In the past few weeks I’ve had several encounters now with an idea that has really wormed its way into my thoughts. It’s the idea of just how alien alien could actually be. It seems to me that in so much of our sci-fi, aliens are remarkably human.
Before a few weeks ago, I’d never really given much thought to the idea. From the Romulans, Klingons, and Borg in Star Trek to the Wookies, Ewoks, and Bothans in Star Wars, I never thought to question just how similarly we pictured alien species. But in so many ways, they are so similar to us (in deeper ways than is even implied by the “forehead alien” term) from the desire for love and community to the goals they live with. Even species that aren’t humanoid, like the alien from Alien, or the Arachnids from Starship Troopers, possess the (we believe) universal desires to conquer and reproduce.
Recently, I’ve read two stories: Annihilation and Speaker for the Dead, in which the sheer alienness of what is happening feeds directly into the plot of the story. Of the two, I think Annihilation captures the sensation better. For most, if not all of the story, it’s almost impossible for the reader to understand exactly what is going on. We are on a perpetual journey of confusion and uncertainty. The simple reason is because it’s simply that different. As humans, we have enough trouble trying to understand someone who votes differently than us – how likely is it we would understand anything truly alien?
I’ve been fascinated by this idea in fantasy as well. For the most part, fantasy stories allow us to play with societies that are mirror images, or shattered reflections, of the society we live in. But in a world where magic actually is possible, how deep might the effects on society be? If a world exists that contains multiple species that grew up in dramatically different circumstances, just how much would they be able to relate to one another, if at all? They are fascinating questions that make me think about all the unexplored possibilities.