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One Need Look No Further

I'm listening to a series of lectures about the early United States. It's not biased in favor of any particular mode of thought, and is descriptive rather than prescriptive: It gives, for example, the attitudes of pro-slavery intellectuals before the Civil War.

It occurs to me that if any science fiction writer needed to create an alien species with an alien mentality, he need do no more than read deeply the discussions of our own ancestors, and perhaps the ancestors of our traditional enemies. No one will recognize the mindset from which they derive.

Comments (23)

To simulate something really alien that intellectually engages the human element, I think you would have to achieve some rational basis that you could not imagine another human being expressing in any time, place, or culture. For example, would the "otherness" of reason be attributable to a genius or savant or foreign antagonist of any kind? That includes when discussing extremely alien experiences, such as body forms, unknown sensory experiences, or environments--are these reactions to existing this way imaginable as a human magically transformed into these alien forms? If so, alienness has not been achieved and the pretense is merely a garbled reflection of humanity.

But finding alien ways to extensively engage the human element is haaaaard, so these golden oldie discussions might provide enough simulated "otherness" to write an alien-ish scenario or two that can provide a satisfying story. After all, except for some marginal occasions of very bizarre* portrayals at one extreme (a la Sheckley in "The Monsters") or very opaque ones at the other (a la Chiang in "The Story of My Life") or both (a la Shockley "The Coming of the Goonga"), most "aliens" in sci-fi are just humans in costume.

That isn't to say that there wouldn't or couldn't be some common ground between extra-terrestrial and human reason, but to be really alien would no doubt present a difficult and perplexing barrier impeding even that common ground from being shared.

Or . . . were you just being ironic? (The alien problem in literature is too interesting for me to care.)

*Simply being bizarre is not necessarily alien. For example, the Sheckley story showcases bizarre alien behavior toward females, but the bizarreness comes off as very human to me in its conception. Even behavior or thought that is objectionable to us is only highlighting humanness rather than something completely bewildering that I might expect from an alien.

Great comment, Interloper. The mention of science fiction was more of a toss-off to exemplify how different our mentalities are from our ancestors than anything else, but it's a good topic and one that I'm happy to take seriously. Some thoughts, in no particular order:

Two alien ideas I was hearing as I wrote the post were (1) democracy is a civilization-destroying evil, and (2) slavery is a positive good because it provides a complementary relationship between whites and blacks on the basis of their respective characteristics, with whites getting labor and blacks getting protection, discipline, and religion. Though those of us who have studied history understand that these attitudes have existed, hearing the actual words used by the proponents of oligarchy and slavery seems foreign, if not completely alien. People who haven't studied history would probably find them alien. And those are just Americans! Go back to the Middle Ages, or Rome, and the ideas get stranger.

Something truly alien might not be comprehensible at all to humans, so when we say "alien mentality" we really mean something that we can comprehend, but which shatters our expectations. Ideally, this would be internally self-consistent, because no culture survives without some amount of self-consistency; however, the self-consistency might itself be expectation-shattering, in which case it might need to be explained.

I've thought about building an alien mentality by taking the thoughts of Wittgenstein or Nietschze to their logical extremes, but I'm not sure they're sustainable in large numbers.

"Achieve some rational basis" may well not be the thing you're looking for if you look for something alien. Consider Egyptian civilization, which survived with extremely little change over thousands of years, despite changes in rulers. Their conservatism ensured that there was essentially no development in art, and good artists were those who copied previous models well. That's no particularly rational, but it worked to hold the country together. Perhaps an alien species would do something that seems completely irrational to us, but which, done consistently, is part of who they are, and they see no reason to change it.

I haven't read "The Story of My Life", but I like what I've read of Chiang, and he could probably pull it off.

I agree that being bizarre isn't being alien. Someone truly alien might do a lot of the same things you do, but for [what they or you perceive to be] radically different reasons.

This is very close to what C.S. Lewis said, I believe in his introduction to a translation of St. Athanasius's De Incarnatione. Travel in time is a way to get outside of our own box and, since we cannot travel _forward_ in time, our best shot at this kind of mind-broadening time travel is reading old books, thereby traveling backward in time. I can't remember if he made the comparison to alien races.

If I may inject a slight political/artistic note: This is a reason to deplore the practice of editing old books to make them conform to current sensibilities. For example, a number of older philosophy books have been edited after the author's death to remove the generic "he" which the author used. This is simply absurd. The book is an historical artifact, representing a particular point in time, and such editing removes its ability to act as such.

Similarly, the fretting and worry about reading _Huckleberry Finn_ in schools because of its use of a certain word is, in essence, an attempt to insulate young people from the power of literature to introduce them to any culture different from their own.

Something truly alien might not be comprehensible at all to humans, so when we say "alien mentality" we really mean something that we can comprehend, but which shatters our expectations.
Well--yes and no.

I can easily imagine human beings saying and doing things that shatter my expectations (setting stupidity aside), so that doesn't attain a feeling of the alien to me, but it can still make good story telling. Another way to put it is that any time reflection upon the alien POV puts me in the head of the writer rather than a potential alien, the writer has failed, and that's almost always the case for me. That doesn't reflect badly on the writers--finding a truly alien point of view would take a rare kind of genius, and the less opaque/more extensive the interaction, the more genius it will require. You can still have fun with the costumed humans by deriving some separation using your suggested methods.

I risk excessive repetition and tediousness to go further.

Silly, I suspect you have a very good point, but I am not confident I am quite following you.

I read a lot of science fiction, and I can get pretty disgusted with lazy writers who are claiming to invent real aliens (instead of humans in costume), but won't put in the effort to make those aliens work right.

On the other hand, writing (a) fiction out of their own heads, and (b) to a human audience, means that they have to write in such a way that we readers can grasp the alien character. If that means the author explains - to us - why some alien activity is valid on their terms, then it seems to me that this is tantamount to explaining why that activity is rational. After all, there are perfectly decent philosophies that insist rationality is rationality regardless of species. For instance, if an alien species has 3 sexes for reproduction, I would expect the author to present a wildly different set of emotional response patterns than what I am used to in humans, but within the context end up making sense TO ME, even if it takes quite a bit of explaining or story-making in order to draw out that sense. I don't think it counts against the author that eventually I can wrap my brain around the aliens in their 3-sexed structure and behavior as not being "authentically" alien. That I can never personally share in the emotional behavior they have is sufficient alien-ness for authenticity, it needn't extend to my never being able to make sense of it mentally.

At least, that's the way I would approach it initially. I am open to a better take on it.

I suspect a fair number of sci-fi writers do their "alien races" to make a point about humans anyway. H.G. Wells with the Morlocks and the Eloi, for example. Obviously, CSL is not considered a great sci-fi writer, but his _Out of the Silent Planet_ is a lot like More's _Utopia_ (with which Lewis was of course deeply familiar) or like Gulliver's visit to the Houyhnhnms in Swift. It's straight out of the utopian literature playbook and is meant indirectly to make a satirical comment on the failures of mankind by portraying a race of beings that are better than we are at being happy and good in what are, in the end, very human ways. The hrossa, though they are giant black otters that talk, are really idealized humans, and Lewis makes little secret about this. H. Beam Piper's lightweight sci-fi is much the same. His fuzzies are fun, competent human children in silky fur. But probably to a deep-dyed sci-fi buff, none of these are taking the attempt to make aliens with sufficient seriousness.

Obviously, CSL is not considered a great sci-fi writer...

He may be more famous for his Narnia series, but his space trilogy is fantastic. "Out of the Silent Planet" was even nominated for a retro Hugo. "Perelandra" contains some of Lewis's best philosophical insights in the form of Ransom's debates with the Un-Man.

OotSP is actually quite notable in the history of sci-fi. It is one of the first, maybe THE first, sci-fi novel to not equate intelligence with humanity.

You're kidding, really? The hrossa were unusual for their time? That _really_ shows that I'm not up on the history of sci-fi.

When I say "humanity", I mean something along the lines that, though they were portrayed as not being as technologically advanced as mankind, they were nevertheless "people" on par with humans. In fact, they were portrayed as BETTER than humans, even though they weren't "civilized" in the traditional sense of the word. Lewis even mocks the whole concept in the trial scene at the end (one of my favorite scenes that Lewis has written).

OotSP is also notable because it portrays several alien species with different cultures all on one planet. This happens, but it is rare, and was even rarer at the time.

(My knowledge of this is admittedly entirely off of memory; I'll try and see if I can verify it.)

(And for that matter I believe "That Hideous Strength" was nominated for a Hugo award as well, back when such things mattered no less.)

I don't find (1) so alien. Democracy, after all, is a civilization-destroying evil... I think monarchies are usually preferable. If Wilson hadn't entered WWI to spread democracy, we might never have had the Nazis or the USSR.

X, maybe you are right about Nazis, but it seems unlikely about the Communists. The first revolution in Russia took place in March, 1917, which kicked out the Tsar. The October one pulled in the Bolsheviks. That's only a couple months after we entered the war, and it seems implausible to me that our entry so greatly affected things on the Western front that it changed the Eastern front enough to bring on the Bolshevik revolution which otherwise wouldn't have happened. It is just as likely that our entry delayed the Bolshevik revolution by a couple months, or that without us in the war the Bolsheviks might not have had to contend with the White Russian obstruction to their rule.

Tony, here's my thought: trading with Britain put the Allies in a stronger position than they would otherwise have been; we may not have formally sided with the Allies, but given the unchallenged British blockade of Germany, such trading shows de facto allegiance. In the absence of that, it would not surprise me if peace initiatives in late 1916 or early 1917, such as Charles I's, would have ended the conflict.

OK, so not merely our entry into the war, but our overall support of the Allies even before our entry. That is certainly plausible.

At least this much seems to me probable: the Allies' victory, and what was done with it, was vastly more detrimental to the survival of traditional political entities that explicitly hinged political rule together with the traditions and mores of a single people united by common language, birth, and religion. That most of the traditional countries whose political order suffered so were monarchical seems germane but not definitive: aristocracy would have met the same fate. And some monarchies such as Belgium were not so up-ended (yes, they were on the winning side). And the Greek monarchy suffered even though they attempted to stay out of the war altogether. Also, it seems likely that given the apparent connection between the monarchical personalities and the causes of the war itself, one cannot completely dismiss the possibility that even if WW1 had a negotiated settlement in 1915 or 1916, there would have continued the requisite tensions to result in yet another war anyway, which would have been just as detrimental to monarchy as WW1 finally was and as WW2 was (to the Savoys, for example).

Getting back briefly to Silly Interloper:

I can easily imagine human beings saying and doing things that shatter my expectations (setting stupidity aside), so that doesn't attain a feeling of the alien to me
You're right, and I suggest that shattering expectations is a necessary but not sufficient condition for making something seem alien.

Another way to put it is that any time reflection upon the alien POV puts me in the head of the writer rather than a potential alien, the writer has failed, and that's almost always the case for me.

While I'm sympathetic, the problem with that is that anything truly alien will need to be explained, either in terms of the rationality of the actions or its cultural background. I'm not sure how that can be done without showing you the mind of the writer. Can you think of a story in which that's done well?

Can you think of a story in which that's done well?

I think sci-fi buffs would probably think Orson Scott Card sometimes does it well. I'm not a sci-fi buff, so it just sort of grosses me out. SPOILER ALERT. In one of Card's books (don't remember the name) there's an alien race that turns into trees when they die, but only if they consent to die in this torturous way, which they consider normal and a "gift" that keeps their race going. There is some scientist/space anthropologist studying them, and the aliens kill him in this horrible way as a form of trying to honor him for his work (he discovered a link between their DNA and tree DNA), thinking that he will turn into a tree. But of course he just dies. It takes the whole novel for this to come out. When it is finally revealed that the aliens aren't really evil but that it was just a sort of macabre misunderstanding, you definitely don't feel that you have merely entered the novelist's mind but rather the minds of the aliens. That doesn't mean that I _liked_ the novel, but that's just because it isn't really my genre. I think someone who did like that genre might consider it successful.

That's a good example, Lydia, from one of the Ender's Game books. Uncovering the alien's mindset was part of the plot, in that case.

Upon googling, looks like it's _Speaker for the Dead_. The aliens are called piggies.

It's been quite a while since I read Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide, but I think you are leaving out a few crucial nuances here. First, if memory serves, the piggies' ritual is a side effect of an extremely deadly (makes Ebola look like the common cold) virus that nearly exterminated all life on their planet. The number of multi-cellular species the colonists found on the colony could be counted on probably both hands. The piggies were stuck in a dark and twisted cycle beyond their control and there was a definite air of tragedy about the whole ecosystem. Second, much of it is used to pit Ender the Xenocide's "crimes" which were really acts foisted on him by the Earth governments of his day against the intentional genocide being planned by the Starways Congress (the pan-human central government) against the inhabitants of the world where the piggies lived.

I don't know the overall cycle, so you could say I read the book out of context. I never even read Ender's Game. But I got the definite impression that it was a very deliberate attempt to portray a full-fledged, worked-out alien mindset with its own morality, etc. And as I say, rather successful if one likes that kind of thing. There was even more to it. For example, I seem to recall that the piggy babies' births always killed the mothers. So the humans are thinking at the end that maybe they could find a way to get the babies born without the deaths of the mothers, and there's a definite comment (I think it's put into a character's mind but definitely seems to be the book's perspective) that this sounds merciful but would be destroying their natural culture, which has its own weird consistency. In any event, that was my perception--that the book was giving the impression that the piggy culture seems dark and horrible to us, but that this is just our human perspective.

**Plot Spoiler below for Ender's Game**


Well, if you never read Ender's Game you're missing a lot of context. Ender's "crimes" were the result of him being used as a child soldier who was told that his training exercises were just simulations, when in reality they were actually real forces he was commanding. The government deliberately mislead his entire training unit because they knew that the children were mentally unprepared to deliberately wage war on an existential level. Fast forward over 1,000 years later between Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead (Ender spent most of that time in relativistic flight) and Ender is regarded as a guy who makes Hitler look like a Catholic saint. The governments of Earth never owned up to precisely **how** they won the war with the Formics.

So a large part of it is devoutly Mormon Card noting the irony that the very civilization that self-righteously condemns Ender is about to engage in the complete destruction of the entire planet in the off chance that the virus spreads. Rather than even trying to save the piggies, most of mankind would rather annihilate them "just to be on the safe side."

Okay, but that still gives us more or less good piggies, or at least piggies whose culture is not being judged as intrinsically evil but rather being presented as in some sense a morally possible alternative.

Now, suppose I'm right about that interpretation. To take it back to the main post, how would that differ from putting the mindset of the antebellum South into an alien species?

I think one major question concerns the role of biology. The reason that (I think) we're supposed to take seriously the idea that it is not wrong for piggies sometimes to torture each other to death is because it's supposed to be a natural part of the cycle of their species' survival--a design feature rather than a bug, as it were.

Whereas even if we imagine an alien species that has certain groups within the species that tend to be of lower intelligence or what-not, it would not seem as plausible that it was okay to enslave them.

I think what the sci-fi writer would have to do would be actually to alter the biology--make the slaves truly a different though in some respects similar species _all_ of whom have _vastly_ lesser intelligence so that they literally cannot take care of themselves. No doubt there actually have been sci-fi books somewhat like this.

Okay, but that still gives us more or less good piggies, or at least piggies whose culture is not being judged as intrinsically evil but rather being presented as in some sense a morally possible alternative.

I don't think that follows. I am unaware of anything Card has said about how he intended the reader to see them, but Card is rather forthright in his opposition to social liberalism in his public political activities. He strikes me as one of, if not the, last modern SciFi writers who would take that approach.

As I said, the impression I got was that Card intended the piggies to be seen as a tragic species whose very biology demands they do evil lest they face extinction and yet the piggies are capable of ordinary good in the same was as humans. The first four novels of the Ender series set the piggies up as a foil to the Formics. Where the Formics were much more advanced and numerous than humans and posed a serious existential threat to humanity by actually engaging in deliberate genocide, the piggies posed a threat only indirectly through the virus they carried. As a matter of fact, the piggies would be absolutely militarily helpless against humanity because the piggies never rose above the technological level of hunter-gatherer societies (I believe they hadn't even discovered agriculture). Yet humanity was willing to exterminate their entire race instead of imposing a naval blockade on their world (which would be harmless to the piggies since they would likely never achieve space flight).


The piggies may have had intrinsically, seriously evil aspects to their way of life, but the larger point Card was making really seemed to about the hypocrisy of human society. At that point, humanity was taking on a role more sinister relative to the piggies than the Formics did to humanity because humanity was militarily engaging an absolutely helpless race whom it had the technology to uplift (but chose not to in order to play it safe).

To be honest, I never thought that Card's Piggies were terribly well developed as alien minds. Sure, their culture was very different, but it just didn't strike me as perfectly convincing. Both the method of sending a male into becoming one of the "Fathers", and the very nature of the Fathers (and their magical ability to do things overnight with enormous logs of wood), seemed to me strained. Not Card's best moments, at all.

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