Knowable Aliens

Published by Gregory Benford on February 19th, 2012

J. G. Ballard has said that one of the problems of science fiction is that it is not a literature won from experience.  There are several ways of interpreting this assertion.  It is nowhere more obviously true, though, than in the case of science fiction that depicts aliens.

THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE, a sprawling classic published in 1974 by the dynamic duo of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, brings many basic philosophical issues to light, beneath the steady glare of fast-moving drama. While it can be read today with different perspective, after the avalanche of films and novels depicting aliens, it remains one of the most thorough portraits of how we might actually encounter very different life forms.

To fathom it, I shall discuss some of the philosophical and literary problems of treating aliens. My discussion will probably not resemble  literary criticism because I am not a critic, but a science fiction writer and a physicist.  And I do not pretend to objectivity or even to impartiality, since I have written some fiction about this subject and am therefore already biased.  I shall attempt a brief catalog of the ways aliens have been depicted in science fiction and then move on to the philosophical problems that interest me.  I shall necessarily give only slight attention to many rich areas.


Anthropocentric Aliens

     By far the most common kind of alien in science fiction is the unexamined one — supposedly strange, but represented by only a few aspects, all of which are merely exaggerations of human traits.  The simplest version of this kind of alien is the invader, often depicted as an implacable, mindless threat (as in Robert Heinlein’s Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers).  In making easy political analogies, the film The Thing is fairly typical of a vast body of science fiction:  The Thing stands for the Communist menace, the woolly-minded scientists who try to make contact with it despite its obvious hostility represent the Adlai Stevensons of this world, and the United States Air Force stands for, of course, the United States Air Force.  A more interesting version of the anthropomorphic alien is typified by Hal Clement’s Mesklinites in Mission of Gravity.  They have unusual bodies, determined by their bizarre planetary surroundings.  This “biology as destiny” theme occurs often in science fiction, but, like the Mesklinites, the aliens of such stories commonly speak like Midwesterners of the 1950s and are otherwise templates of stock humans.

In Larry Niven’s Ringworld and his Known Space series, variants on this kind of alien are represented by beings roughly equivalent to types of terrestrial animals.  Niven’s kzinti is a catlike carnivore, given to mindless rages.  His puppeteers are herd animals (that is, cowards); their cites stink, like a corral. (None of this appears in MOTE, however. Niven’s hand lies behind the Moties, with Pournelle bring the authentic experience of what a real space navy might be like. The nave scenes smooth over the feeling of strangeness that comes from the Moties. In People of the Wind, Poul Anderson has done this sort of thing with subtlety, giving his bird aliens touches of real strangeness.

In my view, the trouble with most realizations of this much-sought strangeness is that its effect so soon wears off.  Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle explore aliens who are not bilaterally symmetric (an odd variant, indeed) and extracts some value from the feel of threeness versus twoness.  At times these aliens seem no more difficult to understand than the Chinese.  Indeed, they are stopped from spreading by a technicality involving faster-than-light travel; this insures that alien values and threenesses do not flood through the galaxy.

Even as respected a work as Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker does not truly focus on the alienness of the many creatures that inhabit its future worlds.  Stapledon gives them biological variations that ultimately have no impact whatever on the gross socioeconomic forces at work in the environment around them.  There are not alternate realities here, no genuinely different ways of looking at the universe, but instead (on the planetary level, at least) a clockwork Marxism that drives them inevitably into tired confrontations of labor with capital, and so on.  It is the larger vision Stapledon pursued, his account of the ultimate grinding down of the galaxies, that still moves us today.  The Marxism is the most dated aspect of his work.

A related function of aliens in science fiction is that of a mirror (or foil).  The sexual strangeness of the Gethenians in Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, for example, is a distancing device, a way to examine our own problems in a different light.  In countless lesser works aliens are really stand-in humans of the Zenna Henderson sort:  quasi-human, with emotions and motivations not much different from our own.  Aliens as mirrors for our own experiences abound in science fiction.  Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rescue Party” has humans as its true focus, though the action centers on aliens who are only a dumber version of ourselves.  The final lines of the story give us a human-chauvinist thrill, telling us more about ourselves than we nowadays wish to know.

The Galactic Empire motif, with its equations of planet=colony and aliens=Indians (of either variety), is a common, unimaginative indulgence of science fiction.  There are generally no true aliens in such epics, only a retreading of our own history.  This underlying structure is so common in science fiction, even now, that it is difficult to know whether we should attribute it to simple lack of imagination or to a deep, unconscious need to return repeatedly to the problem.  It would be interesting to see an Asian science fiction writer tackle the same theme.  The list of aliens-as-foils is large.  Authors have treated women as aliens, children as aliens, and robots as alienlike.  In such tales we are really saying something about ourselves, not about the universe beyond us.  An especially pointed use of this devise was made by Brian Aldiss in The Dark Light Years, in which aliens use excrement as a sacrament.  This stress on the holiness of returning to the soil so that the cycle of life may go on mirrors some Eastern ideas, though its main target may be Western scatology.

I end this catalog of more conventional uses of aliens by bringing up a puzzle I think worth pondering.  It has long been clear (to any biologist who has thought about the question for more than five minutes) that any alien planetary ecology will be  utterly different from ours.  The old cliché — open the helmet, sniff the air:  “Smells good!  We can breathe it” — is usually avoided these days, but more subtle technical difficulties are not.  Even if, for example, we found alien plants we could stomach, anything they contained resembling sugar could easily have the wrong sense of rotation from Earthly ones and thus would be unusable as food.  Proteins, trace minerals — all would almost certainly be incompatible with our organic systems.  To make a planet habitable by humans, we would have to erase what is there and introduce an entirely new, man-oriented ecology.  Yet, in thousands of otherwise respectable science fiction stories, this point is ignored.  Why?  If questioned, most science fiction authors would, I imagine, admit the point and plead the convenience of assuming otherwise.  Yet this sidestepping of the problem is not simply a bit of insiders’ footwork, as is, say, faster-than-light travel.  When a new theoretical fillip for getting such high velocities appears, the hard-science fiction writers instantly snatch it up and ring some changes on it; I have done so myself.  But we never really touch the ecology problem.  Seldom do we admit in fiction that it is a problem.  I can think of only two recent works that address the issue:  Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To. . . . . and Lloyd Biggle’s Monument.  The almost universal avoidance of this striking astronomical-biological fact must have some motivation.  Is it a telltale signal of some deep fear?  Does it indicate that we do not care to smudge the image of a difficult but generally sympathetic galaxy out there?  I do not know.  But I do think the problem is worth the attention of the critics.


Unknowable Aliens

     For me, the most interesting aspect of the alien lies, not in its use as a fresh enemy, an analog human, or a mirror for ourselves, but rather in its essential strangeness.

Remarkably few science fiction works have considered the alien at this most basic level.  One which does is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.  The vast space vehicle, Rama, yields up some of its secrets, but leaves our solar system with its essential nature shrouded.  We see the mechanisms, but not the mind behind them.  Since Ringworld and Rama there has been a tendency to use giganticism as an easy signifier of alienness, as in John Varley’s Titan trilogy, but I feel the method yields diminishing returns.  Size alone is not all that significant.  Let us remember that some of the most bizarre aspects of reality appear at the subatomic level.

The biggest entity of all, of course, is God. Some religions hold that we were created in His image, but does anyone truly believe that “His” even applies–that God has sex, for example? Why would He, unless there were a female Goddess? If they govern together, how does the arrangement work? These are the puzzles we get into by blandly applying human grammar and categories to the genuinely different.

Aliens often have a strong theological role, as in the metaphors of ascension in Clarke’s Childhood’s End and 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  Aliens do occasionally appear in science fiction as distant, inexplicable things, often ignored by the human characters.  Making them objects of indifference does not exploit or illuminate the philosophical problems involved, though.  These emerge when other beings attempt communication with them.

One of the basic devices of science fiction is the instant translator, which enables aliens to speak an Earthly language with little difficulty (in science fiction, English, often American English, at that).  This device serves to speed up a story, but writers using it sidestep a knotty problem:  how can beings be strange and still communicate with us easily?  Some authors have been able to surmount this difficulty, but few have used the language problem itself as a major turning point.  The essence of epistemology is language, for only by communicating our perceptions can we get them checked.  The intuitive bedrock of perception must be given voice.  Ian Watson’s Embedding involves aliens who come to barter with us for our languages (not our sciences or arts,) for languages are the keys to a deeper knowledge.  By assembling all the galaxy’s tongues, they believe they will transcend their species limitations and at last understand the real world.  Thus the language of each species is capable of rendering a partial picture.

In another visit by aliens to the Earth (depicted in If the Stars Are Gods by Gordon Eklund and me), the aliens seek communion with our star, not with us.  Their picture of reality involves stars as spiritual entities.  The protagonist at first believes the aliens are lying, but is later drawn into their world view.  He sees their vision and reaches some sort of understanding.  But the paradoxes that run through the text turn about at the end, and he sees himself as trapped, by his own use of human categories, into a fundamental ignorance of the aliens.  A Wittgenstein quotation, “A dog cannot be a hypocrite, but neither can he be sincere.” underlines the limits of using human concepts.  The emotional reaction to this view is also varied:  the aliens are deliberately compared to pastel giraffes, and there are other comic touches.  The layered paradoxes of the story line all suggest a possibility of “communion with the suns,” but also the impossibility of knowing whether this sense, as filtered by human minds, is what the aliens mean.  Reflections of this basic either-or, subject-other habitual mind-set occur throughout this work, always pointing toward an irreducible strangeness.

The most extreme view one can take is to reject the notion of any degree of possible knowledge of the alien, to declare all the aliens of science fiction inherently anthropomorphic or anthropocentric, and to state flatly that true aliens would be fundamentally unknowable.  This position is perhaps best put forward in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.  In New Worlds for Old  David Ketterer has explored the many images and phrases Lem uses to underline his position.  The library scene adroitly satirizes science as model building, for example.  In his afterword to the novel, Darko Suvin attributes Lem’s renunciation of final truths to “the bitter experience of Central European intellectuals in this century.”1  If this were in fact the only reason to adopt such a position, Solaris would not be important, but of course the philosophical roots of these ideas go quite deep.


 A Philosophical Digression

     One might a first ascribe Lem’s point of view to the failure of positivistic philosophy in this century.  Philosophy has take quite a few lumps from mathematics in this regard.  (Recall that Kant held the truths of geometry to be synthetic a priori.  Relativity and Riemann came along shortly thereafter, and now even little children in the streets of Göttingen know that geometry is in fact a synthetic a posteriori category, a checkable fact.  And we do not live in a Euclidean universe, either, as Kant imagined.)  The thrust of mathematical philosophy has been toward arithmetization.  The logical weight of the entire edifice rests on arithmetic, from which the remainder of mathematics can be built up, as Russell and Whitehead showed in 1913.  All analytic philosophy, in turn, rests on analogies with the truths of arithmetic.

But are the axioms of arithmetic consistent and complete?  David Hilbert set out to prove this (that is, the absolute consistency of arithmetic, and thus mathematics) and became the father of the formalist school.  The Dutchman L.E.J. Brouwer, on the other hand, championed the intuitionist school.  The collision between these views led Gödel to show in the 1930s that the question addressed by Hilbert was not answerable:  that is, proof of the absolute consistency of mathematics could never be given — it was a “fundamentally  undecidable proposition.”

By resorting to the famous Barber Paradox of Russell, one can easily illustrate this point.  Barrett the Barber put a sign in his shop window saying “Barrett the Barber is willing to shave all, and only, men unwilling to shave themselves.”  The paradox arises when one asks, “Who will shave Barrett?”  This question is undecidable within the limited language of the sign.  We therefore need a new sign to take care of Barrett (“Exclude Barrett from the above”).  This change fixes the problem, essentially by putting a patch on it.  But Gödel showed that, in arithmetic, the added signs can be put into another, larger arithmetic language, and that this language also must include undecidable statements.  Thus, if model building in science seeks to make a formalistically exact statement, it must fail, for there is no way to prove self-consistency.

This discussion may seem like employing a philosophical howitzer to slay a literary mouse, but it is important to realize that it is not in the above strict sense that Lem attacks the anthropocentricity of science and the pursuit of the alien.  Instead, Lem bases his thesis on the earlier positivist school of the nineteenth century.  One can look upon Gödel’s proof — which many consider the most important development in philosophy in this century — as a confirmation of much of the earlier work of skeptics, principally Locke, Berkeley, and Hume.  Lem’s evocation of this view is sound in the manner meant by the earlier philosophers, and in the strict sense receives further support from Gödel.  But it is clear that there are senses in which Lem’s position does not take into account recent developments in the philosophy of science.  It is certainly not true, as some seem to assume, that Lem’s position in  Solaris and in other, later works is the correct one, and that all other treatments of aliens in science fiction must be regarded as ignorant and simplistic.


Chicken Sexing and Science Fiction

     The “Intuitionist” school of analytic philosophy also manifests itself in science fiction about aliens; some of the best works in the field are, in fact, intuitionist.  Terry Carr’s “Dance of the Changer and the Three,” for example, depends on a certain intuitive sense of the alien.  some of the best passages in Asimov’s flawed novel The Gods Themselves evoke an intuition of alienness through the sensation of floating, which, for the inhabitants of another universe, has some central meaning.  (indeed, it is worth noting that Lem himself has said that he wrote Solaris with “no plans, no elaborated preconceptions, no tactics, no nothing” that is an intuitionist sense, not an analytic one!)

My own rough-and-ready introduction to the intuitionist school came about during my boyhood in Alabama.  My relatives raised chickens, and one of the biggest events each year was the hatching of the chicks.  The main problem in that industry is that of culling out the males, since they do not lay eggs.  To save on corn one needs to be able to spot the males among the baby chicks immediately.  But it is hard to tell male balls of fluff from the female balls of fluff.  One is therefore forced to hire a chicken sexer.

Learning to be a chicken sexer is almost entirely nonverbal.  The master chicken sexer hands the novice a chick and says “male.”  The novice then feels the chick.  The next chick handed the novice is a female, but in his untutored state, the novice cannot at first tell the difference.  After a day or two of this, though, an odd thing happens.  The novice begins to be able to tell the males from the females.  He does not quite know how he does it.  He picks up a sense he cannot explain or describe a sensitivity to the aura of maleness or femaleness, I suppose.  After a while he can score ninety per cent or better at separating out the males.

My prelude to a possible career in chicken sexing was, then, also my introduction to the intuitionist school of natural philosophy.  My Aunt Mildred was a master practitioner without having ever heard of Immanuel Kant or L.E.J. Brouwer.  As a method of philosophical instruction, the process was, of course, rather hard on some of the chickens, but what I absorbed has stuck with me through my scientific and literary career.

Perhaps this explains why, from my reading of philosophy, I feel that the intuitionist view has not receded in this century, but rather has come to the fore.  It is certainly true that language is limiting, as are the pictures in our heads, but an obvious example of a new paradigm for casting off old pictures has emerged:  quantum mechanics.  It is illuminating to recall the critic Darko Suvin’s observation on Lem:  “No closed reference system, however  alluring to the weary and poor in spirit, is viable in the age of relativity and post-cybernetic sciences.”  While “post-cybernetic” may be (let’s be charitable) an oblique reference to Gödel, the reference to relativity is mysterious.  It was, in fact, quantum mechanics that introduced the fundamentally unknowable to modern physics.  Relativity dethroned simultaneity, not certainty.  And there is more to twentieth-century science than a facile open-endedness.

The lesson of modern physics is that neither a wave nor a particle picture is adequate for the description of small-scale phenomena.  In a diffraction experiment, for example, electrons can appear to have wavelike properties.  In other contexts their point-particle – like nature is manifest.  Reality is, in other words, something beyond either category.  Modern physics has now passed beyond the early wave-versus-particle riddle and used mathematics itself as a guide in evolving a sense of the quantum nature of the physical world.  After a substantial period of calculation and verification, we now apply to particles terms such as “color,” or “charm,” and “strangeness,” terms reflecting purely mathematical notions.

These intuitions are, I think, basically different from the usual “physical” intuitions physicists speak of.  In practice, “physical” intuition usually means describing our models by pictures associated with particles, waves, and so on — the stuff of ordinary experience.  I think Lem most effectively satirizes this habit with his library episode and the Solarists’ classification of the ocean’s forms as “mimoids,” “sysmmetrids,” or “extensors.”  It is a telling attack, but it ignores the more sophisticated facets of model building in science.  Specifically, it ignores the role of mathematics, which is a more nearly universal guide than our human perceptions.  It seems to me that Lem, by taking a philosophical tack from the nineteenth-century rationalists, has unnecessarily limited the argument.  He has missed both Gödel and the new landscape of science in this century.  By placing Solaris in the far future, he seems to be saying that some day we will meet an irreducible, unavoidable strangeness.  (This is a prediction; because if cannot be falsified, it is not, however, a scientific statement.  Solaris may always lie just around the next corner.)

I have become rather skeptical of philosophers’ pronouncements on the boundaries of scientific knowledge (remember Kant’s exposed a posteriori!).  This is why I prefer in fiction to take philosophical metaphors rooted in experience.  In a short space it is difficult to convey how genuinely strange quantum mechanics is, and how much it has changed the way we think about science.  There is a “feel” in the evolution of our idea of quantum mechanics.  As a kind of shorthand, one might say that the world of the quantum is made up of models that fold into one another.  When one simple picture fails, one goes to the next.  An electron behaves like a particle here, and like a wave there. What is it, finally? Neither and both–we see its faces in differing mirrors. Our habits of thinking, rooted in ways of seeing the world that work fine on scales of human size, fail utterly in the atomic arena. There are ways to make the transition between pictures like “wave” and “particle”.

Still, these last two sentences fail to convey a real sense of how research is done today.  The notion of enfolded models is fading, being replaced  by the elaborate waltz of mathematics with data.  One might even say that there is, in Lem’s sense, no model that described our deeper and deeper progress through the levels of nature.  In this relation the paradoxical nature of quantum mechanics has become only a side issue because no one believes the pictures any longer anyhow.  (Note that, even in the early days of quantum mechanics, paradox did not equal muddiness, as it does in Ursula Le Guin’s “Schrödinger’s Cat.”)

There can be a science fiction analog to what we have learned from our experience of quantum mechanics.  I would term it “learning by the expansion of categories” (or, perhaps more accurately in the case of quantum mechanics, “abandoning categories”).  To the extent that order an mathematics are human categories and not alien ones, of course, this partition of the argument falls to the ground.  But I suspect that quantum mechanics does represent the development of a new category of human experience.  It is a new paradigm beyond anything that could plausibly have been predicted, using what in the nineteenth century would have seemed a “human” intuition.

It is likely that several science fiction works have already reflected this vision.  Alas, like most writers, I am poorly read.  The only example I can immediately cite is my own In the Ocean of Night.  The conclusion of that book seeks to evoke this sense of expanding categories, and a union with the world itself, as opposed to models of it.  It is important to remember that language contains only what we have learned to tell each other.  Such knowledge is only a tiny subset of all we do in fact know, in the chicken-sexing sense.  (And as my Aunt Mildred noted in one of her lectures to me – the notes have unfortunately been lost – what we cannot talk about is not necessarily unimportant to, or uncheckable by, others – for example, to the chickens themselves.)  I remember that while writing my first big, ambitious novel, In the Ocean of Night , I had a sense of these implications, though I cannot say much about whether it was in the mix from the beginning.  In this case I, like Lem, wrote from intuition (though not without notes and planning, paradoxically enough).  I am usually unaware of the full, analytical content of my work until it is done or, indeed, long after it is done.

I have argued here that there are some weighty philosophical implications to our treatment of aliens in science fiction.  There are no exclusively right answers, of course, for science fiction cannot settle such issues.  My sense of Solaris is that it does not really talk about the physical sciences at all.  There, the question of whether model building is hopelessly anthropocentric can only be settled by infinite recursion — keep trying to see whether the problem cracks, whether predictions do bear out.  It is an unfortunate fact that much fiction takes the “truths” of science as absolute although they were never intended to be.  Science is always provisional, yet the urge to adopt the position of Solaris rests, I believe, on an emotional bedrock of the sort Suvin cited, from Sartre on.  I think a better understanding of Solaris might evolve from looking at it from the  perspective of the social sciences.  If in some sense the ocean were alive, then Solaris might, for example, be read as a reflection on the error of applying a mechanistic description to social science, not to a physical one.  In the social sciences, including psychology, there is a fundamental limitation:  one cannot do completely reproducible experiments, even on very thin social groupings.  Thus Lem’s criticisms would appear to apply most directly to mechanistic social theories such as Marxism.  One wonders whether the literary czars of Eastern Europe (or the Marxist critics of the West) really understand quite what Lem seems to be driving at.

My own instincts as a theoretical physicist and a writer lie with the intuitionist school.  I think that anyone who participates in science comes to realize that, by expanding our categories, and using the most “universal” of descriptions (and languages — that is, most potently, to use mathematics), we can make of ourselves something greater.  We can, in other words, ingest the alien.

Yet we know from Gödel that in the full, analytic sense, knowledge will forever escape us.  It seems to me that this is fertile ground for bittersweet irony.  Perhaps such philosophical pursuits can lead us finally to a deeper sense of what it does mean to be logical and fragile and human.


After such a long study as I’ve given here, what of THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE? I won’t spoil its many surprises by giving away the intricate architecture of the Motie civilization, all firmly rooted in their biology. The true joy of this book comes from knowing all the philosophical elements I’ve described, and then seeing them dealt with in a free-flowing story, with echoes of weighty issues throughout.

But don’t the heft of these ideas put you off. MOTE was one of the best books of 1974, narrowly beaten out for the major awards by Ursula LeGuin’s THE DISPOSSESED–as befitted a deeply political, not philosophical, era. But it shines brightly now, an enduring classic. Enjoy it for what it is: a grand romp.




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