Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Writing the Alien That is Us

Sean said something tonight after class that blew my mind... and I'm going to try to talk about it coherently, but... well, it was late, and I've had a lot of coffee.

We had been talking about writing convincingly about aliens, and he said that one of the reasons that portraying an alien culture is so difficult is because we tend NOT to think about the things that make us normal. Instead, we (as humans/Americans) tend to think about those personality traits, social interactions, etc., that set us apart, make us individuals.

I found that whole idea generally fascinating. His concept is interesting to think about not only because it's true I think, but also because it taps into something that's profoundly _about_ living the writing life.

I remember Neil Gaiman saying in an interview I did with him for Science Fiction Chronicle (when it was still called that) that no moment in a writer's life is wasted because we're always NOTICING and taking mental notes to use later in a story. He said (and I'm paraphrasing, of course) that he sometimes felt guilty when he's at a funeral because instead of just being sad, part of him is always paying attention to how people are interacting, how they're going about their business, and, well, frankly, how WEIRD it all is.

Writing (in general, but also specifically speculative fiction) is about noticing how truly odd every day life really is. Mainstream writers have to portray the weirdness of the mundane in order to comment on it and to further illuminate the human condition. Speculative fiction writers have to do all that, plus extrapolate from all those social weirdnesses a future/magical universe that "rings true." In other words, one's aliens have to be as screwed up as humans are, only in their own way. They have to have their own cultural/personal analog to the dysfunction of Thanksgiving with the Family, you know?

As clich├ęd as my example is, that's still a very hard thing to do -- to give the alien his/her/its/their own f---ed up family, their own personal place in their society. Most of the time when humans encounter aliens in speculative fiction stories, we don’t meet the individuals. It's that whole Star Trek phenomenon of alien homogeny. The reader/viewer seems to only encounter perfect examples of the alien culture, that one individual creature who is living a life few of us really experience: a life in perfect harmony with the social norms, morals, etc.

Part of the difficulty is that the writer needs to establish what the alien culture is before they can show how a individual alien fits inside it and/or steps outside of it (is out of step with it?)... all without infodumping and through action/reaction, ie. the dreaded "showing."

I will interject here that I have never successfully written about The Alien, (unless you count writing about straight men as an alien experience for me as a lesbian.) So, I don’t fully understand how it’s done when it's done well.

I do know it when I see it, though. A couple of good examples, in my mind, of people who did it well would be our very own Eleanor Arnason in her story “Knapsack Poems.” The goxhat are not only truly alien, but the goxhat that we meet in the story stands inside/outside of her/his/its culture as an individual. The moral decision he/she/it makes regarding the abandoned child are not in keeping with the traditions of her/his/its people, yet it's not a break with tradition so much as a fortunate dysfunction. Similarly, David Levine's Hugo winning story (congrats, David!) “Tk’tk’tk” has an alien restaurateur who is inside/outside his culture as an individual.

Both of these stories manage to present the alien cultures norms through the eyes/filter of the individual characters, although in David’s story, the main character is a human who learns about himself from his various interactions with individual aliens on the planet he gets stuck on.

I'm sure there are other examples, but I've used both of these stories when teaching, so they spring quickest to mind. The point is that both authors manage convey the cultural norms of an alien society and an individual alien's personal reaction to their culture. An amazing feat, when you think about it. I don’t know how they did it, but I’ve become convinced that being an observer of society is a first step.

What do you think?


Sean M. Murphy said...

The idea that I was discussing was this: we create the Alien in writing, not by focusing on what makes us different from society, but by noticing what things makes us normal, what things are givens, and then shifting those things. Generally, societies these days are protective of children, so shifting that element in a story can make a race/culture/society seem very alien, very other. The Alien is fundamentally different from us, which means recognizing what makes us what we fundamentally are--mentally, physically, socially--and then playing with those elements in a way that's going to have the intended effect on the reader, whether that be to create sympathy, or antipathy, or just a sense of otherness. The problem is that the most rudimentary elements of our Selves are often very difficult to think about, because we take them for granted. The key is to know ourselves so well that we know what would make us Other.

Mari Adkins said...

Wow. Just. Wow. This has given me a lot to think about. Thanks!