Monday, October 18, 2010
The alienness of it all
There’s alien and there’s alien. There’s something different but accessible, someone we can still communicate with, albeit with difficulty. And then there’s something which is alive and sentient and yet which we can never really reach and may never understand.
The creatures of James Tiptree Jr.’s Nebula Award-winning short story “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” are a great example. There aren’t any humans in this, no easy point of reference. It’s narrated from the first-person point of view of a male of an unnamed alien species, and isn’t easy to get into – but when you do, it’s a wonderful read.
The narrator discovers a female of the same species, who is extremely tiny and delicate. He’s large and powerful – claws and mandibles and what-have-you – so after he falls in love with the female, he protects her and takes excellent care of her, wrapping her in silk each night. She grows, and grows, and grows. Eventually they mate.
And after that point in their reproductive cycle… well, the male isn’t needed any longer, is he?
“Great is the Plan,” are some of his last – still loving – words.
Aliens who think differently are fascinating. There’s Solaris, the living ocean in Stanislaw Lem’s novel of the same name, and The Black Cloud, Fred Hoyle’s creation. Both are wonderfully unlike anything in human experience. As a result, of course, they’re unreachable – they can’t really be communicated with, understood or controlled.
Such aliens aren’t likely to interact with humans, the same way we don’t really interact with dust mites. They might even kill humans casually, unthinkingly, the same way I kill spiders. The spiders are going about their business quietly in a corner – and death descends from above, a death they can’t understand or fight. It’s not done maliciously and it’s not done to survive. It’s just done because that’s what I do with spiders.
Iain M. Banks’s Dwellers are massive floating creatures native to gas giants, who live for millions of years. Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman has starfish-like aliens – no bilateral symmetry! – which also have very different patterns of thought. And the aliens in Asimov’s The Gods Themselves require three to reproduce, but unlike the Cogenitors in Star Trek : Enterprise and the binnaum of Alien Nation, all three individuals fuse together.
The idea of such fusion is very alien because it effectively erases physical identity and personal space, boundaries that we take for granted and yet which define what a person is. What if aliens of another species fused easily and readily, perhaps to pass on information, perhaps simply to absorb food?
Let’s say you have a huge seven-course meal, but I miss out. So we fuse, and I get some of the nutrients. Maybe even the tastes, if we share memories. Then we separate, perhaps with both of us now looking different since appearance isn’t as important among amoeboid aliens.
Or what if our only chance of communication with an alien species was to fuse alien and human? Or to allow one of their number to permanently parasitize a human?
As a commenter in this discussion points out, one problem with such books is that there’s usually no real point of reference. We don’t get into the extraterrestrials’ minds and grieve for them the way I did for the last surviving alien in Poul Anderson’s “Terminal Quest”. It’s difficult, at best, to identify with them.
But the ideas in these stories are bright as fireworks, and burn themselves across your mind.