Nonhumans in human literature

This question from a reader has so many ramifications, that I thought it merited its own post. And even this lengthy post cannot but begin to delve the surface of  a deep mine.

“Question: do most sentient beings in other worlds constructed dawn a human like nature? You said in Dark City they have that very other worldly quality. How hard is it to truly (at least attempt) to construe a non-human intelligence/nature?”

Answer: It is as hard as the writer (and his readers) wants it to be, depending on how much imaginative effort the writer (and his readers) is willing to shoulder.

Keep in mind the point of stories is to entertain readers, most of which are human. A space alien in such a story is either a prop or a character.

Let us discuss aliens as props first.

In order to be entertaining as a prop, the alien must grip the reader’s imagination and come to life in the imagination. The things that grip the imagination are either allegories or archetypes.

In literature, an allegory is something that lives in the imagination because it represents something significant to the reader: an allegory stands for something else, and therefore whatever powerful emotional resonance the reader brings to that something else, he brings to that allegorical symbol. Allegories are a connection drawn between some concrete emotional association in the heart and some abstraction in the head. For example, Aslan is an allegory or analogy of Jesus Christ. Any reader, Christian or not, moved by the innocent suffering and death of the Christ on Calvary to save Man, will likewise be moved by the analogous sacrificial death of Aslan at the Stone Table to save Edmund.

However, the danger of allegory, particularly when writing for a modern hence unintellectual audience (sorry, modern folks, but the ancients had a more mature and intellectual approach to life and art than the “just do it” generation), is that the writer must conform the allegory to the artificial needs of symbolism rather than to the natural needs of drama. If the reader scents the artificiality, the magic spell called suspension of disbelief is broken.

An archetype is something that lives in the imagination because it is the perfect, vivid an concrete example of a class of things significant to the reader. It is the distilled essence; the author has put into words something the reader has been groping to put into words. Like life itself, an archetype has emotional resonance with other things also having emotional resonance. Archetypal imagery is not a connection made in the head between an abstract symbol and a concrete image; it is a concrete image that reflects many other images, and comments on them, and shines on them a new and clearer light.

For example, Gandalf the Gray is an archetypal wizard. But he is not merely a symbol or analogy of “wizardry,” because he is drawn with vivid particulars, such as his sharp sense of humor or his love of fireworks. Likewise, Ebenezer Scrooge is an archetypal miser. The measure of the Success of Dickens or Tolkien is that their artistic archetypes are so well drawn that they become a by-word. If you hear a man described as “a Scrooge” you know exactly what the speaker means; likewise if a factory is being constructed where once of lofty grove of trees stood, and you hear it called “a little piece of Mordor” you know both the connotation and the denotation of what the speaker means.

Aliens when used as props in SFF literature used as allegories or archetypes of whatever human characteristics the writer wants to dramatize. With very few exceptions, the human characteristic the writer wants to dramatize is alien-ness or other-ness: that sense of unearthly disquiet or danger a man feels when confronting something or someone utterly unknown and utterly strange.

The most obvious use of aliens as props, and one which is so over-used that even non-science-fiction readers are aware of it, was the use devised by H.G. Wells in WAR OF THE WORLDS. The Martians are H.G. Wells are allegories of colonial Britain in her relation to lesser conquered peoples throughout her global empire. The Darwinian argument was often made in those days that the superior Englishmen, due to their more advanced civilization, had a right if not a duty to impose law and peace on anarchic and quarrelsome tribes of lesser breeds without the law. H.G. Wells, with brilliant simplicity, merely took the Darwinian argument one step into the future of man. Since civilized men were less robust than brawny barbarians (so ran the stereotype of the day), the men of the future would be even less robust than we, and would need machines to act as their bodies, fighting machines to act as their armor. The hands of man and the larger brain signify the advantage man has over ape, ergo the superman will have a brain larger still, and hands of far greater sensitivity and flexibility, like tentacles. H.G. Wells placed this Darwinian superior to man on the planet Mars, at that time thought to be an older planet than Earth, and, if inhabited, the home of an older and hence, by simple Victorian notions of Evolutionism more advanced species.

If you have seen in comics, on the covers of cheap paperbacks, or, now a days, on the covers of serious books written by those who have seen or claim to have seen UFO people, you are looking at H.G. Wells’ conception of the Darwinian superior to Man: a big-headed and cold-eyed dwarf.

H.G. Wells followed a more archetypal and less allegorical approach in outfitting his buglike Selenites in FIRST MEN IN THE MOON. The Selenites are given the characteristics normally associated with intellectuals, such as scientific superiority, remorseless efficiency, cold-heartedness, reptilian dispassion, contempt for the value of life and freedom. The grotesque hive-life of the Moon portrayed by H.G. Wells was the scientifically managed state denounced by G.K. Chesterton in his EUGENICS AND OTHER EVILS. However, unlike the Martians, who were merely symbols of superior power, meant to show the English how England would fare if England were Tasmania and Mars were Britain, the Selenites are archetypes. For example, they have not merely the repellant insectoid lack of humanity of a hive, they also have the admirable peace and order of a hive. There are no wars on the Moon.

The most archetypal alien of SFF is the race of little green men. The greenish color is merely a symbol of the otherworldly, because no skin color on Earth is that hue. It is chosen because it looks strange. These are in homage to the Martians of Wells. The second most archetypal alien is the insect, the bug-eyed monster. These are in homage to the Selenites of Wells.

In general, when aliens are used a props, they are used as symbols or archetypes of inhumanity.

A glance at modern SF shows that this archetype is in no danger of fading. The Klendathu in Robert Heinlein’s the book STARSHIP TROOPERS are described as “bugs” and nothing of their culture or history is portrayed aside from their hivelike inhumanity. They are Selenites.

The alien in the movie ALIEN is likewise a Selenite. It is insectlike to the point of impersonating the egg-lying habits of digger wasps, who paralyze a victim and plant eggs in the still-living body thereof, so that the young may feast on living flesh.

The enemy race in Orson Scott Card’s ENDER GAME are likewise Selenites, a remorseless hive, or so they seem at first. Card takes a step beyond mere allegory by having some sympathy for the hivequeen appear in the novel-length version of the story and the sequels.

The cold horror of insect life is, in reality, no more unearthly than the fuzzy warmth and mother’s milk of mammalian life, since insects are just as earthly (and a good deal older) than mammals—but they make excellent symbols of unearthliness because they refute all the most typically human and humane characteristics of man.

The predominance of insectoid life in outer space is merely because the cluster-eyed creatures with many legs and mouths that open sideways are useful and vivid symbols of otherness. However, please notice how rarely the insects of outer space are portrayed as a pretty insect, such as a butterfly. The one or two times I’ve seen it done are exceptions (Verner Vinge has butterflies make a brief appearance in A FIRE UPON THE DEEP, but has them be unexpectedly genocidal).

The Krell from the movie FORBIDDEN PLANET, even though they never come on stage, are likewise H.G. Wells Martians, that is, a race superior on the Darwinian scale of being, big-headed and super-intelligent. In that cautionary tale, however, instead of being all-powerful conquerors, the Krell are victims of their own scientific hubris. Having constructed a machine that allowed their thoughts to create any good or luxury they might imagine, their thoughts escaped their control, and the murky beastlike passions buried in their unconscious “Id” arise to destroy them: a fate repeated by the “Magician Prospero” character Dr. Morbeus with tragic inevitability.

The other major use of aliens as symbols is when they are heavenly rather than merely unearthly. The Heirodules of Gene Wolfe’s URTH OF THE NEW SUN, or the Kosh of BABYLON FIVE have heavenly characteristics: they have something of the awe-inspiring power of angels.

The loveable big-eyed waif from the movie E.T. or the enigmatic “Mr. Carpenter” from DAY THE EARTH STOOOD STILL likewise either heal the sick or carry a message of peace from heaven, and in the course of events they day and are raised from the dead—events that have emotional significance even to those to whom they have no religious significance. The conclave of aliens who sit in judgment over mankind in Heinlein’s HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL likewise seem godlike, albeit in that case it is more of an Old Testament sort of God, and the race is being judged not on its righteousness but on its ability to threaten other planets.

In stories of this kind, the aliens are used a props to represent the other possible attitude of the mind toward the unknown aside from suspicion and horror, which is wonder and hope. Basically, when you stare at the night sky, you can look at the darkness, and wonder what wolves and monsters are closing in on you, or you can stare at the stars, and wonder at their divine order and beauty. Aliens in science fiction stories, when used as props, tend to represent one or the other of these attitudes toward the night sky.

Aliens can be devilish rather than angelic. The Overlords from Arthur C. Clarke’s book CHILDHOOD’S END and the Teff-Hellani from John W. Campbell’s THE MIGHTIEST MACHINE are batwinged and cloven-hoofed devils. In the first case, they are servants of an enlightenment that evolves mankind beyond recognition, and in the second case, mere mooks or monsters with no more personality than targets in a shooting gallery.

There are, of course, countless minor uses of aliens as props to represent or to typify other things we human might feel about the strange and unusual. The aliens in the cantina scene in STAR WARS are props representing the same exotic danger Ishmael of Nantucket might encounter in among the polyglot crew of the Pequod in Melville’s MOBY DICK, with cannibals from Rokovoko, Indians, Africans and Parsi mingled in whatever rough business brings them to port.

Let us next turn to the more interesting and more challenging use of aliens: not as props, but as characters.

The use of aliens as props, as you have noticed, includes examples of humans talking about human things, such the human attitude toward inhumanity, or the human attitude toward heaven. The use of aliens as characters is something different, and falls into two camps: the first is artistic aliens. These are aliens that exaggerate or typify some human characteristic, but who otherwise are nothing different from us. The second, and more rare, are scientific aliens. These are aliens that the author has devised or deduced, based on real or realistic principles of evolution, biology and history, as part of a speculation of what intelligent life evolved under extraterrestrial conditions might be like.

Now, rarely does an alien character in a story fall cleanly into one camp or the other. A science fiction story should have elements both of speculation and story telling. The needs of speculation include the need to make the alien fit what we know of real biology and real extraterrestrial conditions. The needs of drama, however, include the need to make an alien character enough like the reader for the reader to empathize with his suffering or triumph.

Usually this is done merely by taking some human characteristic and exaggerating it, and making that the dominant trait of the aliens. An annoying example of this might be the Ferengi of STAR TREK, who act like the Onceler from THE LORAX by Doctor Seuss: but the character of Quark on DEEP SPACE NINE overcomes this crude stereotype of capitalist greed, and enjoys moments of real pathos or character growth.

Again, the “Other Men” of Olaf Stapledon’s majestic STARMAKER are nothing more than representatives of the prejudices and self-indulgence in the human race, but with scent-prejudice rather than skin-prejudice. Instead of intoxication, his Other Men are addicted to “radio bliss”—broadcast stimulation of the pleasure center of the brain. Likewise, his various vegetable-men and nautiloids and symbiots represent contemplative or class-conscious or cooperative part of the human soul or human society.

Stapledon established the basic shortcut to how to make an alien both something somewhat realistic and dramatically satisfying: the author merely takes an Earthly animal and stand it up on two legs. The Kzin of Larry Niven, for example, are upright Cat men. They are given the culture and character of honor-conscious warrior-aristocrats, like samurai. The coeurl of A.E. van Vogt’s ‘The Black Destroyer’, and hani of C. J. Cherryh’s Chanur Novels, and the llurdi from E.E. Doc Smith’s SKYLARK DuQUESNE share catlike characteristics. Likewise, the alien from the movie PREDATOR is basically Count Zaroff the big game hunter from THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, dressed up in a wig of dreadlocks and given the face of a crab. The aliens from Keith Laumer’s A PLAGUE OF DEMONS are a pack of diabolical wolves or werewolves. The Gorn of STAR TREK are lizards. The Fithp of Niven and Pournelle’s FOOTFALL are elephants. The Tine of Verner Vinge’s A FIRE UPON THE DEEP are dogs, but with the added alien quality of being pack-minds composed of four or five individuals.

Another basic shortcut to how to make an alien somewhat realistic yet dramatically satisfying is taking an animal or monster from Earth myth and outerspacifying it. The silkie in A.E. van Vogt’s THE SILKIE, for example, are silkie from Cornish legends, seal-men. The Lunarians of Poul Anderson’s HARVEST OF STARS talk and act and look like elves—and in my opinion, are far more convincing and striking than the so-called elves of most fantasy writers. The Valentians, as well as their racial foes the Overlords, from E.E. Doc Smith’s GALACTIC PATROL are basically dragons. The Puppeteers from Larry Niven’s RINGWORLD are centaur like, even to their choice of names (Nessus is a Centaur name).

However, in the Puppeteers, Niven adds more than the typical amount of scientific speculation to make these among the more memorable of aliens. Herd animals who have scientifically determined that they have no soul nor immortal part to themselves, they are quite rationally afraid of dying and psychologically incapable of defying convention. Humans (and Kzin) regard them as cowards. Indeed, so cautious is the race that only those not within the mainstream of Puppeteer sanity can be found to undertake the dangers of space travel or alien contact—Puppeteer astronauts and space pilots are all, by their standards, insane.

Niven also has one of the most memorable and original body designs for any alien species, as the Puppeteers are two headed monsters, but ones who wisely put their brains in an armored shell in their body, and have their faces and sense organs at the ends of flexible necklike limbs. Also, instead of the awkwardness, as human have done, of having the fingers and hands grow out of forepaws, the fingers of a Puppeteer grow tastefully from its lips.

Let us envision a spectrum running from the basically human aliens, which are dramatic and easy for the audience to sympathize with, to the speculative aliens, which are striking mostly in their oddness, but difficult to sympathize with.

The near side of the spectrum contains the most drama; the far side the most room for speculation, strangeness and flights of fancy. The stranger the alien, the less room for drama obtains, because there is correspondingly less sympathy in the reader.

The near end of the spectrum includes, for example, the Sabaceans of FARSCAPE, who are basically Spartans in Space; the Klingons of STAR TREK, in the original series, were Soviets in Space; in the Next Generation, the Klingons were Samurai in Space, creature of remorseless honor. The Vulcans are Houyhnhnms in Space, creatures of remorseless logic.

By making Mr. Spock, the XO of the Enterprise, a half-human, and by setting human and emotional half in conflict with his logical Vulcan half, STAR TREK creates what is perhaps the best beloved yet most dramatic alien of sciencefictiondom. His conflict is the human conflict we all suffer, but taken from the other side, the alien side: Spock is a rational and self disciplined creature who struggle to overcome the remnants of his buried violent and emotional side, whereas we humans are violent and emotional creatures who struggle to become rational and self-disciplined (or, rather, our forefathers once did: the “just do it” generation dismissed all talk of self-control as pernicious bigotry).   Nearly anyone who knows the struggle between duty and passion can sympathize with this silently suffering Stoic figure.

To use an example from fantasy rather than science fiction, toward the middle of the spectrum are Tolkien’s elves. They are longer lived than human beings, dying not of old age, but only of wounds or grief; they are a nobler race than man, both fairer and having not lost the oneness with nature Adam forsook in Eden; and yet they are exiles from paradise. And so a sense of inhuman melancholy hangs over the elvenkind and all their works in Tolkien, a sense that magic is departing from the world, and that they, exiles in a land and time not their own, are a remnant not yet departed, but whose time is past. Odd as this sounds for a fantasy book, this psychology is a perfectly logical deductive speculation from the premise of nonhuman intelligence—what if there were creatures like man, but not Fallen, not mortal, and yet not angelic nor perfect. The psychology is somewhat comprehensible to humans, for we too often feel like exiles in a Middle Earth halfway between heaven and hell, and some of us, myself included, feel like remnants of older and nobler days whose time has passed. And yet the essential non-humanity of the Elves, their strangeness to us, is well portrayed by Tolkien, for they are fair yet perilous.

At the far end of our spectrum are truly strange creatures. The truly strange can range from the truly possible to the purely fanciful. Possible but strange include such as the Mesklin of Hal Clement’s MISSION OF GRAVITY. Because their surface gravity can be up to 700 times our own, these creatures are centipede-like, and their psychology includes a terror even of small heights, since falls from even small heights are fatal. The intelligent nanomachines of Greg Bear’s BLOOD MUSIC are nothing like human beings either in organization or intellectual architecture. Greg Egan’s DIASPORA contains the “Wang’s Carpets” of Vega, which are a form of oceanic carpetlike life made out of Wang tiles.

Impossible but strange include things like the intelligent gas clouds, intelligent stars, intelligent nebulae first found in Olaf Stapledon’s LAST AND FIRST MEN or his STARMAKER, but often copied thereafter, or crystalline methane creatures, or living mat of continent-sized vegetation appearing in the Sector General stories of James White.

One of the least human-shaped races is the Great Race of the Yith from ‘The Shadow Out of Time” by H.P. Lovecraft. They are described as “… immense rugose cones ten feet high, and with head and other organs attached to foot-thick, distensible limbs spreading from the apexes. They spoke by the clicking or scraping of huge paws or claws attached to the end of two of their four limbs, and walked by the expansion and contraction of a viscous layer attached to their vast, ten-foot bases.”

The dramatic problem inherent in portraying such strangeness, is that there is little room for characterization or character development. The Great Race are merely a stark unknown, and no member of them is given a name or personality, much less character development or drama.

For example, since the Great Race do not reproduce as do we, their love stories are not as ours are. Portraying the feeling analogous to infatuation and lovesickness and romance that a Grace Race member feels when first summoned to the spore-troughs to seed the next generation of hosts for possession by eon-bypassing ancestral minds launched from a distant home beyond the multidimensional curve of timespace would strain the craft of even a brilliant author.

The plot of Progenitor-meets-Sporebed, progenitor loses spore-infection rights, progenitor-get-spore-infection-rights back again might be the nearest reflection in an alien mold to our beloved boy-meets-girl stories, but it is basically impossible to tell without either ascending into abstraction or descending into parody.

While the motives and emotions of mammalian life from other planets might be clear enough to us — loyalty in a man is the same emotion as loyalty in a dog, and a mother bear defending her cubs is understandable enough — the motives of the mass mind of a swarm of bees, or an intelligent lightray or an intelligent gas cloud can be described only by analogy.

I have yet to read an account of an intelligent black widow spider of Rigel VII or the Lesser Magellanic Cloud loving, killing, and eating her mate in a fashion that captures the grandeur, sacrifice, sorrow, eroticism and horror such a practice would no doubt have in the psychology of an sapient insect. The emotions of an intelligent cloud of crystals in a methane cloud encountering fumaroles that coat her outer crystal surfaces with a chemical changing the thought-properties of the neural signals sent from one lobe of the cloud to the other would be even more difficult to portray, or understand.

If you make the motives too human, as when Olaf Stapledon attributes to the intelligence gas clouds of Mars a zealous desire to enforce their cult of diamond worship on mankind, the strangeness is lost, or becomes a matter for parody. If the aliens are likened too closely to human things—as when the self-aware rainbows of planet Polychromata suffer intoxication and drunkenness during an eclipse of their smaller blue sun, so the living light from the water droplets all cry out in their language of refracted light-flickers, “Party on, Dude!” then something of the wonder evaporates.

To answer the original question, the act of deducing from an alien biology what an alien psychology, philosophy and civilization would be like is difficult. To do so while creating a character with room for a character drama into which the human reader can be immersed is doubly difficult. Perhaps it is the most difficult task in all science fiction. There are writers of respectable stature who say it cannot truly be done at all.

To try to do what cannot truly be done, most writers use understandable shortcuts: the insect-men of the Moon are portrayed as repellent communists; the lion-men of Mongo are portrayed as majestic warriors; the nymph-women of Venus are alluring; the herd-animals of Sirius are bovine and placid; the winged dragon-men of Sigma Draconis are vicious; the icy amoeba men of Pluto are cold-hearted cowards, and so on.

These shortcuts merely use the emotional connotations that the readers might be expected to bring to insects, lions, nymphs, cattle, dragons, and so on.

Those stories who do not use a shortcut, require the writer to reflect on the biological basis of human psychology, and ask himself what change in biology would cause what change in psyche.

Robert Heinlein, for example, in his famous STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, proposed that since all human energy and progress was a sublimation of a sex drive, that creatures without a sex drive (his Martians reproduced asexually, by pollinating their unintelligent pre-adolescent young), would be solemn, patient and placid to a point unimaginable in human beings, and utterly unwarlike. E.E. Doc Smith in his Lensman series postulated the exact opposite: his amoeboid Eddoreans, lacking a sex drive, lacked family units, parental and filial and romantic bonds, and hence their society was merely one of cooperative alliances between monstrously self-centered megalomaniacs in an endless and remorseless Hobbesian war of extermination of all against all. Ursula K. LeGuin in THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS postulated a race of humans that were sexual only once of month, otherwise androgynous: her Gethenians had neither organized religion nor organized warfare above the level of border raids, and technological progress was slow, unexploitive, tentative. Masculine pride and swagger were noticeably absent even from the kings of planet Winter. Hence, three different authors give three different answers to the question of the role of sex in forming intelligence. Each is a good enough writer to make his answer convincing.

Most writers reflect on how the methods used by the creatures to gather food or reproduce their young will influence their psychology and hence their civilization.

The intelligent whales of Jupiter or the drifting balloon-creatures of Ceti Alpha would not depend on crops for their survival, for example, and hence might lack the territoriality which is the defining characteristic of agriculture-centered human civilizations. They might lack a concept of organized warfare, but also lack a concept of trespass.

Likewise, writers who draw out the implications of being predators, herbivores, fructivores, carrion-eaters, or plant-people who draw their nutriment from soil and sun, not to mention reflections on the differences between pack-animals, herd-animals, and solitary animals bring greater realism to the question than those who merely have their pig-headed men act like men, with the same institutions and concerns we have, differing only in that they snort and snuffle as they speak.

The difference between sea turtles, who merely abandon their eggs in the sand, cuckoos who leave their eggs for other birds to raise, and penguins, whose fathers stand in the endless night of arctic winter with their egg on their feet, waiting in perfect faith for their wives to return from the sea with food, makes for an interesting speculation of what forms the society of creatures like these might take were they intelligent, or the octopus mother that sacrifices her life during her reproductive cycle.

Intelligence lodged in odder places, such as salamanders, living in the hearts of suns, who reproduce by trigger supernovae, or such as two-dimensional creatures sliding along the surface of neutron stars, would necessarily have odder limits on growth and different strategies for overcoming those limits. To make such exotic creatures think exactly like men, with the empires or religious hierarchies of ancient or medieval Europe, is something of a disappointment.

Basically, the art of making aliens that are somehow both strange enough to be alien, but familiar enough to be dramatic, is the art of deducing the connections between the human spirit and the human flesh.

Like it or not, the aliens you make, O science fictional maker of worlds, will reflect your view of how the biology, survival strategy and reproductive strategy of living things changes their traits and personalities, and for hypothetical nonhuman intelligences, affects their personal and group traits, their philosophies, virtues and vices, and their institutions.

The ramifications are as endless as your patience and imagination wish to make them: how would a different set of sense impressions change your creatures and their civilization? What is the difference between creatures who need the cooperation of 81 distinct sexes across 810 earth years to produce one egg containing the entirety of the next the next generation and creatures who reproduce hundreds or thousands of young each season of a seven-day-long year? What is the difference between creatures who are intelligent only for part of their daily cycle, as humans are (we sleep, after all) and those whose intelligence rises and falls periodically as part of their general life cycle? What is the difference between creatures who have many specialized personalities in one skull and those whose many bodies are joined in a symbiotic mind, a pack mind, a group mind, or a hive mind with only one dominant personality? Would such a creature even have a singular pronoun in its symbolism?

What are the ramifications of a civilization, like ours, where every member has the same hope (barring war, disease or accident) to live the roughly same length of time, versus a civilization where each member has a wildly differing expected lifespan, so that one child of the same mother might be expected to live a decade, another a century, another a millennium? For that matter, what ramifications would there be if the same species differed widely in size and strength, so that one tribe or one generation might produce minnows and whales and creatures as vast as the Midgard Serpent? Could such creatures even conceive of the concept of equal rights, if their entire history was a story of giants dominating all pre-industrial battles? What are the ramifications of a biology where the mothers had more control over which traits the next generation would inherit, or, more daring a speculation, what are the ramifications of a reproductive system that does not pass on any inherited traits at all?

What would a creature be like that is as smart as a man but does not think like a man? To answer that question is impossible without some idea, either an articulate theory or an inarticulate insight about the nature of thought and reason, man and the universe.