Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Sci-Fi and actually alien aliens

This was a final essay for a sci-fi class last semester that I thought I'd share. The tl;dr is that I'm sad there aren't more creative approaches to aliens in sci-fi, but it's understandable why that's the case and why things probably aren't going to change in the near future.

On the nature of reasoning with mathematical models about the real world, E.T. Jaynes in his book Probability Theory: The Logic of Science asserts ``Anyone who believes that he is proving things about the real world, is a victim of the mind projection fallacy.'' (My emphasis.) In his experience with English speakers, there's an ``almost universal tendency to disguise epistemological statements by putting them into a grammatical form which suggests to the unwary an ontological statement.'' He was most concerned about people treating their internal states-of-mind as an external fundamental truth about reality, but it generalizes--e.g. the fallacy underlies philosophical confusions about sound in a forest. He insists that probability is a state of mind representing one's absence of perfect information; reality itself is never uncertain.

Ben Goertzel et al. continue with a similar thought in their book Probabilistic Logic Networks: A Comprehensive Framework for Uncertain Inference. They assert that ``inheritance and implication in human language and cognition mix up intension[al] and extension[al] [logic]''. In other words, if someone says ``Cats are Animals'', they not only mean the extensional relationship that the concept of Cats is a subset of the concept of Animals (just as a square is a rectangle), they also typically mean the intensional relationship that the properties or patterns associated with Cats tend to appear in Animals as well.

What both of these references indicate is that humans are messy with language. In science fiction, creators are just as messy as consumers, and it doesn't seem to have improved much in the past 100 years. Messy language creates messy aliens, and alien representation has not changed much either. The monsters of sci-fi in how they appear are sometimes inspired by mythological fantastical monsters as the case was in Shambleau, and in general are inspired by living animals or something else in nature, such as any insect- (Aliens) or jellyfish- (Metroid's Phantoon) or cat- (Avatar) or snake- (Prometheus) or crustacean- (District 9) looking alien. Creative designs that don't draw on some creature from nature are rare--the mythological monsters are glued together parts of different creatures, and even robots are usually made to resemble some other creature. But ideas as simple as a creature with a rotating wheel is something evolution has only kind-of-sort-of accomplished in the history of the Earth three times. One can kind of cheat with not-well-known species. Of course there has been progress from the days of ancient Greece: over the past hundred years (and of course before) humanity's knowledge of creatures around us has improved, and it provides a wider range of inspiration for a designer to make very alien-looking designs, so long as the reader or viewer has never seen the inspiration base.

The more annoying similarity between aliens of any decade however is in how they think and behave. Most books I've read and movies or shows I've seen treat their aliens as either brutes with little thought, or having mind-designs similar to human minds, with the same emotions, same motivations, same base desires, etc. Is it an intentional mind projection fallacy, to suppose that the alien carrying off the sexy girl in a torn dress does so because it's as attracted to the girl as the readers are, as if the girl's sexiness is an ontological fact about the girl irresistible to any thinking creature? Is the girl both extensionally and intensionally sexy for all such creatures?

I think some authors certainly are that lazy, they don't think before they write. Others just know their audience. Many others might not be as blatant, but they still use sci-fi and aliens as just humans in costume (the majority of Star Trek: TNG, also District 9) in order to discuss interesting topics about morality, philosophy, politics and power, human culture, intervention, and so on.

The readers however tend to be more lazy. So many people give arguments that rest on assumptions taken from fictional evidence. Pick an online discussion about Artificial General Intelligence, and you're likely to find at least a reference to SkyNet if not the argument that any AI humanity makes will turn out wanting to destroy us. This basic psychological problem in humans affects even brilliant minds like Stephen Hawking's, who has stated effectively that he believes, if aliens exist and if they came here, events would play out more or less like they do in Independence Day.

It's this lack of a different mind design that makes me consider most aliens as not actually alien. If a species was not intelligently created, the evolutionary history of a species matters. (Star Trek and Stargate sort of get around this with a Seeder theory.) There is no reason to believe that out of all the possible ways thinking beings can go about the universe, that they will look even remotely close to how humans do things. There are some exceptions that show off actually alien aliens in an appealing context, but at the same time such creatures aren't naturally as appealing by themselves to readers because readers can't identify with them. If someone made an alien that was almost exactly like a human except it had no concept of boredom, the readers would grow tired of it when all the alien does is watch some epic explosion scene of its favorite movie over and over again. It's hard to take away any part of human mind design and still have an interesting creature left over, let alone throwing out the human design entirely, let alone having the creature never been done before. In cases where it's pulled off, the interest is usually in the conflicts with characters the reader cares about, or it's an intellectual curiosity that's fun to pick apart.

Greg Egan's Permutation City is a nice example of wading into the waters. He presents a species his characters call Lambertians, insect-like with swarm intelligence that have no concept of death, emotion, and so forth, and groups of Lambertians possess an interesting ability to trade absolute logical truth with other groups by performing a sort of flying dance. Egan answers the question ``What happens if the Lambertians find a logical contradiction with reality itself?''

I was also happy with Stargate Universe, at least when the main characters weren't trying to kill each other, that the show was exploring new concepts with actually alien aliens. Their choices have been done before, sure, but it was such a nice contrast from the 'everyone speaks English', 'everyone is equi-intelligent', 'everyone has human motivations', and (apart from the replicators who don't really count anyway) 'everyone is made of flesh' tropes of previous Stargate incarnations. Then they had to cancel the series. I'd like to see more actually alien aliens become popular but because it seems like dangerous territory financially to present them, I don't know if it will ever happen. Besides, presenting actually alien aliens has nothing to do with whether a work is excellent sci-fi or not. With the difficulty of pulling it off, financial uncertainty, lack of intrinsic interestingness to a creature, and lack of necessity for a good product, I don't expect to see any significant variation in how aliens have played out so far.

Posted on 2013-02-27 by Jach

Tags: fiction, scifi


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