Monday, January 7, 2013

Worldbuilding: Alien Perspectives and Communication

I've been thinking of late about how aliens, upon first meeting, would establish communication, as well as how communication continues once those baselines of communication have been laid down. 

As far as starting things out, there's plenty of talk of using the language of math and science to establish initial codes.  For a very rudimentary example of this:

Now, just about any species capable of, say, achieving
spaceflight should be able to look at this and decode-- from the top part-- the mathematical truism that is the Pythagorean Theorem.*  Then looking at the bottom part, they should be able to decode that it's saying the exact same thing in another way... and from there, discern details about the English language, how it's constructed.  You construct several of these images, and transmit them to the aliens you hope to talk to, and cross your fingers that those shoulds line up, and that you don't offend said aliens who think you're trying to patronize them and teach them basic math.

Of course, getting those shoulds to line up still makes assumptions.  For example: "look at this".  What if said alien species is, as we would understand it, blind?  Would they even have developed the equivalent of Euclidean geometry? Or, at the very least, would it mean the same thing to them?  What about a species that relies more on, say, echolocation and perfect pitch?  Would their Euclid equivalent instead come up with fundamental mathematics based off of musical pitches and frequencies? 

Even presuming we can get all that, then there's culture shock.  I'm still figuring out where to start with that.  Take, for example, how we and other species might process "scary".  A species that's eight feet tall, with six long, spindly legs, winged arms like a bat and a face like a lamprey would, probably, on first meeting, look terrifying.  But at the same time, our beauty-contest winners would still look like just another rat to them.  We might both react with fear at seeing each other, and that fear could seem utterly rational, but at the same time be completely unexplainable to the other party. 

So how hard is going to be, opening a dialogue with someone who makes you want to run screaming from the room, and the same time they think that you think they need to study 5th grade math?

There's a great short story by Kij Johnson, Spar, in which a human woman is stuck in an alien lifepod with an alien creature.  There is no meaningful communication.  There's only, from her perspective, constant sexual activity that wavers between consensual and non-consensual.  She doesn't know if what it's doing to her is, as far as it's concerned, a sexual act.  She isn't sure if it thinks of her as an intelligent being.  She's not even sure if it is an intelligent being; she might be having sex with the alien equivalent of a cat. 

And that might be what it comes down to: just not knowing anything, because there's no common ground at all.

*- Completely tangential**, but every time the Pythagorean Theorem comes up, I can't help but think of one of the dumbest moments in early Star Trek: Next Generation.  Having assembled Data's evil brother Lore, the crew (not knowing Lore is evil) is showing him how the helm on the Enterprise works.  Riker brings up the first half of the Pythagorean Theorem, which Lore automatically finishes, before stopping himself and feigning that it was something he had overheard but didn't really understand.  I'm not sure which part of this whole exchange is dumber: that Riker thought that tricking Lore into revealing he knew the PT was a clever trick at all, or that Lore thought that pretending he, an android, didn't understand middle-school geometry, was somehow a clever ruse. 
**- Ha!


Word Geek said...

My personal favorite bit of Pythagorean Theory trivia is in the Wizard of Oz, when the Scarecrow gets his diploma, symbolizing his intelligence, so he immediately spouts the Pythagorean Theorem...incorrectly. He says it applies to an isosceles triangle, and if he can find the hypotenuse of an isosceles triangle, he's a heck of a lot smarter than I am.

You're right that trying to envision how to communicate with something completely alien is an interesting thought experiment, but it's also one of the elements that I'm willing to forgive, or overlook, because it's tough to make it part of a story without making it the whole story. In a short story, that's fine, but in a novel, it's tougher. Janet Kagan's Hellspark is the only thing that springs to mind, in a sci-fi setting. For short stories, though, one of my favorites is Alan Moore's Green Lantern story "The F-Sharp Bell."

Michael Caton said...

Great post, and apologies in advance for my effusion. These kinds of questions represent some of the best about science fiction.
Instantiating them like this takes topics which can be slippery or
downright boring and makes them fascinating. It gets down to the most important question, which is
what are the ways of being conscious, and how can ways of being conscious differ? That is to say, if we find alien bacteria or even alien tigers (as opposed to
alien intelligence), so what? Sure, we'll get some cool chemistry out of the deal, see natural selection in a more abstract substrate-independent
way...but it won't be anything Earth-shattering to our worldview.

So for instance, the formalists among us would dispute the reality of mathematical objects (ie logical abstraction), which is to say that what we humans have
done with math and logic is a set of useful but provincial tricks that says more about the way our nervous systems work than about the universe as a whole. Consequently the Pythagorean theorem is NOT necessarily universal. I know that
seems like Derrida-esque
to a lot of people reading this post. But to even have this discussion, you need to be able to conceive of the counterfactual to your position. Finding aliens that either do or don't use it would give us a lot of information about how minds are (must be?) constructed. So kudos to writers who undertake the very difficult task of writing an alien alien, and not a space elf. (Gregory Benford called rendering the alien the holy grail of sf.)

Good story recommendation, although it's not about aliens - In the Land of the Blind by H.G. Wells. IMHO it's his best story, for many reasons, the philosophical idea being explored chiefly among them. As much as I
love the Churchlands (philosophers) I think their Infra-People thought experiment in one of
their works is outdone in this story.

When you mentioned the Pythagorean theorem my first thought was of Stephenson's Anathem.

Michael Caton said...

That's a great story you recommended by the way, thanks. (The Kij Johnson one.)

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Yeah, I'm not sure if I will succeed in writing the Truly Alien Alien. I know part of my plan to attempt it is in limiting POV to my human characters. But I will focus less on language barriers and more on culture shock differences.

"Spar" is a great story; a brutal jackhammer of effective storytelling in under 2000 words.

Word Geek said...

Oddly, it seems I'm being bombarded by Kij Johnson lately. I just read "The Man Who Bridged the Mist" in Gardner Dozois' year's best sci-fi anthology, and really enjoyed it. So in trying to find out more about her, I ended up reading "Ponies" online, which creeped me out enough that I'm really reluctant to read "Spar," based on what I've heard.