I confess, I have a real thing for insects.
So much so, that I repeatedly creep out my hubby and colleagues whenever I play with insects and give them names, instead of hunting them viciously or chasing them away. If I find a stray insect in the house, I mostly direct it to freedom, or stare at it enthusiastically enough for it to become embarrassed and back away from the two-legged creep. And outside, in the grass… oh boy! One day I’m definitely gonna get a terrarium with a few exotic specimens, and I will call them Sunny, Pepper and Butch and tend to them diligently until we grow old together and tell our great-grand-children stories of our adventures.
Ahem. So… where do I even start to tell you how excited I am about insects?
Insects have always generated a cautious curiosity in humans, and they’re represented in art and fiction since the dawn of our societies. Insects have also inspired technological advancement, particularly the development of robots capable to master difficult environments, as well as various other engineering applications. Modern art even combines the two, and has inspired some really amazing pieces!
In present day fiction, insects are mostly found in the horror and science-fiction genre, usually spiders, scorpions, bees and flies. In the case of science-fiction, there’s also the occasional alien parasite or aggressive insectoid, the most famous of which probably are the Starship Troopers bugs, and the parasitic larvae of our good old Alien. I’m sure you know of several more, some better some worse.
However, beyond the repetitive use of the same handful of insects in popular fiction, the well is far from dry. There are some insects on Earth that are more interesting and sometimes far weirder than most of us bipeds would ever imagine, and they make for some awesome inspirational material—especially in science-fiction!
I’m fascinated with all kinds of arthopodes, from the beautiful and fragile (like butterflies and dragon flies), to the creepy and downright dangerous (like hornets, wasps and ants). Insects are incredibly varied and some species have really amazing abilities, complex and regulated social lives, and behaviors very similar to humans—sometimes even surpassing our versatility and adaptability.
It truly pays to be indiscriminate.
Butterflies taste with their feet; ants smell as well as dogs; dragonflies accelerate faster than race cars; the eye of a housefly has 4,000 lenses; the average mosquito has 47 teeth; bees have five eyes; some wasps zombify cockroaches and keep them as live snacks; some worms will eat themselves if they don’t find food; termites have extensive fungi farms in their burrows along with intricate ventilation systems; fire ants can build living rafts by holding on to each other to cross a river; to survive winter, some insects replace their blood with a sort of “antifreeze” glycerol; the chitin of a scorpion reflects UV light and honeybees vote on every big decision of the swarm, such as relocation.
In short, insects are awesome!
I’ve used only a small fraction of the wonders I found in the insect world to create my aliens, some that are more obvious (an insectoid species similar in their hive lifestyle to ants) and some that are more subtle (like the technologically aided adaptation of a species to a hostile environment, or an ingrained social behavior of another species that gets triggered by a specific circumstance). And there is much more still to come!
There are so many way in which insects can be used in science-fiction directly and indirectly. From creating alien species that are less like humans in rubber suits and more like creatures that sprung from a different family tree altogether, to creating intriguing, futuristic technologies. I love nanobots and multi-functional starships, androids and terraforming facilities, self-repairing computers and artificial intelligence webs. But my greatest passion will always be the lifeforms giving all of these things utility.
Who says advanced or alien technologies will be distinguishable from lifeforms?
Who says alien societies won’t have found a way to manipulate biological life in such a way as to create machines built of other species instead of mechanical parts?
And how about intelligent fungi capable of subduing other intelligent species by wide-scale infestation and the deliberate modification of their behavior?
But—I’m giving too much away. *snicker*
To me, the most amazing thing about insects, in their superb variety and their unsuspected complexity, is that they can push our imagination beyond the limits of our own way of life and our understanding of what’s possible. I’ve only just started to tap into their rich reserve of inspiration, but I already know it’s the beginning of a marvelous friendship. 😉
Besides, they are just the cutest little monsters out there! Aaw.