08 December 2015

'Truly alien' aliens

One of the things I very commonly come across in SFF discussion is someone saying that the aliens/werewolves/angels/other things are 'truly alien' or 'look and behave just like humans', where one is a compliment and the other criticism.

Every time I come across this sort of thing, I stumble.  Not because I don't get what they're saying, but I wonder what boundaries they're intending to draw.

What makes an alien 'alien'?  While 'does not look human' is an obvious thing, here's my cat Cinnamon.  She doesn't look particularly human either.  Does that make her 'alien'?

Cinnamon and I are not much alike. She likes racing madly up and down corridors, scratching things, and has a magnificent twitch reflex should a string move suspiciously anywhere in her field of view.  She eats stuff that would make me vomit.  She has no command of English, though she's a rather verbal cat, and won't hesitate to meow loudly until her humans try to guess what she wants.  She isn't into computer games or reading.

And yet Cinnamon and I and thousands of other creatures are very alike.  Earth itself is full of things not so very unlike Cinnamon, and yet all theoretically different from each other.  All of them share a drive to reproduce (or, well, we wouldn't know about their species at all).  All seek food of some sort, and an ideal environment.  The more complex ones generally exhibit fear, aggression, curiosity, play and something that at least appears to humans as affection.  I don't think anyone is arguing that 'aliens' could not exhibit these qualities.

But these are animals, and not at the intelligence level of the type of alien that SFF readers are talking about – a being that would be able to communicate effectively with humans if given access to language lessons and whatever mechanical aids might be necessary, while remaining 'truly alien'.

I think we can effectively divide aliens into 'physically similar to humans' and 'have a strong dissimilarity to humans'.  Cat-ancestry people, for instance, might claw stuff and have a tendency to pounce, but they're still mammals, with live births, milk feeding, and the food-in/poop-out process.  Then you have, say, the 'piggies' from Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead (where reproduction is…different from the standard mammalian process) but otherwise these are creatures that exhibit a similar range of drives and emotions to humans.  Thirdly the 'completely different' – living rocks, or energy beings that have little to no concept of many human physical experiences – but could still presumably produce fear, aggression, curiosity, play, affection.  No-one is arguing that 'truly alien' aliens must not have emotion, or biological imperatives.  If you don't go in for large physical differences, a lot of what people point to as 'alien' seems to be "non-Western culture" – and if you got into the alien's POV, they would read very much as humans of a different culture.

Different cultures are very interesting!  Altered experiences caused by physical differences are also very interesting!  But surely we're not arguing that beings with cultural and physical differences are intrinsically non-human.

Cognative differences takes us into more complex territory.  Humans have cognative differences too, and I'm sure no-one who is talking about "alien aliens" means to say that non-neurotypical humans are 'alien'.  Where does the line get drawn?  We have humans with synesthesia.  We've seen robots depicted with depression, or aliens who in theory have no concept of lying, or don't understand death or love or friendship.  And, to be honest, most of this latter type of 'alien' reads as extrapolated concepts to me, constructed to create a plot.  I am vastly, vastly more inclined to believe that if we somehow overcome the echoing hollows of space and stumble across a few intelligent alien species…we'll get a bunch of creatures that look an awful lot like Earth creatures – and probably act like them as well.  Aliens because 'not from here', and with some physical differences, and big cultural differences, and not 'truly alien aliens' at all.

What do you all think?  If we started planet-hopping, would you be all that surprised to find mammals?  Cats?  Bipeds with roguish grins, a taste for scotch, and a nice line in leather jackets?  At what point do you throw up your hands and cry: "These aliens may as well be human!"?


  1. Well, or the opposite question: when do these aliens become so different that apart from a sort of abstract interest, I can't bring myself to care about them? Especially fictional aliens -- take away love, sex, greed, power, desire, fear, and you might have some excellent "alien" aliens, but your story might be truly dull reading. And it's one thing to read about creatures that don't necessarily share our drives but do share our world -- I find jellyfish and octopi quite fascinating -- but if they're fiction, well, I think I'd rather read fiction that has more heart to it. I am pretty sure, just given the diversity of life forms on this planet, and especially considering the fossil record, that if we find life on other planets, it will come in forms that we can't even imagine. But unless the life shares our concerns to at least some extent, stories about it/them will be... technical papers, not stories. Of course, that answer probably makes it obvious that hard SF is not my favorite genre!

    1. Yes - the really 'alien aliens' that I've seen in books have served primarily as plot obstacles rather than persons I'm interested in reading about.

  2. Excellent post and excellent comment by Sarah Wynde. In The Gods Themselves, Asimov conceived aliens that were truly physically alien -- gas beings of three sexes. Their motivations were human enough that I could identify with them.

    SF has a problem with aliens. Often aliens are written as humans in lizard suits. But if they are truly alien with alien motivations we cannot identify with them.

    Ursula LeGuin tried to deal with otherness in The Left Hand of Darkness: humans who were so radically changed that they were not of the same species but who still had human emotions and motivations.

    It is a worthy question. I expect the attempts to answer it will be entertaining.

    1. Yes - if a person is a jellyfish, are they less alien if they appreciate Latin music? Or fall in love? Or have a petty squabble at the office about who took their stapler?

      When I'm reading, I really want to _care_ and so I need some kind of touchstone to link to them. I'll be readily fascinated by their culture, or how they handle physical differences, but I struggle entirely with the concept that there are "truly alien" aliens. Because that means that the aliens we feel are like ourselves 'aren't true'.

  3. Stephen Baxter, Cilia-of-Gold, ( http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/baxter_08_13_reprint/ ) is an outstanding example of aliens that one can identify with. At least I did. Somewhat. But in the end, they are alien. Their victory is meaningful to them, but what is it to me? Still, it is a good story. Better aliens than most, but their motivation is one humans have. But then again don't wolves have the same motivation? Can we identify with a similar story written about wolves? Or dolphins?

    1. Other than "category 3" aliens, seems to me most forms of life would have some core shared drives.

  4. Intelligent aliens - kind of similar to octopuses - appear in Peter Watts's Blindsight. But they appear to be killed immediately. We know, that they are intelligent, that they have own culture, but it is not enough to be emotionally attached to them.
    Recently I read Embassytown by China Mieville and this is quite nice try to create world of aliens totally unhuman. But it is mostly about various language codes, differences between them and about attempt of contact, it is kind of reflection/dissertation - very interesting. However, like You, I have a need "feel aliens".
    By the way Cinnamon is lovely! I also have one of this kind of alien;).

    1. She is very much ruler of her own little planet.

  5. Alien simply means not from here. [Actually, if you look it up in the dictionary, it would say it from the opposite direction: someone from elsewhere - which I think says the same thing.]
    So, if you were originally an Ozzy (& your parents were, also), and you went to Russia or Nigeria or the USA, you would be an alien. Or if I was fortunate enough to move to Australia, I'd be the alien. You and I wouldn't be all that different, but we would have different worldviews, and we would make mistakes in culture (including linguistics) because we didn't have the same backgrounds.
    An example - the other day I met someone in a business setting, and she had a batch of paperwork in her arms. The person we were with stopped her to introduce us to her - and because her arms were full she stuck out her left hand to shake. I shook her left hand with my left. The person I was with is Muslim, and awkwardly paused to decide what to do, then nodded at the lady, 'ignoring' the proffered hand. For Muslims, shaking the left hand is anathema. She realized the poor lady didn't know Muslim customs and instead of reacting as she would have if another Muslim offered to shake left hands, she chose to treat her as an alien - someone from another culture.
    What about aliens from other worlds? Certainly the backgrounds would be more different - Caszandra met people with a different background and therefore a different worldview. But while reading about her, I felt a bit like I was in the 1700s reading about a people on the other side of the world: same humans, but with some really different environments (think Gulliver's travels, or Marco Polo's travels, etc) when people didn't know if those things were real "over there" in that alien environment. Caszandra realized she wasn't in Oz any more, but still expected people to act pretty much the way people back home did - and they pretty much did (some were basically good, some bad, some in between). Or look at your Star Wars review up above - aliens of all sorts of shapes, but basically all just humans from elsewhere.
    Since we've not actually met aliens from other worlds, just aliens from earth, we don't know what they might be like to the extent that our imaginary aliens are just humans in the same or different skins, with the same basic desires and needs, but with different worldviews (cultures) meaning they react to different things the same ways we react to different things - but not necessarily the same different way to the same thing. (Think back to the Muslim woman & I reacting differently to the same slightly extended hand - or to certain characters in certain movies that would've shaken her hand too vigorously, and then have to help pick things up -or choose not to help.)
    Yes, with some extraterrestrial aliens we might respond the wrong way at first - killing the alien sentient plants for food, or moving sentient rocks around, etc. If we ever figured out that they were sentient, we'd probably change. Maybe not quickly enough.
    Zenna Henderson was one who realized that all aliens (extraterrestrial or not) were the same as us - doing certain things in different ways. Read the stories in The Anything Box, or Holding Wonder or her books about The People: No Different Flesh.
    Or from another author, read Body Ritual Among the Nacirema (Horace Miner, 1956) (it's available online, for instance at http://www.ohio.edu/people/thompsoc/Body.html) as though you were from the USA.
    By the way - I thoroughly enjoyed the Caszandra stories [thanks for doing The Gratuitous Epilogue], and Hunting, and ...

    --- J, an anthropologist


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