Confession of an Unbeliever, or: Forgive Me, Yoda

I have to make a confession: I’m a science fiction writer, and I don’t believe in aliens.

By “believe” I mean my ability to suspend my disbelief, and by “aliens” I mean the ones that typically show up in SF, and more specifically, the ones that talk. Maybe this marks me as a MundaneSF writer, but when some non-human resident of a star system lands on a page and starts talking about how the foolish humans have caused offense to its queen, I immediately start to lose faith in the story. And if the alien is a point-of-view character I usually can’t stay in the book. I’d like to suspend my disbelief, but I can’t.

Needless to say, my own stories don’t include a lot of aliens. Zero in the published stories, and only one hiding out in a trunk story.

That hidden alien popped up recently when a friend of mine, Andrew Tisbert and I were talking about collaborating on the rewrite of that story. I wrote the first draft years ago when were at Clarion together. In the story a woman is repeatedly visited by a silent, floating, glass-like alien she calls the kite. Its actions are ambiguous and its goals are unknown. Wackiness ensues.

The story never quite worked and I didn’t know how to make it work; hence the collaboration (we’ll see if Andy comes up with something). But I told Andy that the kite was about as far as I could go in the alien department, and Andy was surprised. So let me explain.

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.

Once you start thinking along evolutionary lines, it becomes easier to avoid the clichés of the pulps-for example, aliens’ inexplicable desire for “our women.” (Somewhere in the universe there is a tentacled pulp illustrator drawing a hideous, ape-like hand clutching a luscious, bikini-clad squidling and asking itself, How much am I getting paid for this nonsense?)

However, the seeming paradox of evolutionary psychology-and the reason that it seems unconvincing and certainly insufficient to some when it’s applied to humans-is that as humans we see enormous variation in the personalities of our fellow hairless apes. Even pulp writers naturally granted their human characters (at least those of their own race, sex, and class) with a broad range of traits, rendering people who are passive as cows or aggressive as tigers, busy as beavers or lazy as sloth.

Some of this is plain old species-ism. Or species blindness. When humans look at non-humans, we’re just not wired to see how many standard deviations from the mean are in play between individuals. A couple years ago I read about a study which found that babies are just as adept at recognizing the faces of individual German Shepherds as those of humans. Only when children get older do they specialize in humans and become blind to the subtleties of dog faces.

Too often in SF, the writer doesn’t bother to highlight the differences in that sea of alien faces. Every member of the alien race is portrayed as pretty much the same, with perhaps one outlier per species, like Nessus, Niven’s braver-than-usual puppeteer, or the kzinti named Speaker-To-Animals because of his (relative) lack of aggression.

But an SF writer who renders his aliens with all the variation we see in our own species risks making them indistinguishable from humans. If kzinti can be not only fierce warriors but class clowns, naive ingénues, or sly gigolos, why not stick with humans? We’re back to actors in rubber masks, although with the advantage of being able to tell the actors apart.

So I want two things in my aliens: more strangeness in the species, and at the same time more diversity among the species’ individuals. Tall order, I know. It may not even be possible to deliver this much complexity in a novel and still have time for a narrative. If any of you out there have run across books that pull off this trick, please let me know.

But even if I got both strangeness and complexity, there’s still a problem for me when those aliens open their mouths. I believe-and I admit that this is largely an aesthetic opinion-that if we ever meet sentient creatures whose minds were formed by a completely foreign set of environmental conditions, biological processes, and evolutionary pressures, there would probably be few points of conceptual overlap. Do we share the concepts of parent/child relationships, death and birth, time and space? Do they even believe in the concept of a mind?

There are great stories and novels about trying to communicate with aliens who have one or more of these conceptual gaps. For example, Peter Watts’ novel Blindsight, currently on the Nebula preliminary ballot, concerns contact with aliens who are intelligent but not conscious. But I’ve read few novels that tackle more than one of these problems at a time.

All that said, I can’t say that all talking aliens are dead to me. I can be charmed into suspending my disbelief. A skilled writer–Iain M. Banks comes to mind–can dazzle and entertain so that I forget to raise my objections. Hell, a talented writer can get me to believe anything.
It also helps if I don’t have to take these aliens at face value. I’m perfectly willing to play along if the objective is satire or comedy, or when its clear that the aliens are meant to be taken metaphorically. (Though putting anything into a story–alien, tree, or giant white whale–that is there only for transparently metaphorical reasons is usually a mistake, and it takes a genius to make it work.)

But in the end the sentient ETs that resonate for me are the ones that are so alien that they cannot be fully understood, like the uncommunicative, enigmatic alien in Jonathan Lethem’s story “Light and the Sufferer.” Or the aliens who try to communicate but can’t be comprehended, like the dream and nightmare-inducing planet of Stanislaw Lem’s  Solaris. Or the aliens who remain completely off stage, like the monolith builders of 2001.

Of course, when the real aliens arrive, they can explain to me why my biases are unfounded — and how I’ve offended their queen.

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  1. 1. David Louis Edelman

    Not to play the spoiler here… but I wonder if you’re just batting around a straw man here. I can’t recall the last time I read a work of serious SF with aliens that conformed to the “we want your women” Mystery Science Theater stereotype. And the ones that do are either written by authors with a postmodern wink, or written that way to make a specific point, or written by authors who are all about the entertainment value, and science/realism/verisimilitude be damned.

  2. 2. Peggy

    I agree that most science fiction aliens aren’t really alien enough to be believable. I think that if we ever do meet another intelligent non-Earthly species (and recognize their intelligence), communication will be immensely difficult and they are unlikely to look or think like us. Heck, there are enough cultural differences between peoples here on Earth that unspoken assumptions and different backgrounds can impede communication between humans. But I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to assume that when and if we are able to communicate we will initially see the aliens as a monolithic group. It would simply mirror what happens when we think about other human cultures that are foreign to us – it’s easy to find people who talk about the “Mexicans” or the “Chinese” or the “Arabs” as if those groups are uniform. What we learn about aliens in science fiction stories is filtered through the human perspective, so the descriptions will be tainted by that human flaw.

    And, of course, science fiction lets us explore the human condition by setting up aliens as archetypes. While the original Star Trek aliens were pretty silly, they could be used to address issues that would have otherwise been taboo on television. Take, for example, : its message was heard by people who would not have been interested in a story featuring black and white Americans.

  3. 3. Raul Gonzalez

    I think Peter Watts’ Blindsight nailed the concept of a truly alien organism, although it is based on deep sea creatures.
    I think it’s still on Creative Commons, reading is in order.

  4. 4. Kelly McCullough

    Two things. Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep has some fabulous aliens. And two, 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. If you’re looking for alien aliens and that’s not actually the primary purpose of aliens in SF then, of course you’re going to be disappointed, but maybe that’s because that’s not the writer’s point at all.

  5. 5. Daryl Gregory

    To Dave — the “we want our women” is definitely a straw man. I was just talking about the pulp cliche there. But sometimes I do see aliens “wanting” things that seem awfully human. Is that similarity just laziness, or is intentional?

    If intentional it goes to Kelly’s point, that maybe aliens seem to want these human things because the writer is trying to reveal some facet of human behavior. That’s a perfectly valid thing to do. It’s just that as a reader, I’m not as likely to “believe” that those types of aliens are living, breathing creatures — that if aliens arrived, I’m convinced during the course of the book that it could happen just like this — as I am in most human characters. The aliens are there as types, or models. There’s an aesthetic distance at work that I have to work harder to overcome.

    (And I agree with Kelly that probably most SF operates on this level.)

    In this way, SF that includes human-like aliens is like Kabuki theatre, or musicals. Having characters use face paint and stylized gestures, or suddenly breaking into song, has its own artistic purpose, but while I’m watching Johnny Depp I don’t think, I bet the real Sweeney Todd sang just like that.

    This is all part of the argument about “what SF is FOR.” Personally, I think SF is a toolbox that allows a writer to do just about anything. But if a writer is showing me talking aliens, and they are presenting them unironically (saying without a wink that yes, this is exactly how aliens would be in real life), then I have more work to do to suspend my disbelief. (The same when SF movies let us hear explosions in space. Okay, I may still manage to like the movie, but they’ve just made it harder for me.) Every reader’s mileage will vary of course. And I’ll repeat, a gifted writer can get me to believe just about anything.

  6. 6. Kelly McCullough

    The musical or Kabuki analogy is very nice and makes for an interesting parsing of the alien story as a sub-genre. I like it.

  7. 7. Mike

    At the risk of arrogance, I think you should check out my novels Star Dragon and Spider Star. I don’t think you’ll find my aliens as flawed as those you describe, and a bit more mysterious and interesting, too. At least I hope so. As an astronomer my strength is physical science, but I try to apply some rigor to the aliens, too, and go beyond the simple approaches you suggest.

    And I enjoyed Vinge’s aliens very much, too. Far better than average in science fiction.

    And I’ll add too that in science fiction novels the aliens are oh so much more complex than those found in movies, with perhaps a few very rare exceptions.

  8. 8. Daryl Gregory

    Hey Mike, we’re writers — we’re born arrogant! (Arrogant enough to think we’re worth listening to, anyway.)

    I’ll check out your books, Mike. And also Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. I was hoping that this blog post would point me toward people doing aliens well.

    –d

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    As someone whom the cuddly anthropomorphism of ET sends into a frothing rage, I see your point. Aliens need to be alien.

  10. 10. Mack Sim

    Want bona-fide aliens? Look no further than the works of A & B Strugatsky (“Roadside Picnic” and “Beetle in the Anthill” are among the best examples imho). The idea you’re pushing (that true aliens are truly alien) is, in fact, the conceptual basis of almost all their writings.

  11. 11. ProfPTJ

    For my money, Stephen R. Donaldson’s depiction of the Amnion in his “Gap” series is one of the best alien races I’ve seen for a while. And you already mentioned Banks, who would have been my other suggested author.

    I’d also say that you’re not quite being fair to Russell. The evolutionary backdrop of the relationship between the races on Rakhat isn’t particularly “deterministic” — indeed, the room to maneuver within the strictures imposed by that evolutionary process provides a lot of the drama of the second book. Supaari is an alien individual: unlike other Jana’ata, to be sure, but also definitely not a human. More than a human in a mask, I’d say — although for sure less alien than Donaldson’s Amnion.

  12. 12. Peggy

    I don’t think there is really a good way to portray how truly different aliens are likely to be. Even Lem’s alien, one of the strangest in SF, is able to interact with the minds of humans. It would be less interesting, I think, to have an alien that cannot be communicated with on any level. Also, we humans like to anthropomorphize, so I like to imagine that the more human characteristics of SF aliens are simply due to the story being told through the eyes of an unreliable narrator.

  13. 13. Daryl Gregory

    I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never read the Strugatsky brothers — but I’ve heard people talk about how good “Picnic” is. I haven’t read Donaldson’s Gap books either. I think there’s a sliding scale of “alienness” and some are more to my liking than others. And that’s all I’m talking about — my likes and dislikes.

    Peggy, you raise an interesting point — any time there’s anthropomorphizing going on, does the author intend that the narrator is unreliable? In most SF I’ve read the answer is No. (Somebody out there must have a bunch of examples, though.)

    But if the author does show an awareness that the human characters are in essence fooling themselves, that’s an interesting point to make.

    It’s kind of like what Tiptree did in SF — before Tiptree (and probably still), so many male writers’ attitudes about women were collections of unexamined assumptions — assumptions that were shared by (largely male) sf readers. But some of Tiptree’s best stories, like “The Women Men Don’t See” and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” are about male characters who don’t realize that they projecting attributes onto women, and don’t understand how they’ve misunderstood the truth of the situation. But Tiptree knows, and the reader often realizes that as he was reading he was making the same mistake as the characters.

    By the way, Tiptree’s a great example of using aliens for their metaphorical value. Not for a minute do I believe that that’s what real aliens would be like, but they’re useful as comments on the real world. In the Tiptree bio it mentions that Damon Knight was annoyed at Tiptree because he kept using the hoariest of SF tropes, but Tiptree didn’t care.

  14. 14. jackd

    I am agreeing with this poast!!!

    The non-alien alien is one of my hot buttons, and it ruins a lot of science fiction for me.

    It’s tempting to push this POV so far as to say that making aliens into characters is a mistake. They should be plot devices. Blindsight is a good example. Watts does a great job of showing how far technology may wind up molding “humanity” into nearly-unrecognizable shapes, and even then he admits that this is a grossly simplified view of their interactions and communication. The aliens provide a backdrop rather than being the guys in rubber masks.

    Funny you mention Banks. I recently finished Look to Windward, and a major character is supposed to be a six-limbed sort-of feline. But damned if the Chelgrians (as the race is named) don’t have an absolutely human society, and the character’s thoughts, motivations, emotions, relationships, et blasted cetera would have been totally unaffected if he’d been an H. sap. I simply don’t understand why Banks didn’t skip the futzing around with alienhood and make the Chelgrians a bunch of non-Culture humans.

  15. 15. Brian Marick

    I thought Patricia Anthony had a nice hand with aliens. If I remember right, Cold Allies was in the Roadside Picnic and Rogue Moon “completely incomprehensible aliens” mold. Brother Termite did a good job with the alien-as-narrator novel.

    It was in one of her books that I had an epiphany. She’s good with aliens that seem explicable but somehow off, and I realized that real people in contact with real aliens would have the same limitations as writers in contact with imaginary aliens: they would be unable to shake loose from modeling aliens as people, just with green skins. If I’m not just being nostalgic for long-ago sensawonder, part of Anthony’s schtick was asking what happens because of that failure of imagination.

  16. 16. tinkoo

    I generally seem to have better luck finding ingenious alien designs in short stories rather than novels – because a short can concern itself primarily with alien design. Try some of these (all from Arthur Clarke): “Castaway”, “Crusade”, “The Possessed”.

  17. 17. Daryl Gregory

    Patricia Anthony! A great sf writer, lost (temporarily I hope) to Hollywood. I’ve read every novel of hers, and last year when I wondered why I hadn’t seen anything for a long time I googled her and found out she’s working on film scripts. Sigh.

    Cold Allies is an excellent example of the type of aliens that convince me. It’s a stunning book.

    But in Brother Termite, a very good novel, Anthony seems to be daring the reader NOT to believe. Her aliens are on the surface wide-eyed Grays straight out of the tabloids, and she includes weird National Enquirer — like asides like psychics that truly seem to be channeling great pianists and presidents. The book works for me anyway, more proof that a gifted writer can get me to buy almost anything for the duration of the book.

    And my hero, Iain Banks? _All_ his aliens seem to be led on stage with a wink, and he seems to do as much research on their likely biology as he does for the physics of his FTL spaceships. S’okay with me. Banks is at play in the SF toy shop, and I’m just happy to watch.

  18. 18. Daryl Gregory

    Oh, and Tinkoo– Hal Clement was also excellent on alien design, for biology anyway. If anybody gets a chance, read his “Uncommon Sense.”

  19. 19. ProfPTJ

    In Look to Windward, the really alien alien race isn’t the Chelgrians; it’s the Behemothaurs. I buy the Chelgrians as a thinly-veiled analogue for the Muslim world as viewed by Europeans; they’re by definition less alien than the real aliens. But note that the Behemothaurs get the last word in the book, and the virtually all-powerful Culture can’t come to terms with them . . .

    When I asked Banks about this he said I might be reading too much into the Behemothaurs (at least, more than he deliberately put there) but that my reading (in a book chapter on Banks that will be published this year sometime) was plausible.

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Daryl Gregory

Daryl's a science fiction writer who lives in State College, PA. Several of his short stories have appeared in "Year's Best" anthologies, and his first novel, PANDEMONIUM, will appearing in Fall 2008 from Del Rey Books. Visit site.

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