Alien-ating

19 08 2011

A very interesting discussion is taking place on LC Hu’s website about alien natures, specifically, how does a SciFi author cook up proper alien? As much as one may enjoy the Ferengi or the Klingons, they do seem a bit one dimensional, a stereotype made flesh, cloned, and given a planet to be from. (Tammi Lee points out, “Heck, the USA has more regional diversity than all of Vulcan.”)

Well, yes, but a great deal depends on what one’s purpose is with one’s work. Much of what Start Trek did (and many SF writers in general) is use the story as a kind of allegory to comment on humanity. Obvious cultural exaggerations like the Ferengi are a means to show up the ugliness of our own acquisitive, greedy, competitive economic system. Then, having made the point, the caricature is used to raise issues of what happens to those who do not conform to the system (feminist Ferengi for example). Yes, the race must be made believable and consistent in order for the story to work, but building off of hard science is not the primary purpose of the story.

Now, if one is more interested in exploring what hard science would generate for possibilities in alien races, then you focus on what current theories on the nature of intelligence and evolution have to say on the subject. (Forgive me here, I can’t summon up authors and titles, having read so much and neglected to take notes.) There is a conjecture that the very nature of social interaction demands complex cognitive skills, and it is no coincidence that the species manifesting evidence of the greatest intelligence are all social. Of course, that’s just on our world. Could one envision a different evolutionary scenario in which some other factor drives the evolution of complex intelligence? Most likely.

Does complex intelligence necessarily lead to technology? Of course not. Consider whales. The universe may be burgeoning with highly developed intelligent races who never have and never will take to the stars. Hu raises a point about the elusive quality of “intelligence”, citing IQ tests and tests given to animals to judge “awareness of self.”

Must we necessarily have commonalities with alien races, even presuming they are social and tool-using? Good question. In my own first contact story I use a device used by others, namely that mathematics is a necessary common denominator in any race that has applied its reason to science and technology. But I wonder if even that is merely possible and not necessary.

This inspired a series of interesting comments and references to other works, speculations about how differently evolved species might interact not only with each other, but with their approaches to technology itself, and a variety of examples of possible conflicts, from a species whose laughter manifests body language that appears to a human as highly aggressive (Hu), to sentient algae in a conflict with humans over water rights (Elizabeth Barrette).

The bottom line is that we have lots of theories and speculations, but no real clue what basic life on other worlds might be like, let alone intelligent life. Not even the tiniest scrap of exobiotic DNA (or its equivalent) has come to us. So, in any case, we reason out of ignorance, as they did in past centuries, building great, decaying civilizations on Mars on the evidence of (non-existent) canals, and populating Venus with swamps and dinosaurs because of its cloud cover, through which we could see nothing at all.

I’ll be at Pi-Con (August 26 to 28, in Enfield, CT) on the panel “Honey, the aliens are attacking again” 8pm on Friday evening, with Kate Kaynak, James L. Cambias, and Jeff Warner, where I’m certain this thread will be picked up and followed further.

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2 responses

22 08 2011
Lynda Williams

The challenge is – if you make ’em too alien people can’t relate to them. The Vrellish, in my series, are about as alien as I dared to get and even then stopped short of having males able to lactate, to be able to help with babies, because my test audience couldn’t find a lactating guy sexy. http://okalrel.org/saga/reference/essays/vrellish.html

24 08 2011
justinegraykin

I think the challenge is to make them just as alien as you can conceive, and STILL make them something people can relate to. Take your example of lactating men: you wimped out because your test audience didn’t find them “sexy”? Really? Why do they need to be sexy? And to whom? I figure the only person a male needs to be sexy for is the female of his species, and then only if he is intent on reproducing. (This is not as automatic as it might seem — consider shamans or priests, who are often celibate, or species in which non-breeding members assist the breeders in communally raising the young.) For the Vrellish, I would think a lactating male would be very appealing to the female, since well-formed breasts would be a sign of a good provider, a good choice for breeding partner. Rather like human males are attracted to females with substantial hips and breasts. Speaking from the evolutionary standpoint, they are likely to be good childbearers.

Now, to facilitate a connection in the audience, take some aspect of the males and go deeper. What are their feelings? Their hang-ups? Do they obsess on breast size instead of penis size? If one of them suffers a hormonal condition that prevents him from lactating, how does that affect his sense of self-worth? Now you are getting into issues of self-image and ego. These are issues anyone can relate to, male or female.

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