Nothing Human Is Alien To Me

Which means that actual aliens would be . . . nothing human

I used to read a lot of science fiction. My father was a sci-fi nut, and still is, and when I was a kid and into adolescence, I read almost exclusively science fiction, mostly off his shelves, both stuff that is worth remembering and revisiting and stuff that was ephemeral garbage. I read Aldous Huxley and H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Ursula LeGuin and Samuel Delaney, Poul Anderson and Frederik Pohl, Orson Scott Card and Philip Jose Farmer, Philip K. Dick and Suzette Haden Elgin. I somehow missed Octavia Butler and William Gibson, Stanislaw Lem and Arthur C. Clarke, and any number of others you’d think would have been on similar shelves to some of the foregoing, and, as noted, I read a lot of garbage by authors whose names I can’t remember or will decline to recall.

And then I basically grew out of it. By that I don’t mean to look down on people who still read lots of science fiction as adults—my father is one of them—but just to say that I started to get more interested in other things that fiction does. I started to read more for literary language and for depth of character, and less for speculative ideas, got more interested in the texture and depth of the world as it is, and therefore less enamored of speculation about the world as it isn’t, or might be. By the time I was done with college, I basically didn’t read science fiction anymore, unless I decided it had “literary merit.”

I don’t really think that the problem, though, is simply that science fiction writers don’t tend to have those high literary ambitions. It’s a problem baked into the genre. The heart of science fiction is the “what if?” Change this thing—history took a sharp turn at this point; technology develops on this path; the laws of physics are different in this world; etc.—and now tell a story that brings to life the impact of those differences. It’s a very heady enterprise, but the objective, ultimately, ought to be to get out of your head and really imagine those worlds. When I look back on much of the science fiction I once read, though, what is most striking to me is the degree to which writers didn’t get out of their own heads, because they couldn’t. Instead, they fantasized, imagining worlds that were compelling because they spoke to us at the time of writing, to concerns that were alive then. When they proved prescient, it’s because those concerns turned out to only get more important as time went on. The ideas, in other words, may have been interesting, but genuinely instantiating them in fiction is just kind of beyond our ability, at least if the aim is to exercise the novel’s full capacities.

I’m not blaming science fiction writers for this. It is hard enough writing a character who is very unlike you from the inside, making a genuinely three-dimensional world of people who don’t feel like automata doing the things they do for story purposes, who feel like they could surprise you. It is so, so much harder to do that in creating an entire society. Even historical fiction runs aground on these rocks. A novel set in 9th century Britain won’t feel like it was written by the Beowulf poet, but rather like who actually wrote it: a contemporary person who is interested in the period. Its core concerns will be ours, not theirs, and let a half century (or even less) pass by and the historical novel may well feel far more dated than Beowulf ever will.

And this brings me (belatedly) to the actual subject of this post: imagining alien life. If it’s hard to imagine another era, or an imagined future, how much more impossible it must be to imagine a genuinely alien intelligence. When we stretch our minds to imagine what it might be like to be different from ourselves—which we do all the time, or else we couldn’t understand other people—we’re always stretching empathetically, that is to say, imagining what it would be like if we were those other selves. We carry ourselves with us on that empathetic journey. When the other self is as radically other as a different species—and I know I’m not the first to make this suggestion—I suspect that baggage is just too heavy to make the trip.

Let me give an example of what I mean from a couple of recent films that do a really wonderful job of bringing us close to the life of another species. Gunda is a dialogue-free film about farm animals that mostly follows a sow and her litter, with no humans in the frame; My Octopus Teacher is a documentary about a South African filmmaker and diver who befriends an octopus. In both cases, we spend enough time with the animals on screen to start to have a sense of them as personalities, and to start to imaginatively place ourselves among them. But there are sharp limits on our ability to do that which both films—Gunda deliberately and My Octopus Teacher inadvertently—run up against, and both relate to the human experience of grief.

To take the second film first, when the octopus of the film finally dies, we experience a vicarious sense of loss, because we are “with” the diver, and he has just lost a creature that he has come to think of as a friend. But the octopus’s perspective on those events, inasmuch as we can imagine it, must be radically different from the diver’s. A female octopus will typically die not long after laying her eggs, and that’s precisely what happens to his friend. But it’s not that the process of making and laying the eggs is so exhausting that the mother expires from the effort. It’s that she’s biologically programmed to self-destruct; indeed, an octopus in captivity may actively mutilate itself if it is not dying quickly enough. Moreover, this process can be short-circuited by removing an optic gland.

What does it feel like to be an octopus driven by a biological drive toward self-destruction? Does it feel the peaceful resignation that Charlotte does at the end of Charlotte’s Web? Does it feel like what we experience as suicidal ideation? Does it feel like being a Mr. Meseeks? We can imagine any of these, on a certain level—but when we do, we’re imagining what we would feel like having those experiences, not what it’s like to be an octopus. The primary effect of the journey is to throw our own mode of existence—in particular, how we grapple with our own prospective deaths—into relief. The octopus remains deeply alien. And as far as the film goes, what we experience is the human feeling of abandonment when someone we have grown attached to dies. We don’t have any reason to know whether an octopus ever feels anything similar, which raises a real question about what that friendship consisted of.

In Gunda, meanwhile, we twice experience death. The second time is when a truck comes to remove the young pigs, who are now grown enough to be taken for slaughter. The truck comes, and we hear but don’t see the pigs herded in, and then the truck leaves, and the sow is left alone. What does she do then? She wanders around the field just outside the barn, calling for her young. It’s heartbreaking—and clearly intended to be—as the mother clearly doesn’t understand where her young have gone, and won’t stop plaintively calling them home.

But earlier in the film, we see the sow with her much younger piglets, just beginning to move about their immediate environment. And one of those piglets is not doing such a great job of moving—can’t quite get the hang of it at all, in fact, and seems more generally to be having some trouble thriving. So what does mom do? She squashes him. We don’t actually see the piglet being crushed, but we see the maternal foot come down, we hear the squeal, and we linger long enough to understand just what has happened.

Do we understand, though? I know I recoiled in horror. But was it horrible for the mother sow? How did she understand what she was doing? Did she “understand” what she was doing in any sense that would mean something in human terms? I honestly don’t know. And given that I don’t know, how confident can I be that I know what is happening in the sow’s mind at the end of the film when her children are whisked away by the truck—when they vanish in a manner incomprehensible to us? I trust my perceptions enough to be able to say: she is in distress. But beyond that, the best I can hope for, I think, is to explain. I’m not sure I can communicate the experience.

I want to be clear: I’m not arguing that trying to understand the world from an alien perspective is pointless, or that it can’t make for great literature. I love the novel Watership Down, for example, a truly wonderful book, and one seriously informed by knowledge of rabbit biology and behavior. But Watership Down is not a reliable guide to rabbit consciousness, to say the least, and what it is really talking about is human behavior and human society, refracted usefully through an animal lens.

That’s what science fiction is really doing when it conjures up intelligent alien species. The Mote in God’s Eye is an interesting book with engaging (and deeply right wing) ideas about politics and international relations. The aliens conjured up for the novel, with their complex biologically-driven caste system, are there not to plausibly represent alternatives to human consciousness but to create a world where those political ideas are clearly true. The same is true with The Left Hand of Darkness and its ideas about gender. You can call that deck-stacking or you can call it a fruitful thought experiment, but either way it’s about us, not them, not the aliens.

Real aliens won’t be like that. They won’t be about us. By definition they won’t be about us—not just inasmuch as they won’t want to heal our heartsickness nor steal our women, but in that nothing about them will be organized around our social and mental categories. If we take them for angels or demons or faerie, we’ll be making a fundamental category error, for all of those imagined beings, even if you believe they are real, are there for us, for the needs of our consciousness. Aliens won’t be. For that reason, the history of how we have imagined them is mostly useless in trying to guess what they might be like, because that history is a history of our concerns. Most likely, aliens—even intelligent aliens—will be largely incomprehensible to us and will remain so. After all, we have never had an actual conversation with a dolphin, a bat, an octopus or an ant colony, and I don’t know that we ever will—and we’ve been around them for all our lives. I’m more pessimistic, in other words, than the linguists of Native Tongue, who are trained from birth (indeed, are bred) for the purpose of inter-species communication, and even they don’t make a whole lot of progress.

But if we were able to communicate with the aliens, we’d still likely find them baffling, and quite possibly much more fundamentally disturbing than distinct human cultures have ever found each other to be. The wildly optimistic case in terms of comprehensibility is that we encounter aliens who prove capable of communicating with us in a common language and forming some kind of shared society, but who (just to pick a random example) eat their own young, as Frank Herbert’s Gowachin do. That’s a case more analogous to the cultural pluralism that we actually live with, but with the added element that some of the cultural differences between humans and Gowachin are unarguably biological in nature, and that therefore what we consider morally abhorrent is to be treated as normal for Gowachin—because without that acceptance coexistence would be impossible.

Of course, Herbert invented that scenario, and that imagined species for his own purposes; reality will not do the same. But why should that mean reality would be easier to assimilate? I think the mere possibility of that scenario is already more than enough to dismiss out of hand the confidence of folks like David French that a genuine encounter with an intelligent alien species would not radically unsettle anything about human society, religion very much included. We have ample precedents, from the conquests by the Arabs, Mongols, Spaniards and English, of how badly human culture can be jolted by unexpected encounters with a novel culture. If we actually encountered a far more deeply different intelligence, how could it not subject everything we believe to question? And remember, that’s the wildly optimistic case, where we at least can communicate with them.

If we couldn’t communicate with them, perhaps we could ignore them. That’s a response with plenty of precedent of its own in human history—indeed, it’s by and large how we’ve handled our encounters with alien intelligences on earth. For all we know, whales are as intelligent as we are; for all we know, trees have some kind of intelligence that is deeply alien to us. We have no idea, and we mostly don’t let it bother us. But an intelligent tool-using species would be harder to ignore. We might not be able to make any sense of them, in my pessimistic case, but that would leave us even more alone with our fantasies, only with a very definite object on which they might fix. That might unsettle us even more profoundly than alien company would.

But the most pessimistic case of all—that we will never encounter another intelligent species—strikes me as more likely still. And that should be more unsettling to us than it is. The odds are that there have already been billions of intelligent species in the universe; the universe is just too vast, and the ingredients of life too common. If you stop there, it feels obvious that we must not be alone, and that if we aren’t alone will will be visited—must, in fact, already have been visited. But space is unutterably vast, and it is all too easy to imagine how intelligence leads very quickly to extinction. If you assume that any technological civilization lasts only a few centuries or millennia before self-destructing, and that intelligent species last at most a few million years before going extinct, then the odds of ever encountering an alien intelligence before we self destruct ourselves dwindle quickly to the infinitesimal.

It is our continued solitude, in fact, that should be the real challenge to those who hold to human specialness, or to divine solicitude for our endurance. Why wouldn’t a God who could create the vast universe we see make trillions of earths? Why wouldn’t the abundance and complexity we observe on our planet be replicated over and over and over throughout the cosmos? And yet they are not here. That should tell you something. If it tells you that we are the last, best object of creation, well, I cite against you what the voice out of the whirlwind said to Job: it is not we, but Behemoth that is “the beginning of the ways of God.”