Wednesday, October 04, 2017

This is a dog, or why SF is hard to write

As I've stated before, although I enjoy reading science fiction, I'm not very comfortable writing it for a number of reasons. One of them is that I don't have a sufficient background in the sciences; although I know some laws of physics, for instance, I don't really understand all their implications. But another reason is that well-written science fiction, especially SF involving alien life, requires the author to think as an alien might think. And that means trying to unlearn things almost every human being over the age of five has learned.

For instance: this is a dog.
(English Bulldog)

This is also a dog.
(Chow Chow)

So is this.
(Great Dane)

And so is this.
Even though they have radically different sizes, shapes, fur patterns and colors, and even if you don't know one thing about breeding, you can probably tell at a glance that all of these animals are dogs. Humans and domesticated dogs have been companions for thousands of years, and it's common for humans to keep dogs as pets or as work animals all over the world. As a consequence, we almost have pattern recognition of dogs wired into our DNA.

Now consider this furry creature.
Is it a dog? Well, it's about the same size as a dog. It has upright, triangular ears, four paws with exposed claws, a long muzzle, and a long, furry tail -- all traits visible in some of the other animals shown above. But even people who don't know the name of this animal can say with certainty that it isn't a dog, and they're right. It's a common fox.

So how do we automatically know the difference?

And more to the point: how could an alien, with no special connection to either species, be expected to know the difference? How could an alien tell that the first four animals are all dogs, even though there are such striking differences between breeds; or that, even with all its visual similarities, a fox is not a dog?

This is what I mean by having to try to unlearn things. We are human, so we think like humans, and we tend to assume that aliens would relate to each other and to us as though they were humans too. But being human means carrying around a HUGE volume of knowledge and assumptions -- some global, some culture-specific -- that aliens wouldn't have had a chance to accrete. Instead, presumably, they have their own volume of knowledge and assumptions which might be quite different from ours. And trying to think like an alien -- to create an artificial set of knowledge, culture, behaviors and mores not completely based on human knowledge -- is hard. Our cultural assumptions and all the things we instinctively know keep tripping us up.

What do you think? Have you written any SF stories involving aliens, and if so, what are your tips and tricks to create a truly alien point of view?

No comments: