Created By: WeAreAllKosh on January 19, 2013 Last Edited By: WeAreAllKosh on January 20, 2013

Sentient Aliens Have Human Stature

Very rarely are sentient aliens very small or very large compared to humans

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Sentient aliens can come in many varieties, from human lookalikes to Rubber-Forehead Aliens to aliens that resemble certain Terrestrial animals to Starfish Aliens. But a great majority of depicted sentient aliens, even Insectoid Aliens, are depicted as being similar in size and stature to humans. Sentient aliens that are much larger than humans are usually Eldritch Abominations of some sort, and sentient aliens that are much smaller than humans are very rare.

On Earth, humans may or may not be the only fully sentient species (dolphins and chimps at least come close), but there are many smaller animals that have adopted an evolutionary strategy that uses intelligence--squirrels, raccoons, crows, wolves/dogs among them--and might have conceivably evolved into the dominant species were it not for man (through his line of forebears) getting there first. Simple brain size isn't the factor, but there is probably some correlation to brain size in proportion to body mass. But even basic biological principles (such as how neural systems function or are structured) might vary significantly from one life-bearing planet to the next. So conceivably, sentient aliens needn't be of a certain size range at all, so long as whatever size they are worked within their native ecosystem well enough that they could evolve sentience.

This trope seems so common that we could probably just look for inversions. [I can only think of three right now, although I may be overlooking some.]

Examples:

  • In the novel The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, a formidable and deadly fleet is described in a side-story as threatening Earth, but when it arrives it is consumed by "a small dog"--implying of course that the aliens are nowhere near human size, probably microscopic.
    • Earth's mice are also revealed to be sentient aliens from another dimension.
  • Rygel in Farscape is fairly diminutive at around two feet tall (with the other main alien characters near human size, or a bit larger like Pilot or the Scarrans). Due to groundbreaking use of puppetry in the Space Opera genre, diminutive but fully animated sentient aliens like Rygel, along with a variety of Starfish Aliens, were possible without CGI.
    • Then there's the Living Ship Moya of the Leviathan race, who seems fairly sentient and is hundreds of meters long.
  • Yoda in the Star Wars franchise stood about two feet tall.
    • And Jabba the Hutt was a massive blob of an alien that probably weighed several tons.
    • Another Star Wars aversion is Col. Meebur Gascon from The Clone Wars. He looks more or less like a classic folklore Martian: a little (30-40 cm tall) green man with eyes on stalks.
  • Animorphs has a lot of scale variations: The Helmacrons are microscopic (relative to them, a fly is smaller that a molecule), the Hork-Bajir are well over seven feet tall, and the Yeerks are slugs the size of rats.
  • Megas XLR: I can't remember if the species had a name or not, but one episode has a human-sized bounty hunter employing Godzilla-sized rhinoceros-like creatures. At the end it's revealed the huge aliens are sentient and quite civilized.
  • Warhammer 40K: except for the Tau and the Demiurg/Squats, humans are a rather short sentient species in the galaxy (Orks, Kroots and the smarter Tyranid forms start at seven feet tall while Eldar are Space Elves and therefore taller).
  • On Ben 10, Ben's most intelligent alien form is Gray Matter, a frog-like humanoid about one foot tall.
  • Named alien characters in the Men in Black films range from the size of an action figure to the size of a subway train. Some scenes suggest that other galaxies or universes exist that are thousands of orders of magnitude larger or smaller, with inhabitants in proportion to their scale.

Community Feedback Replies: 12
  • January 19, 2013
    WeAreAllKosh
    Not sure if we have this already. If we do, I'm sure you'll let me know :). Just something I've noticed and wondered about.

    It's probably done, at least in visual media, to make the presentation not too strange or distracting--people may have a problem taking a very small alien seriously or as an "equal" to the others, unless they're badass with a light saber or something....
  • January 19, 2013
    Chabal2
    • Animorphs has a lot of scale variations: The Helmacrons are microscopic (relative to them, a fly is smaller that a molecule), the Hork-Bajir are well over seven feet tall, and the Yeerks are slugs the size of rats.
    • Megas XLR: I can't remember if the species had a name or not, but one episode has a human-sized bounty hunter employing Godzilla-sized rhinoceros-like creatures. At the end it's revealed the huge aliens are sentient and quite civilized.
    • Warhammer 40 K: except for the Tau and the Demiurg/Squats, humans are a rather short sentient species in the galaxy (Orks, Kroots and the smarter Tyranid forms start at seven feet tall while Eldar are Space Elves and therefore taller).
  • January 19, 2013
    Stratadrake
    T Itle and laconic don't technically match; "proportion" does not mean "overall size" but "relative sizes of elements compared to each other".
  • January 19, 2013
    WeAreAllKosh
    ^ True that ("proportion" is often misused that way in vernacular, I guess I did it too there). Changed to "stature" in the title.
  • January 19, 2013
    rodneyAnonymous
    There are physics reasons for having an upper limit on size, see Square Cube Law. No reason not to be slightly larger or any degree smaller, though. Hm. Even a list of subversions-only would be extremely long. Isn't this sort of covered by Most Writers Are Human? The idea, I mean. A list of big or small aliens is a list of trivia.
  • January 19, 2013
    SharleeD
    ^ I think this one warrants a trope separate from Most Writers Are Human, as it's got as much basis to be one (i.e. writers' tendency to make aliens familiar and/or easy to cast) as the likes of the Human Aliens or Rubber Forehead Aliens tropes.

    Could be worth mentioning that this trope is on the decline, as CGI makes it a lot more feasible to show aliens that are very large or small.

    • On Ben Ten, Ben's most intelligent alien form is Gray Matter, a frog-like humanoid about one foot tall.

    • Named alien characters in the Men In Black films range from the size of an action figure to the size of a subway train. Some scenes suggest that other galaxies or universes exist that are thousands of orders of magnitude larger or smaller, with inhabitants in proportion to their scale.

    And an add-on to the HGttG example:

    • Earth's mice are also revealed to be sentient aliens from another dimension.
  • January 20, 2013
    aurora369
    Another Star Wars aversion is Col. Meebur Gascon from The Clone Wars. He looks more or less like a classic folklore Martian: a little (30-40 cm tall) green man with eyes on stalks.
  • January 20, 2013
    WeAreAllKosh
    I've found it interesting that even Insectoid Aliens are depicted near human size (rather than supposing they're more insect size)--as far as physics goes, at least in Earthlike gravity a creature with an exoskeleton like that probably wouldn't be able to even move at human size (which relates to the Square Cube Law mentioned above ^^^). "Giant mutant ants" and such depicted in B horror movies would be implausible, unless they greatly evolved to the point where they wouldn't resemble ants at all anymore (no exoskeleton, and also huge changes to the circulatory system and such).

    It's probably mainly to do with using human actors (something that is becoming less necessary nowadays though), plus the way characters are framed in a scene--if Insectoids were insect-size, you'd have to keep zooming the camera in at them when they speak and whatnot (and wouldn't see them in a normal group shot with the others), and the interaction with "normal sized" main characters would be distracted from that way. So there is probably, for those kind of practical or technical reasons, a lower constraint to size below, say, maybe a foot tall.
  • January 20, 2013
    ArcadesSabboth
    The Uplift series averts this. Many aliens are roughly human-sized, but there are quite a lot which are smaller (i.e. Wazoon), larger (i.e. Soro), or much larger (i.e. Krallnith). It turns out that when your species is super-rich, you can afford to build gigantic spaceships to accomodate people bigger than elephants, so there's actually not that much incentive for patrons to make all their client species the same size.
  • January 20, 2013
    McKathlin
    Literature
    • In The Magicians Nephew when Aslan creates Narnia, he blesses some of the animals to make them Talking Animals. Physical changes accompany this: small animals grow larger, and the largest animals become a little smaller, so that talking animals are closer to human size than ordinary animals are.
  • January 20, 2013
    IsaacSapphire
    Averted in the Rod Albright Alien Adventures. Humans are specifically stated as being unusually large for a sentient species, with most sentient species being roughly the size of a human child.
  • January 20, 2013
    rodneyAnonymous
    Actually, what limits insect size is that they have no active respiratory system, and there isn't enough oxygen in the air to support a low surface-to-volume ratio in an organism that relies on diffusion to breathe. Structurally, they would be fine if large: chitin is pretty strong and insects tend to have low mass even taking small size into account. There were giant (by modern standards) insects in the distant past, when the atmosphere was more oxygen-rich. Probably not relevant, but The More You Know :)

    Perhaps this should be limited to non-humanoid alien species? That is, aliens that would have no reason (and maybe even disadvantages!) to being human-sized. Clearly humans in costumes are going to be human-sized.

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