Aliens. We’re Probably Doing Them Wrong

Some thoughts on Science Fiction’s not so alien aliens

I do believe that Stanley G. Weinbaum is the SF author who has been credited with creating the first ever, fully-realized and complete “alien” in the history of the genre. Lucien could play with gryphons and de Bergerac apparently had a thing for supernatural geese, but Weinbaum seems to be the first SF author to incorporate the fact that alien beings will be a blend of being a product of their environment and the technological enhancements they have made to that environment, and unfamiliarity.

Tweel and Jarvis walking across a Martian desert

If you aren’t familiar, Weinbaum wrote a story in 1933 called A Martian Odyssey. It was included in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology (the contents of which were selected by the members of SFWA back in 1965); the story itself is the living, breathing definition of what Campbell meant when he wrote “write a story with an alien who thinks as good as a man, but not like a man”, (even though the story well preceded Campbell’s request).

The story itself is famous for presenting that alien – Tweel – but also for illustrating what world-building could be all about, not to mention creating the “travelogue over alien landscape” trope.

It’s a great story that every SF reader (and assuredly every author) should be at least passingly familiar with. And yes, it’s dated: the first crew to land on Mars consists of only white European males (Cis as well if their reaction to the mention of a “television” star is anything to go by.  At this time and place we know that if a landing on Mars by Western democracies ever happens it will definitely be a widely representative crew); the ship that takes them there operates on “atomic” power; the adventurers climatize themselves to the thin Martian atmosphere by working out in the Andes and there is life – abundant life (and actual canals) on the planet. Fortunately, Weinbaum imbues this story with such a strong and deep sense of wonder that most, if not all of that, can be fairly easily ignored, or at least ignored until it is time for critical discussions of the story.

Regardless, it’s earned its place in the history and its iconography has served as a template for alien beings ever since: think Niven & Pournelle’s Moties, or Niven’s Puppeteers; Heinlein’s Jockaira, Hal Clement’s Mesklinites, Longyear’s Dracs or any number of media aliens. starting with Vulcans and fanning out from there.

Many share common traits;  most of the Star Trek aliens, for example, are humanoid in form (Hortas and Tribbles excepted) and, while this originally stemmed from the show’s budget restrictions and other practical, real world restrictions, it has somewhat effectively explained away by two ubiquitous if unspoken assumptions: on the one hand, Panspermia rules in our Galaxy (which assumption seems to underlie most every other media franchise, even if it is unspoken; even Niven & Pournelle’s Fithp can be explained away in that manner), or, Panspermia Light, a single, forgotten progenitor race colonized most of our region of the galaxy.

One famous alien story is famous at least in part because it replicates the discovery of and interaction with an inscrutable alien like Tweel, the alien roller in Frederic Brown’s story Arena (which would also find its way to Star Trek although by the time it did, panspermia had reared its ugly head once again), but eschews this common biology, and also serves to bring my major point to the fore:  even if either of those “explanations” for the similarity of alien species is accurate, it still doesn’t go far enough.

By which I mean that the reality will most likely be far different, and those differences will probably greatly interfere with out ability to communicate with, understand and generally interact with those aliens.

This is because no SF author, so far as I am familiar (with the possible exception of Ken Liu. referencing his “Arrival” aliens) has dealt with the fact that our very physicality will introduce numerous unanticipated roadblocks.

To illustrate what I mean, listen to this “recording” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNKhju6Pryg

Done?  It’s a sample of “Krell music” from the movie Forbidden Planet, an attempt by human beings to approximate what an alien species would find appealing, entertaining, physically stirring…and all of it taking place within the average range of human hearing.

Or take this image It’s a “Krell doorway” from the same movie.  It is suggested that we imagine the body plan for a Krell by considering the shape of this doorway in relation to our own doorways.  Our body plan is, essentially, rectangular, taller than it is wide;  Krell doorways are triangular, wider than they are tall.

And while that’s a really cool concept and truly imparts an emotional alienness on the scene, even that may be going too far, or not far enough because this presentation of an alien species (one of the most famous at that) makes the assumption that the Krell had a need for doorways.

Now suppose we meet some aliens; suppose that they are roughly as “advanced” and technological as we are, with individual personalities, goals, dreams, emotions, creativities, etc., etc., including a desire to communicate with us and perhaps share knowledge to each other’s mutual benefit.

What happens when we discover that the climate on the world they evolved on was much more homogeneous than Earth’s and these aliens never felt the need for clothing (except for special protective garments like space suits or body armor);  they’d be surprised by our usage of clothing for both environmental protection and adornment – but would they really understand “fashion”?

Suppose, at the same time, that their perception of color is shifted a few angstroms to one side or the other of our visual spectrum.  Suppose that they see heat the way we see “red”.  A clothed person would look a lot different from a naked one, and we’d be totally oblivious to their well-telegraphed emotional states.

Going farther:  a lot of the things we do, create and assume are pieces of reality are based on natural rhythms, or, to be more precise, our own biological rhythms, as well as those of our environment.   The beat of our music certainly is.  It may be that anything musical we produce sounds like a cacophony of irregular noises to them, and theirs might be imperceptible to us.

Language wise, even if the gap is not anywhere near as wide as was presented in Arrival, there will still be untranslatable concepts and experiences – much like the way in which Cordwainer Smith describes the lives of Scanners needing to “kranch”.  What’s that mean?  Don’t know and can’t tell you, you’re not a Scanner.

Bonnie Dalzell’s rendering of a Pierson’s Puppeteer

What about measurements?  What if the aliens are much more comfortable with tight, enclosed spaces than we are, or require vast amounts of room for psychological well-being?  What about psychology, for that matter?  Nessus (Niven’s famed Puppeteer character) is deemed insane by his own species and yet proves quite resourceful and useful to humans who interact with him.  What if avarice was a desired, evolutionarily supported trait?  (Yeah, think Ferengi but they’re more antisemitic trope than fully realized aliens).

Suppose that the aliens are born in a clutch of eggs and that hatchlings cannibalistically prey on each other until only one is left in the brood to be raised to adulthood?  (This is kind of a variation on Michael Bishop’s Transfigurations story – which you should read if you have not)?  How are we going to have anything in common?  Do they have political parties divided along the lines of supporting or not supporting interference in that process?  Do they have anything even marginally resembling politics?)

Can you imagine how BADLY a joke could go in such circumstances?  Answering the question “Why did the chicken cross the road” could lead to a major interstellar incident!

My main point here is that, with rare exception, Science Fiction has treated “the other” as not so much an  “other” but a “variation on a theme” of ourselves, and if we want to see really alien aliens, we’ve not only got to ditch the convenient panspermia explanation, but we’ve also got to stretch our concept of what “alien” means.

Let’s take for instance the fact that Vulcan’s have copper-based blood as opposed to iron-based blood.

In the real world, copper is not as efficient an oxygen carrier as iron is.  This means that for a body similar to a human’s (panspermia) to be able to function similarly to a human, the atmospheric oxygen content needs to be at a higher partial pressure than our normal range, and/or Vulcan bodies need to devote more internal space to blood circulation – bigger blood vessels, larger, stronger heart, much bigger lungs…all of which are biological considerations…but what about the follow-on consequences, those neat little extrapolations we call “world building”.

It sure is going to be confusing for Vulcans trying to drive in our cities, where the signal for stopping is red….the equivalent of a Vulcan Boy Scout might be horrified at the idea of creating a fire out in the open…Vulcan cranks could never get away with claiming that a vaccine has magnetized them….

Ours is an evolving genre, our aliens need to evolve as well.

*Featured image cropped from the cover illustration for Barstow’s Guide to Extraterrestrials

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