THURSDAY, 26 MARCH 2020Browsing science fiction in Waterstones is a disorienting experience of fantastical covers and strained blurbs, but in examining them one finds a greater degree of similarity than one might expect of a genre that tries to unfetter the human imagination. There are a lot of Imperial galaxy-spanning civilisations, for example. A lot of wormholes and lasers. Not a few malevolent artificial bits of intelligence. And the alien biological intelligences we encounter tend to be rather human-shaped.
Why does the unimaginable look so recognisable? Let us say a Martian cylinder has landed in a field outside of Woking, Surrey. You rush to the scene. Would you be more or less struck to find that it disgorged smooth green ‘Roswell aliens’, or H.G. Wells’ grey-ish hulks the size of a bear with tentacular mouths? It might not be at the top of your mind just then, but it would be profoundly odd if the evolution of non-Earthly life developed into something that looked like us. How far can the convergent evolution card stretch: Is it not strange that organisms that have developed in very different gravities and pressures, turn out to be human-sized? Should alien language resemble that of humans? Should they have a similar sense of morality? Heliocentrism may have replaced the Geocentric Model of the Universe, but the idea that we are at the centre of things seems to have never left our imaginations. If other life exists, then it will look and sound like us. Intergalactic hubris.
It is, of course, not so odd that writers come to converge on some shared concept of biological normality, even when evolution would not. This is because it is easier to build relatable characters for human audiences if you inject them with humanity. On-screen, it has historically been easier to costume-up hominid aliens than anything too exotic, not least for actors' comfort, and after excessive CGI use in the noughties and early 2010s, rubber-forehead aliens are back in fashion. Different media also require different levels of humanity in their characters. Cinema most often romanticises the human condition and requires humanness to visually connect with an audience, while video games feed of the strange and dramatic to excite and challenge players. Using human-like entities that differ in strange ways can also set up an uncanny valley situation, which might play better into the horror - e.g. The Thing - or empathy a writer is trying to summon. The classic Sci-Fi horror Alien has a vaguely humanoid figure kill the Nostromo's crew. The near-humanness of the xenomorph lends it greater terror, because the viewer gets the sense that its is not just satiated but gratified by its kills.
We can try to make sense of overly hominid universes even when their writers do not themselves provide us with an explanation. The Hominid Panspermia Theory, posited by Discovery magazine and made explicitly in universes like that of Mass Effect, supposes that in science fiction, humans or a precursor hominid species are the seed from which most other intelligent life forms emerge. Therefore, ‘aliens’ appear as distant cousins with slight cosmetic and cultural variations. This is the unwritten backstory to most of science fiction, and you can assume it to be the case unless told otherwise to ease any evolutionary qualms. Humans are the vermin-race of the stars; they are very fecund and never more than five klicks away.
Though this theory can provide a scientific basis for unexplained humanness, does the genre as a whole suffer from a poverty of imagination? A lot of mainstream Sci-Fi is rather swashbuckling. Humans are rarely the invaders, and if we encounter other beings it is under the guise of knowledge and adventure, or in the case of the SS Enterprise, to boldly go where no man has gone before, innocently spreading Judeo-Christain Values and Kirk’s STDs across the galaxy. A military-industrial complex is a central premise for one of the most successful science fiction properties of all time; Star Wars. Even a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, the worlds and creatures that inhabit them look and fight like us. The galaxy is ruled by a democratic senate, there is organised crime, a fascist regime and so on.
Like fantasy, Sci-Fi is a theoretically lawless genre, and yet it adheres to internal rules and structures easily recognised by its fans. Alien planets often have marketplaces, currency and drug epidemics. Martin Scorsese recently opined that Marvel films are closer to theme parks than they are to the movies he loves best. This is also true of the behemoth franchises in the science fiction world. As with Marvel, their popularity often derives from luring audiences in with narratives that trade on human conditions and histories; family feuds and empires and their rebellions, all touched up with the fantastical rather than immersed in it. It is a formula that works.
There are a few exceptions to this. In the 2016 film Arrival, the ‘others’ arrive in familiar fashion, not unlike in War of the Worlds, stopping over locations around the world and everyone braces themselves for an invasion. For the vast majority of the film, humanity scrambles to piece together their agenda, and in fact, it is our very assumption to project meaning and motive onto these beings that almost destroy us. These beings are nothing like the Wells’ military hulks. The aliens experience time as a non-linear event, express themselves through inkblots that represent phrases and have few discernible features. They have no eyes, no arms, eight legs and their ships are not ships at all - they are bridges across time and we have a small part to play in ideas far bigger than our own.
08In an attempt to imagine an intelligent otherness entirely at odds with humanity, the weird-fiction author China Mieville wrote Embassytown. The novel is set in a human outpost on the world of the Ariekei. The natives are ‘insect-horse-coral-fan type things’, whose anatomy and culture are often described through unexplained neologisms that make their otherness referable if disorientating. They speak an innate language in which it is not possible to lie and are intoxicated by those humans gifted enough to speak it with their human twist: the ability to tell untruths. It is an addiction that nearly brings their civilisation to its horse-like knees as the Ariekei learn to speak the metaphors that so tantalise them. However, Embassytown’s and Arrival’s primary means of making their audiences feel for their aliens is to use a human ambassador as a bridge. It is hard to deal in such dramatic otherness and retain a reader’s empathy otherwise.
There has been a rich exploration of general AIs in Sci-Fi, from the collective personality of Legion in Mass Effect, to the enevolence and esoteric humour of the intelligent starships in Ian Banks’ Culture Series. The authors have built AI characters that are relatable and very different from their human counterparts. Interest in this theme has grown as machine learning has taken over the real world. Perhaps, we are seeing a shift from malevolent AIs to more friendly ones in work like with Moon, Her, Interstellar, Robot and Frank and so on. We could also do with thinking more about how this can be achieved with alien life, without making it in our own image. Perhaps the trick is choosing a biological framework that an audience already somewhat understands and inflating it just enough. The Formics of Enders’ Game and the Lovecraftian lesser Gods work because they make use of othernesses closer to home, namely insectoid hive minds and cephalopods. After success with Alien, its creators moved their titular monsters into the realm of hive mind communication and genetic engineering. The film series’ popularity has run mainly off of its audiences’ fascination with its xenomorphs rather than its human character building. However, we are yet to really ‘feel’ anything positive about, or be particularly compelled by, any individual xenomorph. This is the very tricky thing - the question is not just can we conceive of radically different intelligences, but how radical can we make our characters and still have them pull on our heartstrings