Not So Close Encounters: Searching for the Most Alien Aliens
by Trey K. Morehouse
“…the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.” –Stephen Hawking
“Hollywood? Don’t get me started. Every time they put out an alien, it’s for all intents and purposes identically human.” –Neil deGrasse Tyson
For science the fiction fan looking for scientific realism, Hollywood (and popular media in general) has done a terrifically miserable job at depictions of possible alien life. The appearance of most aliens in films and fiction have been markedly human-like: Two arms, two legs, a human-like face, fingers for grasping, etc. For an alien species to look like this, they would have to have gone through a nearly identical evolutionary process as we humans. It’s an infinitely large cosmos with infinite possibilities; logically speaking an alien species would not look terribly human.
But let’s not stop there. The traditional portrayal of how an alien being would think and behave is typically human-like as well: A complex spoken and written language for communication, a hierarchical social structure (seen in the typical “take me to your leader” trope), an individual cognitive process limited by subjectivity, etc.
It seems then that Hollywood (and sci-fi writers in general) have stuck with the basic principles of human biology and cognition in alien portrayals. It’s difficult to blame them though. Imagining truly alien aliens, may in fact be an impossible task. Imagining and then communicating how an alien being may think and behave is perhaps even more challenging. (Can you answer, for example, what it is like to be a bat? Can you explain this in language?) However, popular culture has provided us with a few rare exceptions to general rule of unimaginative depictions of E.T.
For the thoughtful reader, here’s a list of great depictions of aliens in sci-fi; some from literature, others from film. As we observe these examples, it’s interesting to note the returning theme of the inability of communication between alien and non-alien. Suggesting that first contact (or at least communication to non-humans) may be a little more far fetched then fiction leads one to believe:
(5) Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
The war between humans and buggers began with a misunderstanding. Evolving light years apart, these two radically different species were doomed to wage war as soon as they made contact. The Buggers’ appearance is similar to the Earth’s ant, but it is their way of behaving which is truly alien. The Buggers have a hive mind, linked and shared by one entity. Therefore, they have no conception of the human subjective experience. Ender is a fascinating character in our understanding of aliens in literature in that his “power” or “special ability” is his keen and superhuman capacity for empathy. So profound is his empathy, he can even “think” like the Buggers and predict their behavior. It’s this concept of communication, misscommunication, and the power of empathy that is the driving force behind much of Orson Scott Card’s work.
(4) Sphere: original novel by Micheal Crichton; film by Barry Levinson (1998)
The premise here is that humans have discovered what may be extraterrestrial life (space ship and all) deep under the ocean. The government and military quickly assemble a crack team of experts to encounter the possible aliens. But who do you send on this mission of first contact? Crichton did a splendid job in imagining this scenario. He sends a psychologist, an astrophysicisist, and a mathematician. That’s right folks, a mathematician. But why might advanced calculus be necessary for our first run in with E.T.? The logic presented in the film is that mathematics will, “be our common language.” If an alien species is advanced enough for interstellar space travel, it is likely to assume that they would have developed a system to understand the physical world and would thus need a means to express that world (i.e. mathematics). Assuming this is all true, mathematics could be used as a sort of Rossetta’s stone for inter-species communication. Although it should be noted that it took several lifetimes to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics; one can only imagine it taking even longer to find common ground in an effort to communicate with an alien entity.
(3) Solaris: original novel by Stanislaw Lem; films by Andrei Tarkovsky (1972) and Steven Soderbergh (2002)
Lem’s novel is essentially about the inability of communication between human and non-human; and perhaps it is even more about the limitation of communication in the first place. The planet Solaris, encountered by our scientist protagonists, is a giant self-aware entity. Humans observe afar from a space station but are unable to communicate. Eventually the intelligent (and hugely mysterious) entity present on Solaris (or is it Solaris itself?) attempts contact by creating human entities based on the memories of those present on the space station. Chaos ensues as the humans are left to deal with their fragile psyches. Whether or not Solaris’ actions are malevolent or simply a means of communication is left unanswered (at least in the films).
With Solaris we again have the theme of the inability of communication between human and extraterrestrial life. Solaris, after all, is presumably a single conscious entity; and therefore has no understanding of community or individuality. When Solaris contacts humanity in the recesses of space, this may in fact be the this sentient beings very first contact with another sentient being.
(2) Contact: original novel by Carl Sagan; film by Robert Zemeckis (1997)
Professional astronomer Carl Sagan spent the better part of his life thinking about the possibility of alien encounters. In Contact, Sagan does perhaps the smartest thing a sci-fi writer can do: he leaves the alien appearance and behavior a mystery. What we see are instead are humans attempting to decipher alien messages sent from afar, eventually leading to a project to establish contact. When we encounter the vastly more advanced aliens, the aliens choose to appear in human form as not to frighten the first person to make contact. The expectation was to find a wise and all-knowing species that could deliver us secrets of the cosmos; instead we encounter an equally curious and equally confused race of aliens who grapple with the same issues we do.
(1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (novel written by Aurthur C. Clark)
And now you might be thinking, “Common the Monolith wasn’t an aliens! It was something far more abstract than that. It was God, or something right?” Well yes the film leaves this up to interpretation, but the later novels by Clark leave little doubt to the Monoliths origins. In the final Space Odyssey novel 3001, Clark reveals that the Monoliths are yet another step in the evolution of intelligent life in the cosmos.
The prologue of Clark’s 3001 is perhaps one of the most artful presentations of the hypothetical evolution of a space-faring race. Clark describes his aliens: “…they felt awe, and wonder—and loneliness. As soon as they possessed power, they began to seek for fellowship among the stars.”
And it is this need for “fellowship” which leads to a variety of evolutionary steps in this increasingly alien species. As they advance, Clark explains their self transformation: 1) They merge their minds with their technology; as Clark puts it, “They no longer built spaceships. They were spaceships.” 2) Following this, these beings find a means to bend matter itself; no longer needing corporal forms, they simply exist as rays of light, creating a transcendent near omni-present existence.
They represent the third step (and perhaps eventually a fourth) in the evolutionary process; the leap from a planet bound intelligent species, to a hyper-intelligent space faring one. Clark’s aliens are as different from humans as humans are from chimpanzee. Can’t get much more alien than that.
(This post has been lovingly adapted from a Quora answer I wrote to the question: What are the odds that if aliens exist, they would look like how they are portrayed in science fiction?)