Sunday, February 1, 2015

Aliens are Everywhere (A Post-ChattaCon Thought)

This weekend I attended ChattaCon, a science fiction/fantasy/horror convention here in Chattanooga, TN.  It’s a really nice smaller convention.  I recommend it if you want a good excuse to come to Chattanooga in late January.  

I went to a lot of cool panels on topics such as “This is How the World Ends”, “Worldbuilding”, and “Blending Genres.”  I also saw a robot battle and ate some goodies in the ConSuite.  On the last day I had a difficult choice between “The Beer Geek’s Guide to Mythology and Fantasy Literature” and “Irish Drinking Songs for Cat Lovers.”  I chose the beer panel, because, well, there was beer.

One of the most philosophically interesting panels I attended was called “The Honest Alien.”  The description asks, “Can humans stop thinking like humans?  Can writers really create a believable story from an alien POV, without the taint of human bias?”  The panelists, Julie Czerneda, Paula S. Jordan, and Louise Herring-Jones, had a lot of great things to say.  One panelist (I think it was Czerneda) asked, “Why do people like alien stories so much?”

A few reasons mentioned by panelists and the audience were that it’s just fun to imagine what they’d be like (especially for the biologically inclined), we may someday encounter intelligent aliens (so we can be ready), and there are plenty of humans here on earth from different cultures, such as some cultures in New Guinea, that are difficult for outsiders to understand (so perhaps it’s a way of thinking through that).

After the panel I had the thought that you don’t have to go to New Guinea or some far off place to find humans that are hard to understand.  I’ve discussed the oddities that await us in learning about ancient philosophy.  Also, there are some Americans alive in 2015 who are Young Earth Creationists (they believe the Earth was created along with all species in their present-day forms 6,000-10,000 years ago).  It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to have that view when one has easy access to the evidence of modern biology, genetics, paleontology, geology, and so forth.  I suspect many – most? – people who claim to be Young Earth Creationists do so out of a vague feeling that this is a requirement of their religious persuasion (and it often isn’t such a requirement, as with Catholics and most Protestants).  They don’t often do so out of any out of any real desire or effort to form controversial beliefs about biological matters, but let’s suppose that 10% of them have arrived at their beliefs after honest deliberation.  These earnest Young Earth Creationists are in a very real sense aliens to me.  (Since it’s Super Bowl Sunday, I might also include people who feel they have a strong personal stake in a game played by overpaid men in ridiculous outfits who they have no personal connection with, all overseen by an ethically questionable billion dollar organization).

But if you really think about it, aren’t all other people aliens?  We are each trapped in our own minds, with only the hazy, unreliable phenomenon of language to bridge the gap.  Our own minds give us some idea of what to expect from other humans, but if another human being has ever surprised you, you realize that what philosophers call the principle of charity will only get you so far.  So in a sense, every time you meet somebody, you are engaging in First Contact (whether Zephram Cochrane is there is up to you).  And even when it comes to people you’ve known for decades, you are at best guessing about their real thoughts, feelings, desires, and hopes.

And I suspect I’m not the first human being to ever feel like an alien in my own mind.  I don’t always understand my own thoughts and feelings!

All this makes me want to suggest that science fiction stories about aliens are really about our constant encounter with otherness in the universe, with other cultures, with our neighbors, with our loved ones, and even with our selves.  So if we ever do meet intelligent aliens, we’ll have had plenty of practice engaging with otherness.

What do you think?  Let me get my universal translator so I can understand your answers!

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