Me Human, You Alien: How to Talk to an Extraterrestrial by Jonathan Vos Post

(c) 1996 by Emerald City Publishing an excerpt from a book entitled THE HANDBOOK OF UFO CONTACT, to appear Spring 1997, New York: William Morrow & Co.
Copyright 1996, by Emerald City Publishing. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission. May be posted electronically provided that it is transmitted unaltered, in its entirety, and without charge.
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Clement's "Mission of Gravity"

"Mission of Gravity" [Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement, Garden City NJ: Doubleday, 1954] has one of the most vividly rendered alien planets with ETs ever written. Set on the planet Mesklin, where gravity is some 300 times as intense as Earth at the poles, and yet only 3 times Earth-strength at the equator (due to centrifugal force on the very-rapidly spinning planet), the methane-chemistry ETs (Mesklinites) explore weird parts of their world while being in constant radio communication with human beings in orbit whom they have already met face-to-face aboard the human spaceship. This is one of the first great "Hard Science Fiction" novels, dealing with meticulously accurate astronomy, chemistry, and physics, and also clearly presents us with intriguing aliens. Author Hal Clement (pseudonym for the high school chemistry teacher Harry Stubbs) even defines "Hard science fiction" for us in a related essay ["Hard Sciences and Tough Technologies", Hal Clement, in The Craft of Science Fiction, ed. Reginald Bretnor, New York: Harper & Row, 1976, p.51]: "Hard" science fiction is a recognizable field within a field; it is enjoyed largely by people who take their own scientific knowledge seriously; writing it therefore demands on the part of the author a fair amount of scientific knowledge and ability (partially replaceable by good research facilities and informed friends whose brains can be picked); and the worst mistake a hard science fiction writer can make, aside from failing to tell an entertaining story, is to write something that makes him look ignorant. He can disagree with accepted science, but he'd better have an impressive-sounding excuse. Experts have debated for over 40 years about whether or not Hal Clement was equally "hard" about his extraterrestrial communications and psychology. Following the analysis of academic critic Gary Westfahl [Cosmic Engineers: A Study of Hard Science Fiction, Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1996], George R.R. Martin comments: Although Clement is cited as being particularly good with aliens, actually the reverse is sometimes true.... The protagonists of the novel are Mesklinites, aliens admirably tailored to meet the physical conditions of their world in the best world-builder fashion.... Other than that, Captain Barlennan of the good ship Bree and his crew are virtually human.... Clement fails in the last test--he has not bothered to create an alien. The world overshadows its inhabitants. Similarly, Peter Nicholls says that the Mesklinites: are so different from us in appearance and environment as to be awe-inspiring, until they open their mouths, whereupon they sound exactly like Calvin Coolidge. David N. Samuelson says that "the greatest weakness" in Mission of Gravity: is its characterization of its aliens. They look like centipedes with lobster claws, act and think like Renaissance sailors, and talk largely like [19]50s engineers, at least as they are represented in American SF. Still, Gary Westfahl supports Clement's aliens as genuinely alien: Barlennan is more than a human sea captain in disguise. Clement goes to some length to explain some of the unusual psychological reactions such beings might have; one key moment comes early in the novel when Barlennan's human companion Lackland casually "picked up the tiny body of the Mesklinite. For one soul-shaking instant Barlennan felt and saw himself suspended long feet away from the ground.... His eyes glared in undiluted horror at the emptiness.... The fear might have--perhaps should have--driven him mad. His situation can only be dimly approximated by comparing it with that of a human being hanging by one hand from a window ledge forty stories above a paved street. To my thinking, Hal Clement is brilliantly anticipating the tradition of Piper's Omnilingual22 by three years (book publication) or four years (magazine publication) that aliens can be very human-like in communication so long as they are discussing the commonly-shared aspects of mathematics, chemistry, physics, and so forth. As to how the ETs communicate between each other (as opposed to how they talk to humans after learning English), Clement describes his Mesklinite heroes in contact with a foreign tribe of the same species: His gestures were meaningless to Lackland.... How any understanding could be transmitted was a complete mystery.... He had not gained more than the tiniest bit of insight into their psychology.... So much of the Mesklinite action and gesticulation is tied in directly with the physical functioning of their bodies that its meaning, seen by another member of the same race, is automatically clear. This challenges our hope that humans could interpret ET sign language, as described in the "Sound, Light, Viruses, and Neutrinos" chapter of this Handbook, subsection (f) "Posture."

White's "All Judgment Fled"

The book "All Judgment Fled", by James White, [All Judgment Fled, James White, New York: Walker, 1969] is a novel of first contact by human astronauts who board an extraterrestrial spaceship which has entered the solar system, and is in orbit near Jupiter. The astronauts, entering with the best of intentions, are attacked by, and forced to kill aliens which they call "Twos", and which, fortunately, turn out to be escaped ET laboratory animals: We assumed the Two life-form to be unintelligent because they showed no indication of possessing an organized language [reviewer's emphasis], no manual dexterity in opening or closing doors or operating light switches and no inclination to communicate. [p.197] The astronauts are rescued from attack by the sole surviving intelligent ET, who exchanges sketches with them to communicate: He had to explain his idea to the alien then, but that was not too difficult because the old adage about a good picture being worth two thousand words held true even among extraterrestrials.... It had been relatively easy to exchange simple concepts via sketch pad, but ... It was just a great, fat caterpillar, an LSD nightmare with too many eyes and mouths in all the wrong places, for him to be able to read such a subtle thing as a facial expression -- and the problem cut both ways" [pp.214-215]

Farmer's "Mother"

Philip Josˇ Farmer's famous short story "Mother" [ "Mother", Philip Josˇ Farmer, Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1953, reprinted in Strange Relations, Philip Josˇ Farmer, New York: Avon, 1974] has a notoriously Oedipal relationship between human and alien. Giant tentacled clam-shaped ET's communicate with radio on a planet visited by human astronauts. Human Eddie Fetts is lured to one of the ETs by a radio signal, abducted, and finds himself living within the womb of the ET "mother", where he is fed stew: That was how Eddie learned the second phrase of Mother Polyphema's language. The first message had been "What are you?" This was "Come and get it".... He experimented. He tapped out a repetition [on his radio] of what he'd last heard... Immediately after, a tentacle smote Eddie across the shoulders and knocked him down. The panrad [radio] zzzted its third intelligible message [which, in context, meant] "Don't ever do that! In this story, the surprise ending is that Eddie does not want to be rescued. He is content to retreat to the womb, and live out his days within the "Mother." Please notice the similarity between the name "Fetts" and "foetus." This is typical of the daring experimental writing of Philip Josˇ Farmer, who repeatedly investigated the possibilities of seemingly perverse relationships between human and alien, relationships which always made sense on their own unexpected terms.

Lasswitz' "Two Planets"

Perhaps the first modern science fiction novel to describe first contact between human and ET, with some concern for linguistic problems, was "Two Planets" by Kurd Lasswitz, published in German in 1897 ["Two Planets", Kurd Lasswitz, published in German under the original title "Auf Zwei Planeten", Lepzig: Verlag B. Elischer Nachfolger, 1897; translated in English translation, Carbondale: Southern Illinois Press, 1971] The human protagonists (Saltner and Grunthe) meet Martians ("Nume") who have colonized Earth's North and South Poles. The Martians look very human, and Saltner saves and falls in love with the female Martian "La." The plot is simplified by hints of a covert contact before the "first contact" and the existence of what this Handbook deems as unlikely as a Klingon-English dictionary: Surprisingly fast, mutual understanding by means of language had developed. This had, of course, been aided largely by the fortunate discovery of the small German-Martian phrase book. It turned out that it had been compiled by Ell exactly for those needs which would arise at the first encounter between scientifically educated men and the Martians. He had listed few terms relating to ordinary objects and observations, about which one could easily make oneself understood by gestures; but instead there were expressions for abstract notions, cultural history, and technological scientific things. The Martians as well as both [human] explorers were very much surprised by the fact that there was someone on Earth who not only knew the language and alphabet of the Martians but who also possessed a rather adequate knowledge of the conditions on Mars. From certain details, they were able to conclude, however, that this knowledge was related only to some distant past events and that the fact of the Martian colony at the Pole of the Earth was not known to the author of the phrase book; on the other hand, the project of the Martians to reach the Earth at one of its Poles was known to him. The name Ell occurred frequently in some areas of Mars. They also knew of a famous space traveler whose name was Captain All, who once had been left behind on Earth as a consequence of an accident, under circumstances, however, which supported the conclusion that he probably had perished. Still, it might have been possible that one or the other of these Martians had saved himself by getting to the humans and that he might have brought knowledge about Mars. [p.60] There is also the suggestion, perhaps for the first time, that (as we discussed earlier) humans could learn an ET language more easily if that were at least in part an artificial language designed for multinational multicultural use: It was also evident that the language of the Martians could be learned easily and that it fortunately could be pronounced with facility by people accustomed to the German tongue. Originally this dialect had been the language of the Martians who lived on the southern hemisphere of the planet. The unification of the different tribes and races of the Martians into a single federal state had originated from here, and the language of that civilization of Mars had become the official language. Its use through the millennia had simplified it and also differentiated it spiritually, so that it had become a means for the most fruitful and exact expression of thought; everything that was ambiguous and dependent only on feeling had gradually become clearer and simpler. As a matter of fact, this was the only language which every educated Martian was able to use to its full extent and which everyone else was able to use at least halfway correctly. Besides this, however, there were numerous, very different and constantly changing dialects which were spoken only in comparatively small areas; finally there were even colloquialisms which were used only within the circle of particular families. It proved to be an extremely essential characteristic of Martian culture that the general equality and leveling in social relations was balanced by an equally great diversity and freedom in the life of the individual. The surprising genius of the Martians made it now possible for them to learn German quickly; this rapid process of learning was made simpler through the circumstance that German as a language of a highly developed people was a great deal closer to the intellectual level of the Martians than the primitive Eskimo language. [p.61] This novel, ahead of its time in several ways, made little impact on the English-speaking science fiction world. It did, however, inspire Germans such as Werner Von Braun who were crucial in the development of modern rocket technology -- first amateur efforts, then the V-2 rocket weapon, and then, transplanted to America, the launch of the first American satellite and the Saturn V that brought a dozen men to the surface of the Moon. The cause-and-effect relating space science and science fiction is difficult to unravel.

Oliver's "Unearthly Neighbors"

Chad Oliver, an Anthropologist, wrote particularly plausible novels of First Contact -- a term, after all, which originated in the field of Anthropology. The first of his masterpieces. "Unearthly Neighbors" ["Unearthly Neighbors", Chad Oliver, New York: Ballentine, 1960; revised (first hardcover) edition, New York: Crown, 1984] in 1960 later had a sequel, "The Shores of Another Sea." Here, we summarize the First Contact aspects of the first novel. A top UN official calls in a leading anthropologist on a hush-hush meeting: "They were discovered on the ninth planet of the Sirius system--that's about eight-and-a-half light years away as I understand it. Maybe I was a little premature in calling them human beings--that's your department--but they look pretty damn close.... all the survey ships carry strict orders to keep their distance in a situation like this. We did get some pictures, and sensors were planted to pick up recordings of one of their languages--" Monte pounced on the word like a cat going after a sparrow. "Language, you say? Careful, now. Remember that chimpanzees are very close to us biologically and they make a lot of vocal racket, but they don't have a true language.... Language? How are you using the term?" "Well, they seem to talk in about the same circumstances we do. And they are definitely not limited to a few set calls or cries--they yak in a very human manner. We have some films synchronized with the sounds, and several of them show what appear to be parents telling things to their children, for instance." [pp.12-13] Monte starts putting together a team of the best anthropologists and linguists for a mission of First Contact to Sirius-9, including his own very talented wife. One oddity: none of the photos show the ETs possessing any clothing or tools of any kind. They have languages, and that's a human characteristic no matter how you slice it. Forget about the ape hoots and whale whistles. If they have languages, you'd expect them to have cultures, too; cultures and languages go together like scotch and soda. I've never heard of any human beings without any tools at all... [p.19] The UN mandate is clear: We are determined to have a trained anthropologist make the first contact with these people--I'd like to think that we've made at least enough progress to avoid some of the more glaring errors of the past. [p.20] The trip will take almost a year, with new faster-than-light propulsion, to get the team there. The question becomes: How do you go about setting up an expedition that is designed to make the first contact with an alien, extraterrestrial culture? Monte didn't know, for the excellent reason that it had never been done before. [p.26] On the way to Sirius, the team studies the photos, films, and audiotapes: He listened to the sounds that came out of the speakers and perversely tried to make some sense out of them. It was impossible, of course. The voices sounded human enough; he could recognize what seemed to be words spoken by both men and women, together with utterances that sounded like the speech of children. But the sounds picked up by the hidden sensors of the first Sirius expedition conveyed no meaning to him at all. They were voices that spoke from across the immense gulf that separated one species from another, voices of a people who were more remote from him than a Neanderthal from the last age of ice... [p.32] The top linguist and anthropologist study together: "Got an action sequence here with a few sentences to go with it.," he muttered. "Give you some idea what I'm up against." A good clear picture formed in the air, sharp and three dimensional. A male native of Sirius Nine dropped down out of the trees--there was a distinct thump when he landed--and walked up to another naked man who was standing in a clearing. The pickup was amazingly sensitive, and Monte could even hear the rapid breathing of the new arrival. The man who descended from the trees said something to the other man. It was hard to catch what he said, because the sounds of the language were utterly different from any language Monte knew. The man who had been there first hesitated a moment, then gave a peculiar whistle. The two men went off together and disappeared into the forest. Jenike cut the equipment off. "Neat, huh? That's about the best we've got, too. I've worked out the phonemic system pretty well, I can repeat what that guy said without much trouble now. But what the hell does it mean?" "What you need is a dictionary." "Yeah. You get me one first thing, will you?" [pp.33-34] Monte reviews fiction and nonfiction about aliens, and notes to himself in his notebook: It's frightening to realize how ignorant we are, and how thoroughly conditioned by our own limited experiences. Stories and learned speculation about life on other planets always seemed to emphasize the strange and exotic qualities of the alien worlds themselves, but the life-forms that exist against these dramatic backdrops all live like earthmen, no matter how od their appearance may be. (Or else they live like social insects, which amounts to the same thing.) All the caterpillars and octopi and reptiles and frogs have social systems just like the Vikings or the Kwakiutls or the Zulus. Nobody seems to have realized that a culture may be alien, more alien than any planet of bubbling lead. You can walk right up to something that looks like a man--and not know him at all, or anything about him. [p.44] The humans land, make camp, trail a lone alien, and set out some meat and berries for him, which are carried to him by a wolf-like beast: Very slowly, the man stepped out and scooped up the berries with his right hand. He stared at Monte, his dark eyes fearful. Monte took a deep breath. It was now or never. He pointed to himself. "Monte," he said distinctly. He pointed to Charlie. "Charlie," he said. .... the man understood; Monte was certain of that. The dark eyes were quick and intelligent. But he said nothing. He looked like he was trying to make up his mind about something, something terribly important.... Quite suddenly, with no warning at all, the man turned on his heel and walked into the forest. In seconds, he had disappeared from view. "Wait!" Monte called uselessly. "We won't hurt you, dammit!" [p.49] Even though they had studied tapes for a year or more, they were limited in what they could do. Oh, Charlie had worked out a few phrases in one of the native languages, and he thought he knew approximately what they meant. But none of the phrases--even assuming that they were correct--went with the situation. It wasn't the fault of the first expedition; they had planted their mikes and cameras well. It was simply the fact that you just don't say the right things in casual everyday conversation. A man can go through a lot of days without ever saying "I am a friend." He can go through several lifetimes very nicely without ever saying something as useful as: "I am a man from another planet, and I only want to talk to you." The closest thing they had was a sentence that Charlie thought meant something like, "I see you are awake, and now it is time to eat." That didn't seem too wildly promising. [p.53] The humans locate a village of a hundred aliens. They land their reconnaissance sphere next to the village (of caves in a rocky cliff): Then, at last, a child moved a little way down the trail from one of the caves. He pointed at the sphere and laughed--a high, delighted giggle. The people began to move again, going on about their business--whatever that might have been. They were so close that Monte could practically reach out and touch them, and yet he felt as though he were watching them from across some stupendous, uncrossable gulf. He simply didn't get them, didn't understand what he was seeing. The natives had nothing; they lived in caves and hollow trees. Their activities seemed aimless to him; they didn't seem to do anything that had any purpose to it. [p.71] At last, in this village, the humans find an "informant" who makes meaningful dialogue with them: Monte took a step toward the old man, who frowned at him and blinked his faded eyes. Monte raised his hands, showing him that they were empty. "Monte," he said, and pointed to himself. The old man muttered something and stood his ground. Monte tried again, feeling as though he were caught up in a cyclical nightmare. "Monte," he said. The old man nodded slowly and pulled his ear. "Larst," he said distinctly. By God! He said something! Charlie whipped out his notebook and recorded the single precious word in phonetic symbols. Monte smile broadly, trying to look like the answer to an old man's prayers. "Charlie," he said, pointing. "Tom, Ace." The old man nodded again. "Larst," he repeated. He sighed. Then, incredibly, he began to point to other things: the caves, the stream, the sky, the kids, the women. For each, he gave the native term--slowly, patiently, as though instructing a backward child. [pp.72-73] Monte suddenly realizes the significance of a village filled with only women, children, and old men. He rushes Charlie and Ace back to the sphere, and speeds back to the main human camp, only to find most of the expedition, including his wife Helen, slaughtered, except for two survivors. What had the humans done, so dreadfully wrong, to provoke the massacre? Charlie, analyzing the conversation in the village, has clues. It's a curious language--very weak in active verbs. But I can speak it now, after a fashion. Monte felt a wave of relief.... They had the words, they had a bridge. "What the devil do they call Sirius Nine?" "That's a tough one. They think of the world in a number of different ways, some of them pretty subjective. They do have word, though--Walonka. It seems to mean a totality of some sort. It means their world, their universe, and it has an idea of unity, of interconnections. It's the closest I can get. They just don't think in our terms. You know, of course, that it's more than just a matter of finding different labels for the same thing--you have to dig up the conceptual apparatus that they work with. They call themselves Merdosi, the People. And they call those damned wolf-things by a very similar term: Merdosini. A rough translation would be something like 'Hunters for the People.' Interesting, huh?" "It makes sense. Did you get anything else suggestive?" "I got one thing. One of the words that Larst applied to himself has the literal meaning of man-who-is-old-enough-to-stay-in-the-village-all-year-round. What do you make of that?" [p.100] Monte realizes, too late, that the Merdosi have some sort of culturally-based mating season, and that there must be times of the year when it is inappropriate for young men to be in contact with women. Unfortunately, the human men were seen by the Merdosi in company with the human women, and then the men compounded the mistake by being in proximity to the Merdosi women in the village. Monte sat down again wearily. "Me, the great anthropologist! Any fool bonehead could have done better. I should have known.... We landed and the very first thing that we did was to break the strongest taboo in their culture... [pp.101-102] Monte and Charlie alone go back to confront the extraterrestrials, while the others return to safety in orbit around Sirius Nine. He stays in a cave, chips a stone axe and kills a local animal for meat. Suddenly, he got to his feet. He looked around him, his eyes staring. I've been blind. Blind. Here it is, right in front of me! Yes. A cave. A fire. And a chipped-stone tool. The beginning. The key.... When man on Earth started down that trail, there was no turning back. When he chipped his first tool, he determined his destiny. All the rest flowed from that one creative act: spears, harpoons, bows and arrows, the plow, wheels, writing, cities, planes, bombs, spaceships.... [The Merdosi] had taken a different turning. They had started down a different trail. [pp.163-165] Monte understands that the people of Sirius Nine had never developed material culture: "They didn't make things." Instead, the Merdosi had a "close and pivotal relationship with some of the animals of their world" and "could influence growth patterns to some extent. For example, those hollow trees did not seem to be completely natural. And: Clearly, the Merdosi had developed a different aspect of the human personality. They had turned inward. They had tapped the hidden resources of the human mind. They worked in symbols, dreams, visions. Telepathy? No, not quite. Rather, they seemed to have perfected a technique of projecting emotional states.... But it must be more than that, far more. They must live in a world of symbolic richness, they must see the world in vivid colors, tones, shadings. They must be able to open their minds, share them. They must have techniques that we have never imagined--they must understand the growth of trees, the unfolding of life. Yes, but the Merdosi were people too. They were not supermen. They were not idealized figments of the imagination. They were only different. [pp.166-167] Monte submits to quasi-telepathic probing of his mind by the Merdosi, and at last true communication is established. They accept human beings as people. The risk of noncontact or exploitative military confrontation is eliminated. The novel has a happy ending. In the afterword to the revised edition, Chad Oliver comments [pp.207-208]: I think we still have a long way to go in our attitudes toward extraterrestrial lifeforms. The popular polarities are neatly represented by Close Encounters of the Third Kind9 and John Carpenter's The Thing31. In one, we virtually genuflect before godlike beings, and in the other we react with all the aplomb of a child dropped into a tub of rattlesnakes. We'll have to do better than that (Yes, there's E.T.5, but that poses yet another threat to humanity--a case of the terminal cutes.) With all due respect to Mr. Spock, it might be worth mentioning that we still have no anthropologists aboard the Enterprise. I would agree that anthropologists are not the sole curators of wisdom in the human race, but perhaps we could find room for one or two when the aliens hit the fan. This novel is one of the very best to deal with human encountering ETs on the ETs own planet. Your job, in having to communicate with an ET here on Earth, is at least simpler in one way. The ET you are confronting took the path of the stone tool, and evolved to build a spaceship. We have at least that much in common.

Recent Fiction

There are other science fiction novels in the anthropological tradition of Chad Oliver. To mention only three, Celestis {81} by Paul Park, a Finalist for the 1995 Nebula Award, partly written from the point of view of an alien surgically altered and drugged to be more human, who is reverting to alien consciousness; Foragers {102} by Charles Oberndorf; and Foreigner: A Novel of First Contact {103} by C. J. Cherryh. Foragers is explicitly an ethnographic novel pretending to be a 2nd edition, after a war between humans an ET "Slozan." The novel is rich in detail, complexity, differing points of view, and some emphasis on language, morality, and physiology differences which cause several layers of misunderstanding. There are too many other stories and novels to list in this Handbook. The author apologizes for the many wonderful fictions omitted herem due to limts of length, taste, and my own ignorance. But you are encourages to read as widely as possible in the serious literature of linguistics, anthropology, ethnography, biology, human history, as well as science fiction. There's no telling what will turn out to be be most crucial when you have your chance at First Contact!

LeGuin's Acacia Seeds

But how good are we at decoding alien messages, when we still can't (after decades of trying) speak Dolphin? Ursula K. LeGuin satirizes this ingeniously in "The Author of the Acacia Seeds {53}," with "therolinguists" translating stories from an ant ("written in touch-gland exudation on degerminated acacia seeds laid in rows"), Penguin ("a script written almost entirely in wings, neck, and air" which shares with Dolphin "the same extraordinary wit and flashes of crazy humor"), "all the thousands of literatures of the Fish stock", Seal, "Weasel murder mysteries, or Batrachian erotica, or the tunnel sagas of the earthworm." LeGuin (herself the daughter of two famous anthropologists) wonders if the "phytolinguist" will ever be able to "read Eggplant ... [or] the newly deciphered lyrics of the lichen on the north face of Pike's Peak. And with them, or after them, may there not come that even bolder adventurer -- the first geolinguist, who, ignoring the delicate, transient lyrics of the lichen, will read beneath it the still less communicative, still more passive, wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry of the rocks: each one a word spoken, how long ago, by the Earth itself, in the immense solitude, the immenser community, of space."
[still need to mention]: 49 "The Language of Love", Robert E. Sheckley, Galaxy Science Fiction, May 1957 50 Communication, Charles Fontenay, If, October 1957 51 Communication, (verse), Walter Kerr, Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 1962 52 The Communicators, Edward S. Aarons, Fantasy & Science Fiction, June 1958
Further Adventures in Exo-Linguistic Analysis