Wednesday, January 23, 2008

How alien should science fiction aliens be?

At the Science Fiction & Fantasy Novelists blog, Daryl Gregory* has a confession: he doesn't believe in aliens - at least not the typical aliens in science fiction.

My problem with most aliens is that they just aren’t alien enough-biologically, culturally, or psychologically. Especially psychologically, and that’s what I’ll focus on in this confession.

Most of the SF writers who take their alien-building projects seriously think like evolutionary psychologists. This is a good thing. The biology of the species and the evolutionary environment in which it developed inform what a typical individual’s needs and desires might be and how it perceives the world. For example, Niven’s paranoid puppeteers and predatory kzinti have species-wide character traits based on their evolution as prey and predator. You see similar determinism in Mary Doria Russell’s Sparrow and Children of God, between her two competing species of carnivores and herbivores-the eaters and the eaten.

I agree that when (or if) we meet another intelligent life form, it is unlikely to be bipedal, let alone humanoid. The problem is incorporating such an alien alien (for want of a better term) into an entertaining story.

Even Niven's Kzinti and Russell's Runa and Jana'ata aren't really that far from human, even if they are a giant step up from green Orion slave girls and floppy-eared creole-speaking Gungans. And there are indeed many science fiction stories in which the aliens are even stranger. Gregory mentions Peter Watts' Scramblers (Blindsight) and the Stanislaw Lem's nightmare-inducing alien in Solaris. To those I'd add Orson Scott Card's Pequeninos (Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Children of the Mind), Niven and Pournelle's Moties (The Mote in God's Eye), and Vernor Vinge's Skroderiders and Tines (A Fire Upon the Deep).

But at least a touch of humanness is necessary, I think, if you want your human characters to have meaningful interactions with the alien characters. Even Lem's alien ocean had to know that humans are another intelligent species and understand us enough to tap into our minds. I suspect that the greatest hurdle of our first first contact may actually be realizing that we should be trying to communicate at all. And even once we've settle on a physical means of communication, there is the difficulty in fining a common "universe view" - something that can even be a problem between different human cultures.

Another thing to consider is that almost all science fiction is told from the human point of view, and we are naturally inclined towards anthropomorphism - we ascribe human characteristics to objects and animals, and any aliens we meet will be perceived through this filter. While aliens might not really be human-like at all, we almost certainly will ascribe human motivations and emotions to them. Science fiction simply describes aliens through the eyes of unreliable narrators.

All that having been said, really I think Kelly McCullough has it right in her comment:
. . . doesn’t this kind of ignore that the main point of aliens in an awful lot of science fiction isn’t to portray aliens at all, but rather to isolate and examine some specific parts of the human condition? Sure, some aliens are really just supposed to be alien, but I think that a significant percentage–quite possibly the majority–are intended to help us look at some facet of human existence in a new way by pulling it out of our own melange of traits and making it more visible for what it is, or what the author believes it to be.
And that dovetails nicely with Clive Thompson's recent Wired column on "Why Sci-Fi is the Last Bastion of Philosophical Writing":

Alter reality — and see what new results you get. Which is precisely what sci-fi does. Its authors rewrite one or two basic rules about society and then examine how humanity responds — so we can learn more about ourselves. How would love change if we lived to be 500? If you could travel back in time and revise decisions, would you? What if you could confront, talk to, or kill God?

Most science fiction aliens aren't really meant to be alien at all - they are simply another way of looking at ourselves. (Of course that won't stop me from blogging about the bad biology . . . )

Image: Cheron natives from the Star Trek episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"

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  1. In the backdrop of above interesting narrative please consider this too from Brain Aldis in his magnum opus -Trillion year Spree-
    " Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe .........."
    thanks for this erudite write- up ,Peggy!

  2. I always wonder how intelligent beings would behave if their life histories were very different from ours. For example, if each individual could produce hundreds of offspring or lifespan was much longer or shorter or sex ratio was far from 50:50 or all were hermaphrodites or females were much bigger than males. We know these are all possible, because they exist in other species on earth. I've seen the last two, in Left Hand of Darkness and a novel whose title I forget, but would be interested in other takes even on those. How are our concepts of love, duty, fairness, etc. shaped by our biology?

  3. Anonymous11:29 AM

    The Martians in Stranger in a Strange Land suit my needs for truly alien aliens. That Heinlein gives the reader most of the information about them through Smith, a human raised by Martians, is a pretty brilliant way to convey an incomplete understanding through a mediator.

  4. Anonymous8:53 PM

    Heinlein's Red Planet does an even better job of illustrating the same martians in 'Stranger...' written for a younger audience but the concepts he throws out there are anything but juvenile. "Talking to a martian is like talking to an echo, you don't get an arguement but you don't get results either," Doc McRae, Red Planet.


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