January 21st 2008
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.
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.
- featured posts
- For Novelists
- Hard SF
- learning to write
- Mindy Klasky
- Not Remotely Writing Related
- our authors
- our books
- publicity and promotion
- publishing trends
- the business of writing
- women in SF
- writing humor
- writing life
- writing process
Browse our archives: