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Author Topic: On the subject of aliens
spcpthook
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**Posted in F&F by Wbriggs on my last (and final) offering there:

Another issue, completely unrelated: based on what we know of evolution, it's very very unlikely that a creature from outer space will look essentially human. I can accept this under 2 circumstances: the author tells us (through the narrator) something like, yep, this is pretty surprising; or if it's comedy (and it still wouldn't hurt for the author to let us know he knows). But since this is comedy, I wouldn't be *too* bothered.

**My response since, which I bring here because I'm interested in other people's thoughts on this and it's no longer really feedback:

Based on what WHO?? knows of evolution? I'll tell you straight out I'm not a science fiction writer and this was just a fluff piece I put together as a challenge to stretch into other fields, but considering how many theories there are pertaining to aliens including the one that has the people of earth descended from space faring aliens... it seems to me it would be authorial intrusion to state that it was surprising that they resembled humans in the least.

Quite a few Star Trek fans would be astounded to discover that there is no possibility of a Vulcan existing on some other inhabited planet. I'm not a trekkie, I have no firm beliefs on what we'll find or not find, if or when we make it to some of these inhabitable planets that some but not all people believe exist somewhere. In fact the story I posted the first thirteen for has many and varied aliens in it.

What this rant boils down to, in view of the many and varied opinions of the scientific and unscientific communities, is--how many people would think it necessary to insert a comment such as was suggested above, because your alien species is somewhat humanoid in form?


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pooka
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I don't know. I think aliens that are somewhat relatable either through appearance or from having studied our language before they come down are one of those things like light speed travel that make Sci-Fi what it is. So there must have been something in your fragment that caused this person to suddenly get such a bug up their butt. Or they aren't a Sci Fi reader and so are not a good reaction to judge by. I wouldn't really consider myself the quintessential Sci Fi reader.

But from your description of the piece, the disconnect probably came from your own attitudes about Sci Fi (Not having looked at the actual fragment.) But, yeah, really alien aliens are not that interesting. They might as well be clouds or javelinas.


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oliverhouse
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Consider the diversity of life on this planet, in which most creatures share the same basic genetic material. Size, number of eyes, placement of organs, number of limbs, number of joints in limbs, distribution of the central nervous system (e.g., brains vs. ganglia), etc. Considered against the backdrop of all the earth's fauna, humans are actually pretty weird-looking.

Then, when you get to a creature that has evolved completely independent of humans, may not use the same mode of encoding genetic information, may not be based on the same molecules (e.g., silicon vs. carbon), and the intelligent life form is the one that looks like us? It just seems like a stretch.

Having an insect-looking creature -- with a mouth on its butt (evolved there to make grazing easier) and light sensors (not quite the same as our eyes, but close: maybe has thousands of lenses, like a fly does) over the upper surface of its skin, maybe has an exoskeleton instead of skin -- is as likely as a humanoid is.

Regards,
Oliver


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pooka
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No, I think it's easy enough to suppose that the aliens most interested in earth would be those that can relate to/disquise themselves as the "dominant life form". I'm just curious what it was that caused the reader to ask this question about your fragment. Having looked it over, I'm not sure what it was. I guess you try to create too much suspense. I mean, people marry their cats and their cars. So for it to be a green bipedal thing is not that great of a payoff.

[edit]Yeah, that's the problem. You present it as being "something really weird" when in the realm of possibilities of alien anatomy, it is not that weird, and this causes the suspension of disbelief to be dashed. We may all be ruined for Sci Fi now and forever more. Thanks.[/edit]

It's also hard to tell if the bit about him wanting to marry it is a hyperbole or if he really is someone who is simultaneously straitlaced enough to wait for marriage but perverse enough to be sexually interested in a praying mantis minus a set of limbs.

[This message has been edited by pooka (edited June 21, 2006).]


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tchernabyelo
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If you go by the "rules" of evolution, then human-like aliens should only evolve where the environmental pressures are the same as they were on earth to create humans.

Which in turn implies that the rest of evolution ran pretty much the same way.


To me, that seems unlikely. I've got two major alien races in my SF milieu and they are about as far from being human as you can get.

Quoting Star Trek, or "the slightly different forehead of the week show", really doesn't do your case any favours.


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spcpthook
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****Having an insect-looking creature -- with a mouth on its butt (evolved there to make grazing easier) and light sensors (not quite the same as our eyes, but close: maybe has thousands of lenses, like a fly does) over the upper surface of its skin, maybe has an exoskeleton instead of skin -- is as likely as a humanoid is

My point exactly...why would anybody consider it necessary to apologize for however they chose to make their aliens appear. Alan Dean Foster has insect like aliens. As do several others-- (and of course there's always Men In Black and their cockroach) and they don't feel the need to apologize for making their aliens have familiar traits like an exoskeleton or a hive mind. Considering how much is known, as opposed to not known, anybody's guess is as good as the next person's therefore why should only those who choose to believe there will be some bipedal humanoid type aliens apologize their opinions. If somebody reads science fiction perhaps they should enter into it with the word fiction foremost in their mind and attempt to remember that they are entering somebody elses world of possibilities rather than attempting to convince others that theirs is the only world possible.


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Christine
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First of all, using "Star Trek" as a reference when talking scifi to real scifi fans is going to seriously hurt your credibility. Many of us think of "Star Trek" as a joke.

But as to the question of aliens -- I will suspend disbelief for a humanoid alien species, and not just because I've written them in myself. Actually, I'll use that novel (temporarily shelved) as the reason I can suspend disbelief -- because it's actually science FANTASY and I have creatd a complex deity structure to explain the co-evolution of species.

Even in pure science fiction, though, I can see one reasonable way to explain the similiar aliens: that either God or some advanced alien species (for this purpose, much the same) assisted in evolution on many worlds. I do not find this at all far-fetched because frankly, the odds of evolving sentient life forms on Earth is really sooo remote that I can buy the "helping hand" theory. The odds of many sentient races (however diverse) popping up on many planets is also remote.

I don't need this explained to me. I'll pretty much accept it, although when your aliens get too Star-Trekkish I may get disgusted anyway. If they're going to be humanoid, IMHO, you should just make them humanoid and drop the green skin and such. Unless their habitat is well-suited for some different feature, of course.

Or if it's comedy and you're making fun of Star Trek.


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spcpthook
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***First of all, using "Star Trek" as a reference when talking scifi to real scifi fans is going to seriously hurt your credibility. Many of us think of "Star Trek" as a joke.

First of all--the star Trek comment was tongue-in-cheek as I had hoped people could get since I did claim to not be a trekkie...


***But as to the question of aliens -- I will suspend disbelief for a humanoid alien species, and not just because I've written them in myself. Actually, I'll use that novel (temporarily shelved) as the reason I can suspend disbelief -- because it's actually science FANTASY and I have creatd a complex deity structure to explain the co-evolution of species.

Second it seems to boil down to semantics. I would love it if somebody could come up with a decent explanation of the difference between science fiction and science fantasy. This piece is not hard science fiction. There's really very little science in it at all. If asked prior to having posted anything here, I'd have said character driven science fiction but have posted this elsewhere as Science fantasy, just not sure what the difference is.


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pantros
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Lets look at this differently.

Humans are, arguably, the most advanced species on the planet.

Maybe, just maybe, they are the most advanced because the humanoid composure of the body is highly condusive to versatile success and thus faster evolution.

Taking this into account, it is not unlikely that other species not only could, but would advance to develop similar evolutionary traits.

That's my theory and I'm sticking to it. If I ever write about aliens, I'll be sure to include this as my psuedo scientific explanation.

There is always the descended from aliens theory too.

And there is the all aliens are descended from humans theory but that involves time travel if used correctly.


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Christine
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Oooh..the difference between scifi and scifantasy...tough one...

Well, I guess science fantasy purposefully sets out to have magical or divine elements to it whereas science fiction does not. "Soft" science fiction is not the same as science fantasy. Soft scifi simply means that the technical details are hidden and the characters become the main focus -- but when push comes to shove those technical details still must be realistic. When I write soft scifi, it often boils down to the POV character being as unscientific as I am and being a filter so that I don't have to get into the nitty-gritty details. Still, people can and do call me on aspects of those stories.

When I write science fantasy the science portions of the story must also be realistic. The fantasy is not a mask for truth -- rather, it is an integral part of the story that must be internally consistent (therefore realistic) in its own right.

We should talk about reader disbelief again sometime -- it is a frustrating thing to deal with. I've written portions of stories that were true to life (my life) and had people tell me they were unbeliefable...that people didn't act that way. Very often reality is perception, though there are things you can do within a story to make even the most outlandish things seem credible.


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oliverhouse
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quote:
My point exactly...why would anybody consider it necessary to apologize for however they chose to make their aliens appear. Alan Dean Foster has insect like aliens. As do several others-- (and of course there's always Men In Black and their cockroach) and they don't feel the need to apologize for making their aliens have familiar traits like an exoskeleton or a hive mind.

I'm not saying you have to apologize for it, but you need to keep in mind the effect that you're having on the reader.

I'd leave Men in Black out because it's comedic. If you're going for that type of effect, anything goes.

Consider that the alien in _Alien_ had a head, a mouth, limbs, and so on, and yet was not in any way human. In the same way, you can have exoskeletons, multi-lensed eyes, and multiple legs without being insect-ish. (Although recall "the buggers" in Ender's Game -- they clearly weren't bugs, but Card made _people_ talk about them as if they were, because people have the tendency to name things based on similarities to other things.) Picking traits that are similar to other creatures is okay, provided the traits feel "natural", which is to say, in this case, not particularly human.

Having said that, I'll own up to my hypocrisy.

I acknowledge the theories of "panspermia" (the seeds of life are everywhere in the universe) and "directed panspermia" (the seeds of life were spread by an advanced civilization, a notion promoted by Francis Crick). I don't particularly believe them, but I acknowledge them.

I'm also perfectly happy with, and in fact believe in, a teleological evolution in which there's divine guidance along with other forces shaping the development of life.

But that doesn't change the fact that when I read about a humanoid-looking alien, I have to work harder to suspend disbelief. I'm not saying that I'm consistent, I'm saying that's the way I am. That fact would make me careful with humanoid aliens.

Regards,
Oliver


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rickfisher
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[Edit: Wow . . . 3 posts between spcpthook's and mine. I type too slow.]

You'll probably get loads of definitions: for me, science fantasy is fantasy that has lots of the trappings of science fiction, e.g. Star Wars. It's really fantasy because the rules of the universe in which it occurs don't match the rules of our universe (i.e., "the Force"). Star Trek, on the other hand, is pure science fiction (usually), even though it's bad science fiction--the differences in any rules between their universe and ours seem to me to be merely mistakes. Or cheats.

As for humanoid aliens--I've got no problem with them. After all, there were creatures in S. America at one time that looked remarkably like elephants, but were unrelated. (Obviously I don't mean totally unrelated; there ain't no such thing on this planet. In fact these critters and elephants were/are both mammals, though on separate branches. I'm just using the term in the loose way it's often used.) What it amounts to is that it should be no surprise to find an intelligent species that has evolved its forefeet into multi-purpose "hands", with probably 4-7 digits on each; that has a head containing the bulk of the sensory organs, up front where they're most useful; that the brain would occupy a position close to those sensory organs; etc.

However . . . it should be no surprise to find intelligent aliens that don't look humanoid, too; and, personally, I'd be surprised if the preponderance did not turn out to be non-humanoid. I'd also expect the preponderance not to be really weird (intelligent slime molds, or things that look like them, for example). The problem with Star Trek (uh, sorry, did I say "The problem?) is that ALL the aliens are obviously just humans with makeup. Of course this is done for monetary reasons rather than lack of inventiveness . . . well, maybe both . . . but it is certainly ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is that these humanoid aliens can interbreed, but that's another issue.

I guess it comes down to this: a few humanoid aliens don't bother me, so if you're writing a story with only one alien species, it ought to be fine. But there are so many humanoid aliens floating around in SF (and particularly in sci-fi), that there is a tendency to view that single alien species as just "one more" of the huge overflow of humanoid aliens, even though it's the only one in your story. One possible solution is to make mention of other aliens who are NOT humanoid, thus giving lip service to the recognition that not all, or even most, aliens would look like us, without having to design one. I don't know if that would work for your story, though.

[This message has been edited by rickfisher (edited June 21, 2006).]


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rstegman
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One can do some useful deductions even if we don't know the details

An internal skeliton would be a must. There is a limit to how big an exo skeliton creature can get. There is nothing to hold the flesh up inside. One could point to having an internal structure, then developing a shell, but I would point to Turtles as a challange.

The number of limbs would be a question that one could debate easily. The question is whether other limbs would become arms or legs. Bipedal has come up several times in animals. I think the main reason is that we don't have six limbs instead.

hair, scales, or feathers. We have them all, and insects commonly have hair.

Just going from microbal to multi cellular is questionable as 99% of all life is still microbal. One basically has to accept certain stages in order for other stages to appear, multi cellular, spine, land, mammal, ape, human. Each accepted step increases the odds of the next, even though none are absolute.

Do what all writers do. Accept this is true, then go on with telling your story.


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AaronAndy
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I remember seeing some scifi movie a while back in which two characters were wandering through some forest and one of them made a comment about how much it all looked like earth, and the response of the other was that it was a planet of similar size and composition the same distance from its sun, and so evolution produced the same types of trees. Of course, we all knew the /real/ reason was that it was a really low budget movie and they didn't have the money to make anything look very alien, but I thought it a convincing explanation nonetheless.

The truth is that we really don't know a whole lot about how alien life would look (since we'vee yet to actually find any), but my guess is that if it evolved on a similar world, it would be very similar to the life that we have here. The mere fact that of all the different life forms we have on earth, the only ones that are "intelligent" are humans probably says something about what kind of a body is necessary to support intelligent life. (If I see one more crappy scifi show expect me to believe in an advanced, intelligent, spaceship building, galaxy exporing race without opposable thumbs...).

Aa


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Survivor
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I was fooling around with a smallish octopodoid who used a sort of humanoid mini-mech (like that little dude from Men In Black, only...um, wetter). I don't think it's a far stretch to suggest that whatever the aliens' natural body form, they would try for something that would be both inconspicuous and versatile on Earth.

But that pretty much puts green skin and mandibles out of the picture. If you're going to go different, go different.

The real reason your peice didn't work was because it wasn't very well written, it wasn't the alien design, though that was hardly inspired either.

[This message has been edited by Survivor (edited June 21, 2006).]


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spcpthook
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***But that pretty much puts green skin and mandibles out of the picture. If you're going to go different, go different.

***The real reason your peice didn't work was because it wasn't very well written, it wasn't the alien design, though that was hardly inspired either.

Ahh...Here's one of those that really think they know it all... too bad he doesn't know this is not the F&F page, and the question asked here only relates back to that page in as much as that's where the original comment for this list, the one about aliens not being humanoid, originated. hmm.. also too bad that when one is going to make a statement baldly criticizing somebody elses work without having anything to back it up he can't even spell the words in his post correctly.


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Christine
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Ahem...I think this may be a good time to let this thread die.
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pantros
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Actually Survivor has the best point of all:

A well written story can break any rule, including the one that says aliens are unlikely to look like humans.

As to his comments on the quality of the writing in question, they are valid arguments correlating to the primary point.


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pooka
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I guess you could play up the Star Trek aspect, since there was that green skinned lady who was from a race of apparent sexual deviants that appeared in the closing credits of the original series.

P.S. If we accept that Earth could have alien visitors, the chances of them not being involved with our origins or direction of evolution would actually be kind of remote. Just saying, is all. My mom said once perhaps they have the same creator as we did, though conditions on their planet might cause their adulthood to appear different from us. Hence their could be the little gray fetal -looking dudes or tall, emaciated ones.

[This message has been edited by pooka (edited June 21, 2006).]


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Survivor
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She was in the original pilot, which was later repackaged as, um...something about a menagerie. I get geek points for that, even though I can't nail it perfect, right? Or maybe not if it turns out that I (sorta) named the original (unaired) pilot.

Anyway, sorry about being unable to remember the "i before e, except after...um, I forget" rule. I didn't mean to say that the text was horrific or anything, just that it clearly didn't have that magical quality that would make wbriggs buy an accidentally humanoid alien.

You can do everything just "okay" and still not have anything special. That's all.


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wbriggs
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Hey, c'mon, remember I said I'd not be too bothered!

quote:
Taking this into account, it is not unlikely that other species not only could, but would advance to develop similar evolutionary traits.
I would repectfully suggest it's *extremely* unlikely -- talking science, not fiction -- unless those traits are very generally defined. Here's my case.

Consider body types from different phyla. Sometimes there are similarities: spiders and kittens both have legs for getting around; but there's no reason they have to have the same number of legs (obviously).

Now, there are only so many ways to swim, so alien swimmers will look like fish, right? Well . . . octopi, medusae, and man-o-war don't. Dolphins developed a body shape like that of fish, but then mammals already have the same basic body shape as fish (head at front, tail at back, four appendages).

What about manipulators? That's something we associate, rightly or wrongly, with intelligence. We have hands; octopi have tentacles; ants have mandibles.

There are a lot of ways to do 'most anything. I'll expect alien life forms to duplicate in *some* ways things that earth life has (like fins or tentacles), but there's no reason they'd have to look like us. After all, out of the millions of species on earth, only the primates do, and that's because of common descent. Oh, yes, and Sea Monkeys -- they really are weird.

Maybe I'll look tomorrow for the PowerPoint I made for an hour-long presentation I did on this at work. There really are things you can say about what aliens would likely be like, based on what we know of chemistry, physics, and earth's biology.

===============BUT==================

Handwavium can make anything happen.

Christine's idea of alien genetic engineers who think humans look cute. A magic new science of, uh, ergonomic evolution. Space viruses that get in our DNA and make us evolve toward a form on some other world. Simple coincidence.

What Survivor (I think) said: break any rule you want -- but be aware of the rule you're breaking. We say it in terms of writing, but I'd also say it in terms of the S in SF.

----
Authorial intrusion:

Larry Niven did with this precise issue in Ringworld. Louis Wu and his motley crew went to an alien locale and found . . . humans.

They wondered how this could possibly happen. Louis said, parallel evolution? But even he didn't believe it. He considered it and rejected it.

I had to deal with explaining the history of a world, which my MC would definitely not be thinking about. So -- 1st paragraph is free. I explained the bare bones of the history there.

I suspect there are other ways.

[This message has been edited by wbriggs (edited June 22, 2006).]


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Jeraliey
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I guess it's not the best time to point this out, since this thread accidentally stumbled onto a relevant topic, but...

spcpthook, it's generally considered rude to argue with critiquers. Whether you think they're right or wrong is up to you, but anything a reader says about your work is useful information. Will says your aliens are unbelievable? You can argue with that all you want, but the fact of the matter is that he's a representative reader. And that means that if he thinks your aliens are unbelievable, chances are other people will too. And that will affect the reception of your work, whatever you decide to do with it.

When you posted on F&F, were you looking for constructive criticism? Because that's what you'll get there. To be honest, after reading this thread and seeing how you treat the people who took the time to read your fragment and give you feedback on it, I'd be very reluctant to give you any of my time in the future.

Arguing with critiquers does not make you right. But attacking the people who take the time to comment makes you wrong.


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wbriggs
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FWIW, I don't feel attacked. (But Jerailey's right, I'm sure -- it's something to watch out for.)

Let me expand this further: I don't believe anyone has argued with my critique in F&F. What the author did here was open up another thread, and ask us what we thought on a related topic. (Kinda like if somebody said, "You have to provide more physical description" and I posted an Open Discussions query "How much physical description do you like?" It's a valid question!) I think that's perfectly legit, and I welcome the discussion, because I consider this topic fascinating, and important for SF writers.

[This message has been edited by wbriggs (edited June 22, 2006).]


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spcpthook
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Actually I brought this over here not as an attack on wbriggs. i brought it over here out of curiosity as to how many people truly believe aliens can't and won't be humanoid in form. As stated before I don't write much in the way of science fiction and I was curious if this was a popularly held belief.

As far as general critiques go I rarely argue with them...tend to ignore them if I disagree. Some critiques ie. Christine's are very well given and she gave me some items to look at. A couple of others had reasonable suggestions as well.

I don't need people to tell me they like my writing. I don't even need people to be civil but there are people on this board who seem to interpret anything I say here as an attack.

Not everybody by all means.

I am not so unrealistic as to believe everything I write is going to be well received by everyone who reads it.

If you --Jeraliey-- read up the thread you'll see I did in fact get some reasonable answers to my question. It would seem that there are many and varied opinions on this subject so while it might bother some people if my alien is semi-humanoid in form there are plenty of others it probably wouldn't bother. Pleasing everybody all the time is an insurmountable problem. Not only do I not write science fiction much...I don't read it much...forgive me for daring to question something...guess we're not allowed to learn...

Apparently not everyone felt the need to rake me over the coals for daring to ask about something presented in a review. which if you'd take the time to read the review, wasn't really offered as a review but as a-- by the way--which did in fact arouse my curiosity about the beliefs of the rest of the scifi world. Or at least this tiny sampling of it.

As far as you wasting time critiquing my work...Not to worry--won't be posting anything else in F&F. I actually like getting well thought out crits. I don't tend to agree with all of them but I don't disagree with all of them either. I will retreat to the group I have been a member of for two years now.


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First Assistant
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spcpthook was well within bounds to bring this question over from Fragments and Feedback. This was completely appropriate rather than continuing it in discussion of his or her story since it was a general question.

In order for this thread to continue, I would appreciate it if all comments can be confined to the original subject of how to introduce humanoid aliens into a story. (Naturally, tangents about other types of aliens or evolution of such are also fair game.)


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Novice
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I think it is difficult to impossible to write about aliens without attributing them some human characteristics. After all, if no common ground can be found, no useful interaction can take place. If your human characters can't communicate, understand some form of societal structure, or even percieve your aliens as "living", you have no story.

Consumers of sci-fi have shown themselves fully ready to embrace humanoid aliens, but I interpreted the original comment in F & F as referring to the idea that a scientist, someone STUDYING aliens, would have considered the overwhelming improbability of a humanoid alien species. As your fragment seems to be dealing with such a scientist, I found wbrigg's comment insightful and think you could add depth to your character by taking his suggestion under consideration. Not, as you phrase it, "apologize" for your alien having humanoid features, simply allow your scientist to acknowledge the surprising coincidence.


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Spaceman
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For what it's worth, the green Star Trek alien was a female Orion, commonly used as pirates in the Trek universe.
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LibbieMistretta
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Here's how I look at it, for whatever that's worth:

Do you want your reader to have some kind of a connection to your aliens, and to be able to get inside their heads? Then a humanoid form will probably be easiest for most them to bond with, so to speak.

Do you want your reader to feel, well, alienated by your alien? Then a non-humanoid form would probably be the best to accomplish that goal.

I think most sci-fi readers are willing to suspend disbelief on a few things in their reading. Humanoid aliens have been in the genre from the beginning, so they're more likely to be accepted without question than you might suspect.


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MaryRobinette
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I think the First Assistant's request might have been intended to suggest that we focus on general questions instead of specifics. Things specific to a particular story probably belong in F&F.

I'm interested in this thread because I also face a story in which a humanoid alien makes the most sense for what I want to do, but I can't figure out how to introduce it. I mean--who here has read the novel version of Nightfall? It starts with a preface in which Asimov basically says, "Look, we want to explore what would happen to a society in which night had never happened. All of the other trappings of alien life aren't interesting so we're going to say miles instead of making up some other unit of measurement. We'll say rabbit instead of fuwahgdi."

So he just went ahead and owned the "mistake" of having humanoid aliens. The ramifications of how it affected their society were fully explored, but if he had changed other variables as well I don't think it would have had the same impact. That one variable of having no nightfall would have been lost in the alieness.

I've got a story idea that I want to explore which would make the most sense if I only changed one variable; as they did. Short of having an introduction like that I don't see a way to launch into it.

So, discussions on how to introduce humanoid aliens into stories, when you really need them, are of interest to me.


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oliverhouse
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quote:
Do you want your reader to have some kind of a connection to your aliens, and to be able to get inside their heads? Then a humanoid form will probably be easiest for most them to bond with, so to speak.

I totally disagree. There must be _something_ human-ish about them, true, but form is probably least important. Consider the Buggers in _Speaker for the Dead_. They're alien, to be sure, but part of the point is that Ender can still relate to them despite their utter strangeness. I think intelligence and emotion are far more important, and both of those could evolve, in different ways and in different species, through natural selection.

If I were going for something like _Nightfall_, I'd make the population of the planet human. I wouldn't blink at a sci-fi novel in which humans were on a completely different planet: they could have landed there a billion years ago and terraformed the planet to look just like Earth. They could have brought bunnies with them in something like Noah's ark. They could have blasted away from an exploding Earth in a giant guitar-shaped spaceship named after the city they came from. But humanoid aliens would still make it harder for me to suspend disbelief.

Regards,
Oliver


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Christine
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My guess is this is one of those things...some people will accept the humanoid aliens and others won't. If your story works best with a humanoid alien, then write it and realize you're going to do without a small subsect of scifi readers. You can never make everyone happy, after all.

Truth be told, there are very few truly alien spiecies out there. I once tried to write about a truly alien alien and tried to imagine what would be different -- in the end, I came up with a species that did not even perceive the universe the way we did. They did not see or hear or feel, but had other senses that intereacted with different aspects of the universe we are ill-equpped to perceive. But it didn't make for a very good story. We could see them. They could gnarbe us, but we couldn't relat ein any way at all.

Are we telling stories are trying to make predictinos? Because of we're trying to make predictions about what other alien species might be like or look like then I cannot believe any alien race I've ever read about in any book. They're all wrong. If we're telling stories, then I can suspend disbelief and enjoy the differences you've creatd and how that effects the aliens' world and culture. It's not the differences themseelves, but what you do with them and how you tell the story.


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pantros
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I think the bottom line here is:

Aliens can be humanoid in an established sci fi culture - even if the story is our first visit there. At some point it is a good idea to explain why they are all humanoid, but if you can immerse the reader into your story before they care about the form of aliens, you win.

In a first contact situation, it must be noted that the alien being humanoid was not what the humans expected. Explaining later why they are (sci-fi explanation or realistic) is optional, but the more you explain, the smaller the subset of sci fi fans you alienate.


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Survivor
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POV.

wbriggs mentioned this already, but it bears repeating. I think I already made the point that aliens who are interacting with humans by plan rather than accident will probably make an effort to look human enough to facilitate communication (with benign or sinister motives).

On the other hand, aliens in their natural form will not usually look particularly human. Even if you assume they are chordates (which is not particularly likely from a naturalistic perspective but potentially a good bet from certain other views), they could look like almost any kind of "animal" as that word is commonly used.

A scientist studying any aspect of xenology would understand this very well, so when you use the POV of such a person and don't comment on it you violate POV rather badly. Most anyone remotely interested in aliens would feel it to some extent, so such a POV character would probably think something along those lines. Only a person completely uninformed or contempuous of the concept that alien life could exist wouldn't be aware of it at all, and while that might make an interesting POV, it has its own difficulties for most readers.

Of course, aliens can look like hyper-attractive humanoids (models in makeup). This is the case both in real life and in the genre literature. The real issue is how writers make that believeable to SF readers. And the answer is by choosing a POV character to whom SF readers can relate and being true to that POV.


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Spaceman
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Don't for get also that your READERS are human, so you must have enough in common that your reader can relate.
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hoptoad
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quote:

convergent evolution:the independent development of similar (analogous) structures in different groups; convergent evolution is thought to be the result of similar environmental selection pressures on different groups

That is why in Australia we have had marsupial lions Thylacoleo carnifex and why we have the doglike Thylacine.

Would convergent evolution be out of the question for alien species that were subject to similar selection pressures as human experience/experienced?

Surely not. Aren't the principle mechanisms of evolution considered universal?

What about them squid eyes?

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited June 23, 2006).]


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oliverhouse
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quote:
Would convergent evolution be out of the question for alien species that were subject to similar selection pressures as human experience/experienced?

Surely not. Aren't the principle mechanisms of evolution considered universal?


Well, in real life you're starting out with a lot of cards stacked in favor of convergent evolution -- the basics of DNA, for example, and the fact that we all seem to share most of the same DNA. The existence of DNA is shocking enough on Earth (which is why Francis Crick, one of its discoverers, proposed directed panspermia); but to have it happen on completely unrelated planets seems even more so. To then have the DNA evolve in precisely the same way is even more surprising.

I'm not even saying that I'm right. I'm just saying that I would have to work harder to suspend disbelief.

Regards,
Oliver


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hoptoad
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the idea that evolution on other planets in the observable universe would take vastly different route to Earth could well be disputed by proponents of the string theory landscape or anthropic landscape school of thought.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited June 23, 2006).]


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rickfisher
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DNA might not be all that improbable on other planets. Francis Crick didn't know that the various nucleotides that it's constructed from happen to be floating around in interstellar space.

But, in any case, all you need for convergent evolution is genes. DNA happens to be how our genes are encoded. But any encoding scheme should be subject to mutation, and natural selection certainly is universal. Those two things put together would result in similar morphologies for similar environments.

In fact, there are only two main reasons to expect that intelligent aliens would NOT be humanoid: 1) they could have developed from critters in a different environment (i.e., from insects, or snakes, or something we don't even have on earth, or whatever), and 2) There are a number of traits that could be fairly random; for example, all land animals descended from fish (i.e., all land vertebrates), have four limbs (okay, a few exceptions: snakes have lost all theirs, and maybe some flightless birds if they've totally lost their wings [do kiwis have wing nubs?]), and it's because of a common ancestor. We could all have had six limbs. I'm sure there are other things like that. And what if some octupus rather than some fish had been the thing to climb out of the water?

Both these reasons seem quite likely to me, which is why I would suspect that most intelligent aliens would be non-humanoid. But it's a matter of numbers. The more there are, the more likely it is that some are quite similar to us.


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QuantumLogic
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quote:
Even if you assume they are chordates (which is not particularly likely from a naturalistic perspective but potentially a good bet from certain other views)
I'm not sure I understand exactly what you mean here, so I'll say what I think--it might be the same thing.

It's true that chordates do not make up a huge percentage of the number of animal species, but civilization cannot be achieved by just any type of creature. They have to have big enough brains (or whatever equivalent the creatures on their world use), they have to have a flexible grasping system, and I believe they have to be land-creatures because they have to be able to use things like fire that can't exist underwater. That means they need some structure for supporting the brain; and they have to be big enough, in order to have a big enough brain, that the rest of their body will need a support structure, as well. All these considerations severely limit the applicant pool, which makes chordates, while by no means the only candidate, a much more likely alternative than they would appear from a glance at the relative size of their branch of the family tree.

quote:
That is why in Australia we have had marsupial lions Thylacoleo carnifex and why we have the doglike Thylacine
But would they look lion-like and dog-like to lions and dogs? The less like us other animals look, the more likely we are to look like each other. As a result, we shouldn't judge the likelihood that aliens will look humanoid based on how many species on Earth look like relatively unrelated species. And that's not even considering the chance factors, such as 4 vs 6 limbs. The question is, how much would aliens have to look like us for us to consider them humanoid?

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hoptoad
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do you think there could be one-off *creatures* that could live naturally free floating in the vacuum?
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MightyCow
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I don't see anything wrong with humanoid aliens.

All life on earth is based on DNA. It is certainly within the realm of possibility to assume that life MUST be based on DNA. Perhaps within our universe, with all the various chemical interactions, natural laws, and so forth, the only process that will create life is an environment very similar to earth, and using DNA as the building blocks. I don't claim that this is true, but it's not out of the question.

If we accept this idea for the purpose of a given story, then it becomes fairly likely that intelligent life will turn out to be humanoid.

Further, we can accept a lot of variety within what we might call humanoid creatures. Creatures with the predominant features of other animals, ape-men, fawns, lizard-men, mermaids, and so on can all be considered humanoid. We readily accept all those as viable intelligent life forms.

Besides, if you make your aliens insectoid or reptilian or whatever other shape you think makes them more believable, if they resemble any of the life on earth you're running into all the same problems.

I agree with those who said that to make a humanoid alien believable, you simple have to write your book in such a way that people are willing to accept it. _The Martial Chronicles_ included humanoid aliens, and in reading all those stories, I never questioned the fact.

[This message has been edited by MightyCow (edited June 24, 2006).]


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wbriggs
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Some caveats:

Much of the life on earth is not based on DNA. It's all based on RNA, though. I could believe in DNA in aliens, since we dont' know there's a substitute for RNA, and DNA isn't that different.

Every phylum, group, etc., on earth has a set of distinctive characteristics other than the big one (I don't include Kingdom in that). Here's how Wikipedia defines chordates: "They are united by having, at some time in their life, a notochord, a hollow dorsal nerve cord, pharyngeal slits, an endostyle, and a muscular tail extending past the anus. Some scientists argue, however, that the true qualifier should be pharyngeal pouches rather than slits."

The only thing we really need from all that definition, for big brainy animals, is just the nerve system, and even it wouldn't need to have a notocord.

It doesn't surprise me in the least that there were, for example, leonine marsupials. Since marsupials are mammals, they have skeletons, 4 legs, tail (most of them), hair, milk, warm blood, teeth, and things on their appendages like nails or claws. One niche for something that can run (and 4-legged things can) is being really fast for chasing and eating things. You've already got claws and teeth; they may as well be sharp. Fill that niche and of course you'll look catlike; we've pretty much defined cat here. (Dogs aren't as fast, but use pack hunting. I refer to the family or genus, not the domesticated versions.)

An alien fast-running predator wouldn't need the hair, the internal gestation of young, the milk, the tail (though it wouldn't hurt), or for that matter the larynx, the 4 limbs, or the single head. Or the intestinal track -- hydras don't have them. Or separating urination from defecation (birds don't). The similarity of lions to marsupial lions is because they're both mammals.

Squid eyes may well be a different case, without common ancestry. How else could you design an eye?

hoptoad, I'm not familiar with string theory landscape???

I am familiar with the anthropic principle, and although it doesn't strictly apply, something related does. We're based on carbon, using water as a solvent. What else could you base life on? We can't get anything else to form complex chains. Silicon is closest, having 4 bonds, but it just sits there in oxides, doing nothing. I conclude that most life out there (if there is any) will be carbon-based, if not all. (Benford had some electrical-pattern creatures in one of his books. OK.)

Could you use something else as a solvent? Sure -- but there are 2 things going for water. One, it's polar, so it'll be better at dissolving things that react -- and it's liquid at higher temperatures (Earthlike, not Titan-like). This also means it'll be useful for higher-energy biospheres, which should evolve more quickly. THe other plus water has is that it's very very common. Not nearly so much ammonia in the universe (and Earth's experience shows it tends to not last). There's a lot of methane. So I conclude that much alien life will involve water. Maybe some will have methane. I doubt much will use alcohol, or WD-40 -- too rare!

Our sugars are right-handed, and we can't digest left-handed sugar (which is why Equal is for dieters). Could alien life use left-handed? Sure -- there's no reason not to.

pH? A highly acid or alkaline environment tends to be unstable. Aliens that need to drink concentrated hydrochloric acid will have starved long ago, unless there's a symbiont producing it.

So there really are some ways that alien intelligence needs to be like us. And there are ways in which it doesn't.

--

Aliens living in vacuum: I like Niven's Outsiders. We can't live in vacuum because a) that's never been a survival trait (!) and b) we need the oxygen. Maybe something else won't need this cheat to be high-energy.


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MaryRobinette
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quote:
Squid eyes may well be a different case, without common ancestry. How else could you design an eye?

Icthyosaurs had bones in their eyes to keep their shape.
Then there are trilobites, which are endlessly cool. Their eye structure was compound and had crystaline lenses.

Does anyone know if there anything besides mammals uses an external ear? I don't mean the actual bones for hearing, I know that's inside, I mean the fleshy thing that channels the sound.

[This message has been edited by MaryRobinette (edited June 24, 2006).]


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Spaceman
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The lateral line of a fish might be considered an ear, in some respects, even though it's sensing in water instead of air.
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Survivor
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The discussion of possible biochemistry is very interesting, but I'm not sure I see how it remotely applies to the question of gross morphology and the chances that an intelligent life form will look human. Some do, many more don't. There is also the issue of how far you'll stretch on "looks".

The issue of "recognizable" sentience is probably unrelated. After all, we all judge each other here based on aspects of demonstrable sentience that have nothing to do with our biochemistry or looks. I'm sure that most of us are familiar with archie, the cricket who would type reports of what happened in the news room after hours. Of course the idea that a cricket could last a sentance, let along a narrative essay, while smacking itself headfirst into an old-fashioned typewriter keyboard hard enough to operate the thing is part of the reality stretching humor. But the specific difficulties of archie aside, why would you have to look human to express a form of sentience identifiable to humans?


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Sara Genge
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I think readers will only be disgusted if your alien looks human, sounds like a WASP (or whatever is dominant in your reader's culture), drinks, likes human females etc. It sounds like a big mistake but read some sci-fi from the 60's and you'll se what I mean.
It's fiction, if you give a good reason, we'll buy it.
Think about it, most foreign cultures are weirder than any alien we can dream up. It's kind of hopeless to try for scientific accuracy, we're going to be wrong every time

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Novice
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Big brains? Honey bees and ants have enormously complex social structures, they manipulate their physical environment in intelligent ways (at least, for their purposes), and they communicate. (OK, I'm not the first to note how these facts might be explioted in developing a hypothetical alien species, but I think the "big brain" argument has some flaws.)

MaryRobinette...I like the reference for icthyosaurs. (Owls have bones in their eyes, too.)


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rickfisher
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Honeybees and ants? There are two ways to think of them: either as individuals, or as elements of a hive creature. As individuals, they are really stupid, totally incapable of any sort of civilized behavior. As a group, however, they work together so well that a hive organism is probably the better way to think of them. Which means that you ought to be able to "kill the hive" without killing all the bees or ants. In fact, you can; kill the queen. But if you think of a group of bees or ants as a single hive organism, then it makes no sense to talk about their "enormously complex social structures." It's nothing compared to the "social structure" of all the cells in, say, the human body. As a hive, these organisms are still fairly stupid, right? They fill their niche well, and successfully, but they'd have to change an awful lot to be starfarers. (To me, one sign of high intelligence is the ability to function outside of your niche.)

I'm not saying that intelligent being have to have big brains. They might have some sort of distributed brain throughout their bodies. I'm not even saying that you couldn't have an intelligent interstellar cloud. I do think that these possibilities, however, are slight. That there are so many other unlikely possibilities out there shouldn't cause us to be surprised at finding humanoid aliens. We should, however, be surprised to find a large percentage of humanoid aliens, and that's because there are quite a number of other likely possibilities available.

[This message has been edited by rickfisher (edited June 25, 2006).]


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Novice
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You should have a look at some of the information regarding bee dances. And at the architecture and polar alignment of hive construction. Also, the death of a queen bee will rarely bring about the death of the hive.

While ants have more constraints on their activities, they show similar, and yes, complex communication. But ants communicate chemically...bees dance, ants regurgitate. Both might be considered starfarers by scale, as they are capable of traveling remarkable distances into completely unknown territories in order to establish new colonies.

"As a hive, these organisms are still fairly stupid, right?"...Not in my opinion.

This discussion bears on the topic of alien forms, because rickfisher and I have found a basic disagreement about what we can "buy" as far as intelligence, irregardless of form. So, how intelligent would all of our potential aliens need to be in order for humans to come into contact with them? Would humans be intelligent enough to meet the standards we pose for our alien starfarers?

(I don't mean to be snippy...I'm pretty new to theoretical discussions of sci-fi aliens, and I'm asking out of genuine curiosity. And a sudden recognition that I have no idea how I would answer those two questions.)


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Survivor
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A brain as we know it isn't necessary for intelligence. Nor does a brain (again, as we know it) confer intelligence. This doesn't mean that intelligence doesn't have anything to do with brains, it just means that our current concept of a brain is quite limited.

Bees don't really have "brains" as we understand them. Nor do they have "intelligence". They are adaptable and cybernetic, but they don't seem to have any predictive cybernetic adaptability.

I will grant Novice a certain point, namely that most humans don't display any genuine predictive cybernetic adaptivity either, and thus could not seriously be considered "intelligent" by objective standards. However, some humans demonstrate intelligence, so it must be regarded as a probable inherent ability of the species.

There is also the matter of conceptualization. There is no guarantee that an alien will be able to follow any of the conceptual models that are used in human intelligence. Even individual (intelligent) humans often have trouble following all of the concepts used by other humans. It might appear that humans were simply getting lucky (or using "instinct") to carry on apparently intelligent behavior, since many more humans engage in non-sentient behaviors than clearly demonstrate intelligence.

But of course none of this has anything to do with the topic. I hope everyone's okay with that.


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