Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Aliens in Anderson and Niven

(A brief look at a big topic)


One of the most imaginative alien races in science fiction (sf) is Larry Niven’s Pierson’s Puppeteers. A Puppeteer is somewhere described as resembling a headless, three legged centaur with a Cecil the Sea Sick Sea Serpent hand puppet on each hand. Another description would be a furry ostrich with one extra head, neck and leg, malleable lips and only one eye on each head. Mouths and necks double as hands and arms and the brain is protected inside the body. Thus, this alien form can be described by comparing it with familiar organisms. (Similarly, years ago, Dan Dare’s alien pet, Stripey, was describable as a cat- or dog-sized, zebra-striped, tusk-less elephant.)

With alien bodies, Niven imagines alien body language. What does it mean when a Puppeteer’s eyes meet? Laughter? A shrug? Something else? Psychologically, Puppeteers are what men and kzinti call cowards. Their elected leader is the Hindmost, He Who Leads From Behind, and cautious Conservatives usually win elections. However, risk-taking Experimentalists win during crises. Further, a cornered Puppeteer can turn its back, look behind itself with adjustable binocular vision, balance on two legs and kick its assailant’s head off, whereas the Puppeteer has no vulnerable head on top.

Niven acknowledges through a character that the Puppeteers are unique in Known Space, where kzinti are large, upright cats and other species are more or less humanoid. (This does not matter in the case of the Pak because human beings are mutated Pak.) Can anyone imagine a galaxy full of non-humanoid races? And are such beings out there? Is any intelligence out there and, if so, does parallel evolution instead favour former quadrupeds with forelimbs freed for manipulation and sense organs near a bone-protected brain at the top?

This would still allow for wider variation than mere pointed ears and bumpy heads, pace Star Trek. If two eyes above one nose above one mouth with an ear at each side were arbitrarily inherited from our earliest amphibian ancestors, then how different might heads and facial features have been? They could probably have been something that we would simply not recognise as any part of an organism.


The Technic History and Potential Histories” briefly discusses Poul Anderson’s aliens.

In After Doomsday, Anderson immediately establishes the alienness of an avian-descended extraterrestrial by giving him an exotic name, “Ramri of Monwaing’s Katkinu,” aka “Ramri of Tantha.” Ramri is a personal name. Monwaing is a home planet. Katkinu is a colonized planet. Tantha is a Monwaingi Society. Thus, the first version of Ramri’s name reflects the fact that Monwaingi are space travelers whereas the second version expresses their internal organization. In fact, space travel facilitates Monwaingi organization because Societies preserve their distinctiveness by spreading to other planets although not on the basis of one Society per planet. Individualistic Tanthai and communistic Kodau sharing Katkinu simply ignore each other although, recognizing that conflicts may occur, they also accept a common peace-keeping technology.

Anderson alternates between recognizing that alien bodies would have alien body languages and projecting human body language onto alien bodies. Ythrians express more with their feathers than human beings can with their faces. On the other hand, a man viewing a visual recording of an intelligent quadruped under Monwaingi interrogation thinks that the quadruped seems nervous because he shuffles his legs and twitches his trunk… A biped encountered by Dominic Flandry shakes her head in disbelief… (I believe that the significance of head shaking varies even within Europe. In "A Tragedy of Errors," about human miscommunication, Anderson recognises that head shaking can mean yes, no or maybe.)

In Fire Time, Anderson expands on the theme of intelligent quadrupeds. If they effortlessly trot or gallop further than bipeds can walk, then their belongings, dwellings, workshops and meeting places are dispersed across geographical areas, not concentrated in a single building or group of buildings. The small physical difference of two more legs entails immense social differences and enables Anderson to comment on human society. Working eight hours and sleeping eight hours leaves only eight hours for food, recreation and commuting. There is therefore an absolute limit to how much time we can spend commuting. Technology changes not the length of time but how far we can travel in that time. If commuting consumes too much time, then we move house, work or both. There are few absolute limits but this is one.

Winged, carnivorous Ythrians need large estates to support meat animals and therefore are very territorial. Ythrians and human beings jointly colonizing a planet initially avoid contact before integrating. Human beings import Parliamentary institutions from Earth whereas Ythrian Kruaths are fully representative communes or soviets that do not recognize any authority as having the sole right to exercise violence, although they must unite against a Terran attack. Ythrian hunting instincts affect their theology in ways that had earlier upset a Christian man who worked for them. Although Ythrians remain inwardly alien, interactions continue: some human beings, flying with anti-gravity equipment, join Ythrian "choths." Elsewhere, some quadruped Wodenites convert to terrestrial religions.

Van Rijn met two species with a common environment that formed a single intelligence when physically joined. Flandry met three similarly symbiotic species. A partnership of units A, B and C and a partnership of units A, B and D share the memories of A and B though not, directly, of C or D. However, two thirds of ABD remembers having shared memories with C which in turn would have remembered other partnerships. Therefore, the Didonian sense of identity and concept of self is unhuman. Their shifting and overlapping selves are unlikely to imagine that any single self will remain intact through an indefinite future. They directly experience the fading of selves.

However, since Didonian intelligence exists only when three individually unintelligent organisms are conjoined, might some Didonians imagine or infer that a greater intelligence directs the conjoining? Anderson, of course, shows us how evolution did it.

Anderson’s novel, The Rebel Worlds, leaps straight into Didonian consciousness:

“Make oneness.

“I/we: Feet belonging to Guardian of North Gate and others who can be, to Raft Farer and Woe who will no longer be, to Many Thoughts, Cave Discoverer, and Master of Songs who can no longer be; Wings belonging to Iron Miner and Lightning Struck the House and others to be, to Many Thoughts who can no longer be; young Hands that has yet to share memories: make oneness.” (1)

Young Hands learns about humanity from Feet of Cave Discoverer and Woe:

“(Blurred, two legs, faceless…no, had they beaks?)…strangers, who had but single bodies and yet could talk…” (2)

The new Hands learns quickly:

“This goes well. More quickly than usual. Perhaps i/we can become a good oneness that will often have reason to exist.” (1)

Didonian oneness has a practical purpose:

“…each oneness We create must know of those who come from beyond heaven, lest their dangerous marvels turn into Our ruin.” (3)

and also a transcendent purpose:

“Beyond this and greater: How shall We achieve oneness with the whole world unless We understand it?” (4)

But the attempt to understand humanity might fail:

“The unit that led them said…that he/she/it? doubted if they understood themselves, or ever would.” (3)

One Didonian assesses humanity as follows:

“Be not afraid of the strangers with single bodies…Rather pity that race, who are not beasts but can think, and thus know that they will never know oneness.” (5)

This is substantial speculation about alien life forms and modes of consciousness. It may be that Ythrians, with two eyes, a mouth, claws and feathers, are still too close to a terrestrial norm but Anderson successfully imagines genuine biological and psychological differences, probably to a greater extent than any other sf writer.

    Poul Anderson, The Rebel Worlds, London, 1972, p. 5.
    ibid, pp. 5-6.
    ibid, p. 6.
    ibid, p. 140.
    ibid, p. 141.

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