Monday, September 19, 2016

What's on an alien's mind?

One of the fun challenges of writing science fiction requires getting inside the head (or equivalent) of an alien intelligence and writing suitable dialogue. A writer needs to meet the same challenges of writing dialogue for humans—such as coming up with original content and mixing it with stage movements and observations about the surroundings—while also viewing the world through a different set of sensory organs.

The aliens in my story, for example, do have eyes, but they have three of them. I envision them being able to focus with binocular vision with any pair, but then being able to use the third to observe other things—just not with the same depth perception. Their peripheral vision might approach 360 degrees. What would that be like? Also, I want them to be much more odor-oriented. Consequently, they would pay much more attention to smells and other chemical cues and their language would reflect that.  Think of how our language reflects our visual preoccupations. “See you later!” “Would you look at that?” “Good to see you again.”—and so forth.

Even if vision is important to an alien, they may see more of the electromagnetic spectrum than we do. Bees can’t see the color red, for example, but they can see into the ultraviolet. Many flowers accommodate insects’ ultraviolet vision by producing markers only seen in UV light to lead insects to the center portion of a floral bloom where the insects can help flowers have sex with other plants.

And alien conversations will reflect many of the same things that preoccupy humans: things relating to social status, health, physical needs and other things. In fact, some scientific wag said the three critical questions any organism must ask of another in order of importance are: Will you kill me? Can I eat you? Can I have sex with you? One might also add: Can you help me?

That last question may be one of the central ones in my book. Cooperation among living things is one of those underappreciated aspects of biology on Earth. We humans depend on a hundred million microbes to keep our own body functioning properly, for example. We didn’t even have to ask for that cooperation. It was in place when our brains turned some critical corner and allowed us to imagine impossible (or at least improbable) things—liking having conversations with extra terrestrials.