous description does pave the way for some brilliant set-pieces during a few later parts of the story.

Talking of “Star Trek”, one of the interesting things about this novel is how it is a bit like a more cynical version of “Star Trek”. The novel does this by focusing a lot on nautical traditions and by making several of the characters a bit more morally-ambiguous than the upstanding spacefarers you’d expect to see in “Star Trek”. On the one hand, this adds a satirical edge, a slight dose of realism and a bleak, tense atmosphere to the story. On the other hand, this also results in a few yawn-inducing nautical lectures, too many characters (2-3 crews, plus some space pirates) and a few cartoonish characters (eg: the harsh captain, the arrogant cadet etc..). So, this element of the story is kind of a mixed bag.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re reasonably good most of the time. There’s a good mixture between fast-paced action scenes and slower moments of suspense. However, although this novel includes thriller novel-like moments throughout, it only really seems to become the kind of grippingly streamlined thriller novel that you’d expect during the later parts. Even so, the novel’s story remains intriguingly unpredictable throughout and it contains many moments that might catch you off-guard or make you curious about what will happen next. Even the story’s ending is, for an “Aliens” novel, something that might catch you by surprise.

In terms of the characters, they aren’t really one of this novel’s strengths. One of the problems is that there are almost too many of them to keep track of, or become invested in, during some parts of the novel (the slightly confusing opening scene is especially annoying in this respect). Whilst there is a core group of characters that you’ll get to know and will probably end up caring about, they can sometimes be a little on the corny and/or stylised side of things. On the plus side, this novel includes some suspenseful “villain vs villain” scenes between Captain Pangborn and one of the cadets, which are almost cartoonish enough to be amusing but just about understated enough to be creepily menacing.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is also a bit of a mixed bag. In the later parts of the novel, where the narration becomes a bit more streamlined and “matter of fact”, it really helps to carry the story and bring it to life. However, the earlier and middle parts of the novel often tend to use a slightly more formal, slow-paced and description/exposition-heavy style which, whilst it does add some depth and atmosphere to the story, isn’t really a good fit with the kind of thrillingly fast-paced story you’d expect to see in an “Aliens” novel and it can make these parts of the story a bit of a chore to read at times. Still, once you get used to the writing style, then this becomes less of an issue.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is also a mixed bag. At 284 pages, this novel may seem reasonably short but the small print and passages of formal narration can make it feel slightly more like 400. As for the pacing, the novel’s early-middle parts can be a bit slow-paced (which works well during some suspenseful moments, but can make other moments a bit boring), although the middle-late parts of the novel are the kind of confident, streamlined and grippingly fast-paced thriller that you’d expect from an “Aliens” novel.

All in all, this novel is a mixed bag. Although it isn’t perfect, there is a good story in here. This is one of those books that will grow on you if you keep reading it and, although it can be a bit too slow-paced and/or corny at times, it is also a fairly unpredictable, suspenseful and creepy sci-fi/horror thriller novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.

Review: “Aliens: DNA War” By Diane Carey (Novel)

Well, it has been a while since I last read an “Aliens” novel and, since I was going through a bit of a sci-fi phase, I looked around online and ended up finding a second-hand copy of Diane Carey’s 2006 novel “Aliens: DNA War”.

Although it is theoretically possible to read this original spin-off story without watching any of the “Aliens” films, it is worth watching at least the first two films (Alien” and “Aliens) before reading this book, since the novel basically assumes that the reader knows at least a little about the series’ famous alien monsters.

So, let’s take a look at “Aliens: DNA War”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2006 DH Press (US) paperback edition of “Aliens: DNA War” that I read.

The story begins on the spaceship Vinza, which is trying to land on a habitable planet called Rosamond 6 to evacuate a science team before a team of aggressive terraforming robots can deal with the xenomorph infestation that is killing off the planet’s fauna. However, the ship is having some problems. Namely that the medic’s pet bat has got loose and the rest of the crew are trying to catch it.

When they eventually land on the planet, the ship’s legal officer – Rory Malveaux – joins in the expedition to find the scientists, since he is the son of famed ecologist Jocasta Malveaux, who is leading the research team. Needless to say, Rory did not have a happy childhood and feels that he will be the only one there who will be able to persuade his fanatical, manipulative and charismatic mother to leave the planet.

However, when they reach the main research settlement, all that the team finds are several corpses. Although the rest of the crew want to get the hell out of there, Rory points out that most of the research team is still unaccounted for and that he won’t sign off on using the terraforming robots until he has found them……

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a suspenseful, and gloriously cheesy, sci-fi horror thriller 🙂 Whilst this novel is both similar and different to the other “Aliens” novels that I’ve read, it remained compelling throughout. It also reminded me a little bit of the later “Prometheus” prequel movie (mostly due to the planet-based scenes), whilst still having a fairly classic “Aliens”-style atmosphere too 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it tends to rely more on suspense and character-based horror than on gory horror. Sure, the novel contains a few grotesque scenes of grisly alien-based horror but the main sources of horror here are the hostile environment that the characters find themselves in, Jocasta’s sociopathic nature and the way that character deaths affect the other characters. So, whilst this novel isn’t that much of a gore-fest (relatively speaking), it still works really well as a horror novel.

In terms of the characters, although there are a surprisingly large number of background characters, the main characters are fairly well-written (if a little stylised). Although Rory is a likeable and slightly morally-ambiguous main character, the most well-written character is probably the story’s villain, Jocasta. She’s this creepily evil charismatic cult leader, who is also a fanatical environmentalist who cares more about aliens and science than about humans. Seriously, as villains go, she’s actually scarier than the aliens.

Jocasta is also contrasted with a space medic called Bonnie who, in addition to being a love interest for Rory, also seems to be like a “good” version of Jocasta who cares about both humans and animals (eg: an adorable pet bat called Butterball). Although she makes some rather naive mistakes during the story, which help to add suspense to some scenes, she comes across as a really likeable and realistic character.

In terms of the sci-fi elements, this novel contains some fairly interesting technology, not to mention an intriguingly mysterious planet too. Still, a lot of the focus of this story is on the ethics and legality of things like space exploration and terraforming.

This is also used as an avenue to show the inadequate nature of fixed rules in a complex universe, with even the most “lawful” character (Rory) having a fairly morally-ambiguous past. Likewise, the novel’s laws about terraforming are used as both a weapon against Jocasta and a tool for Jocasta and her fanatics. It’s a really interesting novel about the gap between formal rules and reality.

It’s also a novel about the dangers of things like ideologies and personality cults too, with these elements being one of the novel’s main sources of horror. And, in this spirit, the novel is also written in a brilliant way that will probably frustrate anyone wanting to analyse it in political terms (eg: it’s both a liberal and a conservative novel etc..). In other words, this is a novel about ambiguity and plurality.

Likewise, the novel mostly stays within the general mythology of the “Alien” films, whilst also doing a few innovative things with the alien creatures too. This helps to keep things surprising and suspenseful, whilst also allowing Carey to use the reader’s knowledge of the films to add extra suspense and implied horror during a few scenes too 🙂

In terms of the writing, the novel’s first-person narration is written in a fairly informal way. Although this includes a few slightly quirky descriptions, these help to give the story a bit of personality (as well as adding to the “cheesy late-night sci-fi movie” atmosphere 🙂) and are part of the fun of the novel. Likewise, the informal narration also helps to keep the story moving at a decent pace and allows for a few occasional moments of comedy too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a wonderfully efficient 269 pages in length, this novel never really feels too long. Likewise, there’s a really good mixture between slower-paced moments of claustrophobic suspense, character-based drama etc… and faster-paced moments of drama and action. This novel flows really well and moves along at a fairly decent pace.

All in all, this is a really fun, suspenseful and compelling sci-fi horror thriller 🙂 Yes, it contains a few tropes which seem to turn up in almost every “Aliens” novel I’ve read (eg: sociopathic scientists, desolate planets/space stations etc..) but it still a compelling story with some really good character-based horror too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

Review: “Aliens: Rogue” By Sandy Schofield (Novel)

Note: Due to scheduling reasons, the “making of” line art post for my recent webcomic mini series won’t appear here until tomorrow. Sorry about this.

Well, although I’d originally planned to read something a bit more “high brow”, I was kind of in a stressed out mood and just wanted to read something fun. Something like the kind of novels I used to read all of the time when I was a teenager.

Then I remembered that I still hadn’t read the second half of a two-novel “Aliens” omnibus (that contains Robert Sheckley’s 1995 novel “Aliens: Alien Harvest” and Sandy Schofield’s 1996 novel “Aliens: Rogue”) that I’d bought second-hand a few months ago. So, this seemed like the perfect opportunity 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Aliens: Rogue”. Needless to say, this review may contain SPOILERS.

This is the 1996 Orion (UK) paperback omnibus that contained the version of “Aliens: Rogue” I read.

The novel begins with the crew of a civilian spacecraft, captained by Joyce Palmer, emerging from suspended animation after a long voyage to a remote asteroid facility called Charon Base. The spacecraft is carrying a passenger called Mr.Cray to the facility, since he seems to have some kind of classified business there.

Meanwhile, in the former penal colony mining tunnels near the facility, a detachment of space marines are trying to catch an alien specimen for Professor Kleist, the ZCT Corporation scientist who runs the facility. Unfortunately, the experimental technology the marines are using to stun the deadly aliens doesn’t work perfectly and one of the marines is killed – prompting another marine to blast the alien to smithereens with his rifle. Watching on CCTV, Kleist is absolutely horrified…. about the death of one of his alien specimens.

After a brief meeting with Kleist, Joyce and her crew stay at the facility for a few days. Although Joyce is happy to meet her occasional lover, Hank, she soon starts hearing news of mysterious deaths and disappearances amongst the facility’s crew and decides to investigate…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it isn’t anything particularly new, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to read 🙂 Although the basic premise (an alien-filled research facility run by a mad scientist) is pretty much identical to S.D.Perry’s “Aliens: The Labyrinth“, the novel does a few interesting things with this premise.

This novel is as much of an action-thriller novel as a sci-fi horror novel, with the general tone and atmosphere of the novel reminding me a lot of the original “Red Faction” computer game.

In addition to lots of desolate mining tunnels, a lot of the novel focuses on several groups of characters (both civilian and military) who start a resistance movement against Kleist and his henchmen. So, in a lot of ways, this is also a dystopian novel too 🙂 Yes, the “plucky band of rebels” thing is a well-worn sci-fi/fantasy trope, but it’s handled in a really thrilling way in this novel, which will really have you cheering for the rebels.

Seriously, although it contains nothing especially new, this novel is the perfect blend of dystopian sci-fi, thrilling action and macabre horror fiction 🙂 Reading this novel is like watching a really fun late-night 1980s/90s B-movie, like “Fortress” or something like that.

As for the horror elements of this novel, they’re pretty good. Although this novel isn’t that scary, it certainly has a rather ominous claustrophobic atmosphere, in addition to lots of grisly moments of gory horror, creepy alien-based moments (including a giant genetically-engineered alien king) and plenty of scenes featuring Kleist’s evil experiments too. These horror elements complement the novel’s action-thriller elements really well and not only add more atmosphere and tension to the story, but also give it a bit more depth by allowing for more moments of human drama too.

As for characterisation, this novel is reasonably decent, with several of the civilian and military characters receiving enough backstory and emotional moments to make you care about what happens to them. Likewise, the space marines are also shown to be an efficient, courageous and resourceful team too. However, the evil Professor Kleist and his security guard henchmen don’t really get much in the way of backstory and mostly just come across as cheesy, melodramatic “villain” characters (which is kind of fun in a “corny B-movie” kind of way, though).

In terms of the writing in this novel, it’s reasonably good. This novel’s third-person narration is descriptive enough to be atmospheric whilst also being “matter of fact” enough to not only keep the story moving at a decent pace, but also to make it reasonably relaxing to read too. Even so, in the edition I read, the editor missed a few basic mistakes (eg: misspelling Cray’s name as “Clay” once, spelling “gel” as “jell” once etc..) to the point where these errors actually became noticeable.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. In addition to being a fairly efficient 288 pages long, the pacing in this novel is fairly good. It starts off in a suitably ominous way before gradually building into a more traditional thriller (where chapters jump between two or three groups of characters, with lots of mini cliffhangers etc..) which remains fairly gripping throughout.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it’s aged really well. Although the story has a fairly “1990s late-night TV” kind of atmosphere during a few moments, this just adds to the story’s enjoyably fun “cheesy B-movie” quality. But, like with S.D.Perry’s “Aliens: The Labyrinth”, this novel is pretty timeless thanks to it’s distant-future setting (which still comes across as reasonably futuristic).

All in all, whilst this novel doesn’t really do anything new, it is still a lot of fun to read. So, if you want to relax with the literary equivalent of a great late-night movie from the 1990s, then this novel is well worth checking out. Likewise, if you want a dystopian sci-fi horror thriller novel, then this is definitely one of the more enjoyable ones.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

Review: “Aliens: The Labyrinth” By S. D. Perry (Novel)

Well, it’s been a little while since I last read a horror novel. So, after searching through some of my piles of books, I found an old copy of S.D.Perry’s 1996 novel “Aliens: The Labyrinth”. Although I really enjoyed Perry’s novelisations of the “Resident Evil” videogames when I was a teenager, I also had vague memories of enjoying a couple of “Aliens” novels back then too.

Since I initially wasn’t sure whether I’d already read this novel before (although about two-thirds of the way through, I realised that I had), I thought that I’d check it out.

So, let’s take (another) look at “Aliens: The Labyrinth”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1999 Millennium (UK) paperback reprint of “Aliens: The Labyrinth” (1996) that I read.

“Aliens: The Labyrinth” tells a self-contained sci-fi horror/thriller story that is set in the universe of the “Alien” films. The story begins with a military scientist called Colonel Doctor Crespi awakening from suspended animation after a long space voyage.

Officially, he is being dropped off at a remote research station in order to help out with Dr.Church’s scientific research. However, he has been given secret orders to seize command of the station due to unspecified worries about what is happening there.

Of course, it doesn’t take Crespi long to realise that Dr.Church is not only performing cruel experiments involving xenomorphs (the bloodthirsty alien monsters from the “Alien” films) but that he actually seems to enjoy his work too….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, like a hungry xenomorph, it really creeps up on you. Basically, this novel gets much better as it goes along. When I started reading it, I initially found myself rolling my eyes and thinking “I’d probably enjoy this book a lot more if I was fourteen” but, near the end of the novel, I found myself recoiling with horror – yet spurred on by adrenaline to read more. Seriously, this is one of those novels where first impressions aren’t everything.

As for the sci-fi elements of this story, they work reasonably well. Not only is this novel set in a sparsely-described, but convincingly futuristic, location – but it also uses the classic sci-fi technique of occasionally dropping futuristic terms into the narration in order to immerse the reader.

Plus, of course, it’s a story about science gone horribly awry. You don’t get more sci-fi than that. In addition to this, the scientific ethics-based elements of the story are also explored in an utterly chilling flashback scene where the xenomorphs are shown performing vaguely similar experiments on humans, for an arguably more sympathetic reason.

The novel’s thriller elements work fairly well too. Although the earlier parts of the novel are a fairly standard mystery thriller, with a few fairly “ordinary” action-thriller moments thrown in every now and then to keep things interesting, the story eventually builds to a grippingly intense, visceral, adrenaline-fuelled climax that is an example of the thriller genre at it’s very best. So, yes, it only has one really gripping action-thriller segment, but what a segment it is!

As for the horror elements in this story, they work astonishingly well. At first, the novel isn’t particularly scary. The earlier scenes involving the xenomorphs seem to be gloriously cheesy in the way that you’d expect a silly monster movie involving a megalomaniacal scientist to be. But, as the novel progresses, other types of horror start to appear and you suddenly realise that the earlier scenes were there to lull you into a false sense of security!

Seriously, I was genuinely creeped out and grossed out by parts of this book. This is because it doesn’t just rely on silly monster-based scares and splatterpunk-esque gory horror, it also includes things like body horror, emotional horror, scientific horror, character-based horror, taboo-based horror, bleak nihilism and other such things. Seriously, it’s been years since a horror novel has made me literally recoil with horror.

All of this horror is also balanced out by some absolutely brilliant moments of dark comedy, mostly revolving around Dr. Church’s eccentricities. Seriously, this novel is worth reading just to read the scene where Church decides to take one of his pet xenomorphs for a stroll through the station’s corridors whilst humming a jaunty tune.

The narration in this novel is kind of interesting. Initially, I thought that the rather informal third-person narration was somewhat “shallow” and eye-rollingly immature (seriously, the narration uses a lot of four-letter words). But, as the story progressed, the narrative style began to make a lot more sense. Once the novel reaches it’s adrenaline-pumping climax, the informal narration really helps to ramp up the intensity a lot. Seriously, if the later parts of this book were narrated in a more traditional formal way, they wouldn’t have half the impact that they do. So, yes, the slightly informal narrative style works – although it takes a little bit of getting used to.

Best of all, at just 210 pages, this novel is efficient. There is barely a wasted moment in this novel and this really helps to keep the story flowing at a decent pace. Combined with the informal narration, this means that this novel is as enjoyable to read as watching a good sci-fi horror movie is. This book is reassuringly short easy reading that will make you feel decidedly uneasy.

The novel’s main characters are surprisingly well-written. Although they all initially seem to be two-dimensional stock characters who all have tragic backstories, they become more complex and compelling characters as the story goes on. Like with a lot of things about this book, the characters get better and more sophisticated as the story progresses. Seriously, this is the kind of novel that can make a background character into the main character in one part of the story and make that part of the story infinitely more dramatic and gripping as a result.

In terms of how this 23 year old novel has aged, it has aged ridiculously well. Seriously, if this novel was published for the first time today, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that it was actually from 1996. It’s timeless.

All in all, this is a novel that will really catch you by surprise. Yes, it initially seems like a story that is about as scary as a kitten, written for immature audiences and populated by cardboard characters. But, this is all there to lull you – experienced horror novel reader- into a false sense of security. If you stick with this book, then you’ll find that it’s a lot scarier, a lot more gripping and a bit more sophisticated than you initially thought!

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Should You Include Aliens In Your Sci-fi Story?

My guess is that there is probably other life in the universe ... but it's probably just bacteria.

My guess is that there is probably other life in the universe … but it’s probably just bacteria.

Although there are loads of different sci-fi sub-genres out there (eg: cyberpunk, biopunk, sci-fi horror, dystopic sci-fi, space opera etc…), most sci-fi stories can basically be divided into two different categories – stories involving aliens and stories without aliens.

This might seem like a trivial difference – after all, sci-fi is still sci-fi regardless of whether it contains aliens. But whether or not aliens are involved can vastly change the entire atmosphere, tone and style of your sci-fi story in ways that you might not expect.

Since there is no real “right” or “wrong” answer to this question, I’ll explain some of the ways that deciding whether or not to include aliens in your story can affect your story and leave you to draw your own conclusions.

So why does this make such a difference? Because the focus of the story is completely different.

In a sci-fi story where humans are the only intelligent life in the universe, the focus of the story is firmly on man-made technology and human society. In other words, your sci-fi story is like any other kind of “realistic” story, with the only difference being that it is set in the future rather than in the present or the past.

In addition to this, deciding not to include aliens in your sci-fi story also carries the implication that humans are alone in the universe – which can either make your characters more resourceful (eg: no aliens are going to rescue them if they get lost in space), can add a nihilistic existential gloom to your story (since we’re literally totally alone) or it can make your readers feel slightly better about being human (because we’re the most awesome lifeform in the universe).

These types of sci-fi story are also one of the easiest types of sci-fi stories to write, for the simple reason that the only really new stuff you have to come up with is new technology for your human characters to use.

However, if you include aliens in your sci-fi story, then the focus on your story will be on humans trying to find their place in a varied universe, interplanetary relations, the unknown and a whole host of other subjects.

Rather than an individualistic story about humanity finding it’s way in an “empty” universe, sci-fi stories involving aliens have more of a focus on community, politics and social relations. I mean, for starters, if we lived in a universe filled with many different alien societies, would our current distinctions between nationalities, religions etc… on Earth matter as much as they do these days?

In addition to this, alien characters can be used as a metaphor for various parts of human society (eg: the fervently capitalist Ferengi characters in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”). Alien characters can also be used to incorporate more fanatistical elements into your sci-fi story too (eg: telepathy, pyrokinesis etc..) and alien worlds provide a lot more variety to the settings of your story too.

However, coming up with an interesting new alien species can be fairly difficult. Yes, you can just invent them using your imagination (and this is a fairly common way of creating alien characters) – but, if you want your story to appear more “realistic”, then you need to consider all sorts of other things too (eg: how your alien characters evolved etc…).

Of course, there’s also something of a middle ground between these two options. For example, you can have a mostly human-based sci-fi story which also hints at the existence of aliens too (eg: like in a TV show like “The X-Files”) or you could do the complete opposite and have a mostly alien-based story that features a few human characters (eg: like in a TV show called “Farscape”).

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As I said earlier, there are no “right” or “wrong” answers when it comes to deciding whether to include aliens in your sci-fi story. But, I hope that this was useful 🙂