Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Alien psychology

In case you missed it, PBW had a wonderful post on the "don'ts" of writing fiction (Paperback Writer: How Not To). Pearls galore. Some time soon, I hope to blog on my own list of don'ts. In the comments, one of F. O'Brien Andrew's "don'ts" struck me. Paraphrasing: in science fiction, make your aliens physically bizarre but psychologically human. This is a don't, mind you. This is an interesting "don't" because it gets at the root of an interesting dichotomy in the science fiction audience. Some folks read SF exclusively for the wow factor. These readers go into ecstasies over authors who can deliver extraterrestrials who are alien body and soul. And then there are folks like me. I don't like alien aliens. I want to have a clear picture of these critters in my mind, and I want to understand their motivations. I want to empathize with them. Example: consider Larry Niven's Ringworld. Niven's Kzin are the fighters among us, the folks who barely restrain their violence in order to Get the Job Done. Niven's puppeteers are the manipulators -- the politicians and administrators whose goal is to shape the destinies of vast numbers of souls. These characters are fun because they are so understandable. We don't have to struggle to recognize them as human archetypes. Counter-example: Niven and Pournelle's moties (from A Mote in God's Eye). I remember the moties as shambling asymmetrical critters with one-dimensional characters. It's been more than a few years since I read Mote, but that's all that sticks with me -- in contrast to Ringworld's aliens. PBW didn't respond to this particular "don't", but I suspect from my reading of her book Afterburn that she's in my camp. PBW's aliens are easy to picture, and their motivations are intensely human. They have much the same fears as we do, and they love, lust, and feel despair and loneliness just as we do. It's easy to like her characters and care about what happens to them simply because they are so understandable. I like science fiction not for the wow factor, but because SF writers find unique ways to tell me more about human themes. (No surprise, then, that P. K. Dick is one of my favorites.) Does that mean I want my aliens to be humans-in-costume? Nah. In the best stories, there's always a little something which gives the aliens a unique perspective on life. Vernor Vinge's pack-mind doggies (A Fire Upon the Deep) come to mind. Yes, they're alien, but they share enough psychology with humans to be three-dimensional characters whom you can empathize with, like, or hate, as the case may be. The few of you who have read my stuff know how this relates to my fiction. Bare Rump may gobble mates like Twinkies, sucking out all the gooey goodness, and she may be a primo-bitchin' fighter, but she's a romance-loving softy at heart. Hearts? I never did make up my mind about that. D.


Blogger Lilith Saintcrow said...

It takes a damn genius of a writer to make alien psychology work. I would modify that "don't" to read: don't make your aliens have an overwhelmingly human psychology. Just give 'em one walloping trait that is way out of human psych.

11/15/2005 10:43:00 AM  
Blogger Pat said...

An interesting take on the whole alien-psychology bit is in the book Agressor Six by Wil McCarthy. Humanity battles the Waisters (so named since they come from one of the stars in the waist of Orion, IIRC), and the only way they manage to overcome is to create a fighting team (the Six of the title) that, while composed of humans, is trained to think and act like Waisters, to mine the aliens' psychology for some nugget that will enable Us to beat Them.

11/15/2005 11:15:00 AM  
Blogger Pat Kirby said...

Hmmm. This sort of gets to my odd problem with SF:

I'm a scientist.

And I don't write and rarely read SF.

I love Sci-fi movies, but most of my attempt at reading SF have failed. I suspect all those uber-alien aliens may be a contributing factor. The last SF novel I liked was PBW's Blade Dancer, which is chuck full of aliens with human-like characteristics.

There's a Joe Haldeman book--Old Twenty--sitting in my TBR pile. I keep circling it, finding anything else to read, including romances (which I almost invariably hate.)

My anti-SF bias is a sickness. Sigh.

11/15/2005 02:25:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Pat (Pat K, that is): if you haven't tried Gregory Benford yet, take a look at Timescape or Cosm. Benford is a UC Irvine physicist. He tends to get his science and his scientists right.

P. K. Dick's Man in the High Castle is a classic alternate universe tale (one of the best 'what if the axis won WWII' stories), and Stephenson's Snowcrash is just plain fun. Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music is the best SF homage to Chandler I've ever read.

11/15/2005 05:57:00 PM  
Anonymous PBW said...

No time to respond to comments over at my place because I'm trying to kill the last deadline, but I'm definitely in your camp.

My reasons are that to appeal to the broadest spectrum of readers, you have to create characters that are more universally sympathetic. The average person can't cozy up to a blog of Jell-O that has three genders and speaks in metaphors, much less relate to it. They want to put themselves in the character's shoes as they're reading, or at least be an observer who understands what the hell is going on with him/her/it.

Aside from Frank, whose opinions I respect even when I disagree with them, the wholesale desire for more "alien" aliens among pubbed writers in the genre is part of the ever-tightening sphincter of accepted attitude in the genre. Pretty soon we won't be able to write anything that passes for them.

11/15/2005 06:41:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Well, they've already created subgenres (such as hard SF) to distinguish real SF from . . . oh, I don't know, call it spec fiction?

Ah, who cares. If I get published, I'll be delighted. If I get a readership, I'll die happy. And if a bunch of hard SF fans trash my work on their blogs, more power to 'em. They know what they like, and so do I.

11/15/2005 08:54:00 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Doug. I guess I'm in the minority, but I'm disappointed when the aliens in the book I'm reading have human-like psychology. The reason I read science fiction as opposed to straight fiction is becasue I want my socks blown off by that wow factor you mention :-).

11/15/2005 09:30:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Hi Crystal. Long time no see!

I hope I didn't come off too judgmental in my post. I recognize that there really are two camps in the SF crowd -- I'm firmly in one of them, and you're in the other.

One of these days, I'll try the alien psychology bit in a short story. It would be a challenge to see if I could pull it off ;o)

11/16/2005 07:39:00 AM  

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