Friday, May 11, 2007

Close Encounters II

I opened a can of worms by posting on aliens, as I probably should have known. Worms with starships, too, leaving their slimy trails on worlds all along the Orion Arm. Only a can of stupendous dimensions will hold them now.

"Dominant narrative" has now entered the discourse of this blog. Doug cracks open a dangerous door, a wormhole to literary theory. I won't go there without a fully equipped three-ship survey expedition, because when you blow away the enveloping nebula of BS there really is something to all that po-mo French crap, no matter what Camille Paglia thinks: As writers we dump a hundred hidden assumptions into our books; as readers we read them though a hundred different hidden assumptions. Even Heinlein (maybe especially Heinlein) isn't giving us the transparent prose we think he is, or that he pretends to be.

There is a resistance narrative almost a old as the dominant narrative, Robin Hood as durable as King Arthur, complete with ongoing debate about a historical Robin Hood.) I haven't yet brought myself to watch the new Battlestar Galactica - the original was too memorably bad ("range thirty microns and closing ...") - but I gather it plays the resistance theme as the original did, humans more or less on the run from the Cylons. The late lamented Firefly had a variant on the theme, the hero a former Confederate rebellion soldier, a Robin Hood in the making.

Resistance really is futile, however, if the odds are too great - the Native Americans never had a chance, at least not till Indian gaming caught on, a hundred years too late for Sitting Bull. "Angels" don't provide a story, because even if their kids don't accidentally step on Earth and wipe it out while shagging a ball, we can't have much of a conversation with them. (How do you convincingly portray an entity vastly more intelligent than you are?)

Nyrath suggests one alternative - we might encounter a race seemingly intelligent and comparable to us, but in fact some hyper-entity's immune system. We'd be picking on someone our own size, then, just as the cold virus does. Yet this raises the next question: could we be some hyper-entity's immune system? Which has interesting theological implications ...

Kedamono offers another alternative. A race that accepts physics instead of changing it to suit the plot might spread slowly among the stars, never becoming a hyper-entity. Or, as he hints, just how unlikely is unlikely? Races at more or less our level may be rare, but they are the ones we'd most readily notice - the apes are indistinguishable from hundreds of other clever scavenger species, and the angels are beyond our perception. In contrast, races that blunder around in starships maximize their chances of encountering other races that blunder around in starships.

Variations in tech level could still be considerable - by rough analogy, one race exploring with double canoes, another with caravels, a third with auxiliary-steam barks. These differences are manageable. If we humans are the ones with double canoes we may have to do the resistance narrative for a while till we pick up the tech, but we can handle it.

This lets plausible (and writeable) aliens back into our stories if we want them, but leaves a couple of questions. One is real-world, the other literary, but as so often with SF they are linked. On the one hand, what might starfaring aliens be like? On the other hand, what should they be like, from a story point of view? If they are pretty much like humans except for cultural differences, why not just have humans of another culture?

The literary question appears in fantasy as well ( though the real-world one does not - some people have speculated about the evolutionary back-story of elves, but not in expectation of possibly finding some). "But it's fantasy - it's supposed to have elves" is not a satisfactory answer.


Kedamono said...

When we say "Aliens" what do we mean by this? What constitutes "being an alien"? Extra arms? Different body plans? Different senses? Does that make them "alien"?

Well, no. When you look at it, there are three things that all life will share:

1. Eat
2. Procreate
3. Live long enough to procreate

This is common ground for every intelligent form of life in galaxy, be it a extremophile bacteria living on an asteroid, to the wrinkled forehead humanoids of Delta Pavonis.

It's the cultures that will be alien to us. A race that has multiple brains like the T'ca will have a very alien culture to ours. But there will still be a common ground between the two of us, and that will be our foundation for communication.

Aliens really aren't that alien.

Rick said...

A big can of worms, indeed.

On the one hand I'd expect aliens to be far more ... alien ... than even the most exotic human culture, because all humans are the same breed of scavenger ape with the same genetic heritage and predispositions.

On the other hand, even to say "intelligent species" is to imply some shared quality of intelligence. We assume (perhaps wrongly?) that the ability to make very complex tools like starships will go along not only with the ability to form abstract concepts, such as "tool," but with self-consciousness; the impulse to make not only useful tools but art.

Maybe there are races that build spaceships, but have absolutely no self-awareness, nor anything remotely comparable to art or philosophy, not because they are godless commies, like the Bugs that Lt. Johnny Rico fights, but because their intelligence isn't coded for it.

Or maybe no race incapable of imaginative thought would do anything so essentially frivolous as building spaceships.

But if there is such a thing as abstract symbolic intelligence, I think you're saying, it should be able to reason its way past the barriers of its own parochial biological background.

Kedamono said...

Well, my comments are based on a big assumption: That all life shares some basic features. (Data point of one).

That's why I'm of the opinion that Dolphins are in the hunter/gatherer stage of society and culture. They may stay that way for a very long time, or they may adapt and start kicking our butts.

Or die out.

But that's true for ourselves as well. If it wasn't for some well timed droughts, our ancestors would never have had a need to really develop farming and other agricultural pursuits.

Dolphins might make the leap from hunting tuna to ranching and herding tuna. That will allow them to have a class of dolphins that doesn't have to worry about when the next meal is coming and that will give them time to think.

Agriculture was great for humanity, it allowed us to support classes of people who didn't need to gather food all the time and gave them time to think. Now some of those thoughts have led us a stray a few times, but if it wasn't for those first farmers, there would only be about 10 million humans on the earth, maybe a bit more, and we'd still be hunting and gathering our food.

Say you have a race that is more or less a colony organism, or at least that what it was way back when. Now that colony is pretty firmly melded together, but instead of one brain divided into to two lobes, their brain is divided into 6 lobes. They also have multiple arms, say 6 arms and 6 legs, in a sexpartite body plan. It has 360 degree vision and is quite capable of having three conversations at once.

Their brains are bigger, but the brain to body mass ration is about the same, so you're safe to say that they aren't that much smarter than we are. But they are used to multitasking and just love bureaucracy. (They have six sexes: four "males" and two "females". Just imagine the orgies... :-) )

How would we communicate with such a race? They are used to delivering three streams of information at the same time, something that I doubt a single person could handle. Would it be impossible to talk to them?

Not really. They'd quickly realize that we can't handle their style of communication, so they learn to divide it up, so as your talking to them, they constantly spin about, each speaking orifice taking turns in delivering it's bit of information. It would be weird, but it would work.

Their culture and way of life would still be alien to us, since it's designed around their physiology and brain layout. At best we'd get a glimmer, but never really grok it.

Anonymous said...

very interesting blog, very inspiring, just some thoughts /notes, sorry for incorrect grammar etc:

a) human history shows us, that there is no continuity in progress / evolution (lost knowledge, etc) so even those angels could be less advanced as thought.

b) the bacteria card was played out by hg wells "war of the worlds" too, but also, (and less noticed in any adaption I've seen / heard ( didn't saw spielbergs version) there is this a general physiological factor. The simple fact that an unconfortable enviroment (in this case gravity but it could be also temperature radiation etc)
(One reason why you still have an enormious area on the african continent wich is not used for industrial agriculture. )

c) Never count on evolution as for progress. Sometimes it is just running into dead ends:

- Sharks didn't evolve because they are adapted perfectly (and there thousands more cocodiles have been driven into a certain evolutionary deadlock...)
- And "new" scientific results claim that human brain simply cannot run more effectively as it currently do, (neither increasing size or neuron density will improve it)

So maybe those angels might be more technological advanced, (and maybe more intelligent), and therefore can overcome certain biological barriers, ...but theystill have to face them.

d) All of the most miserable explorations we faced on earth history (africa / america pacific islands) were done by an expansionistic background (find new ressources, under the context of gain more power in europe)...
china for example did also made some explorations wich afaik didn't result in such a mess.

e)Another aspect: IF those aliens are enormiously supperiror, they will have absolutely no interest in us, or into earth ressources.
Most of the encounter stories still keep humans to a certain grade of importance so they are worth to be recognised by the alien race.
Would be really interesting to evolve following stories:
1. Humans try to get recognised by an alien race wich simply decided that those two legged things do not have any real conscious ,mind
2. Humans getting more or less adapted by using a cockroach / rat style of living (blind passengers on starships, living from the dump of the alien race):
How they adapt to the behaviours of their host (wich do sees humans more like nasty parasites) and how mankind try to build up their own civilisation / history / empire ( we are still talking about humans) in the brackwater of an alien galactic colonization.

f)Long lasting (= successfull ?) empires / civilisations on earth did allways invested a hudge amount of ressources to stability, if technical progress looses importance (because it had trsvhf the status of magic) this will become certainly one of the most driving motives for a civilisation, and will affect their actions.

But here is a little secret: Even if an alien race is far less supperrior to ours, we are still doomed:
Just look at those every day ufo stories you can read everywhere (if someone believes in them does not matter here btw):
Its a fact, that those aliens do really dump stuff: mutilating cows, telling weird stories, playing stupid games with airplanes, and in 99% of all times simply talk to the wrong people at the wrong time.
And still those actions will be interpretated as wise, and thoughtfull (and when there is absolutly no sign for it, there is dtill the "to much alien for humans to understand"-joker as an excuse).

Lets face it: the indians (or any other native population)
Did had all trumps in their hand: Those invaders were weaken from the long travel and didn't had any knowledge about the land, althoug technically advanced, their amount of ressources (gun powder for example) was quite limited.
But still they were seen superiour, and this was their greatest advantage (moral battle). (in places where they were not, history draws a completly different image...)

Well I could go on forever, there is still so much to note down,....

Rick said...

Alien - I'm sure I am not the first one to observe that it is far better to be the discoverer than the discoveree.

It is interesting and rather sad about the Chinese voyages - so far as I know you are right that they had no major bad effects ... but then, they didn't have much effect at all.

As the old time Italian-American pol said to some Norwegians who tried to disrupt a Columbus Day event, "when Columbus discovered America it stayed discovered." Much to the misfortune of the Americans of that time.

Anonymous said...

Sufficiently inscrutable aliens are indistinguishable from the forces of nature.

Canageek said...

Have you read David Brin's Uplift books? He has a much older civilization, but it is mired in near-religious reverence for one (badly organized) source of knowledge, The Library. This results in them spending more time re-discovering things then inventing new things. So they have way, way better ships then humanity, but they don't understand all the principles behind them; they are a design that has been slowly improved over thousands of years.

Humanity buys some of these, but is trying to make its own. As a result when the shooting starts we don't do so well, but can put in a fighting effort, doubly so when someone tries to occupy a planet, as Guerrilla warfare is pretty good at neutralizing tech differences.