There’s an old story about the difference between cats and dogs.
Feed a dog, and it thinks ‘wow, I’ve been fed. Humans must be gods’. Feed a cat and it thinks ‘Yawn. My staff are passable, but as I am a god, perhaps I should find better?’
Actually I suspect what dogs (especially Labradors) think is: ‘Food – MY FAVOURITE THING! Now it’s walkies – MY FAVOURITE THING! Now it’s chase-the-ball -MY FAVOURITE THING! Now it’s time to roll in mud -MY FAVOURITE THING! (etc , etc).’ But I digress.
Of course we don’t actually know what animals think, we simply project on to them what we imagine ourselves. Which is fine, except we’re human and they’re not.
Which brings me to sci-fi aliens, which inevitably also end up as projections of ourselves. Sometimes with lobsters glued to their foreheads, as in the Klingons, but recognisably human nonetheless. Even ‘alien’ aliens such as Larry Niven’s Kzin and Puppeteers were actually only aspects of the human condition.
I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s worth looking at again. Why do we portray aliens this way? Part of it is the ‘strange but not too strange’ principle in story telling – which applies visually in film and TV – where a completely alien ‘alien’ would be unrecognisable and likely an audience turn-off.
But the other part is the fact that humans are inevitably anthropocentric. For a long time we saw ourselves as a unique pinnacle of life, something separate from and above the animals. Even when that began to change in the nineteenth century the idea that humans were somehow special or different infused itself into science.
As late as the 1950s and 1960s, anthropologists were presenting versions of human evolution that portrayed human evolutionary paths, alone, as operating in ways not shared by animals – the idea that there was but one single branch, for example.
This thinking was enormously powerful, taking decades to undo. Arguably it was not until the discoveries of this century put modern humans in a very different place in the human family that the old ideas were finally set aside in the science community. Even then, they were still often popularly upheld.
This concept also infused itself into science fiction where alien worlds, inevitably, were portrayed as having complex biospheres of flora and fauna, but where there was – just as inevitably – but one intelligent species per planet, usually bipedal.
The actual answer is ‘nobody knows’. In all probability, whatever’s ‘out there’ will be very different from what we imagine. But when it comes to sci-fi, these days, I can’t help thinking that the balance of ‘strange but not too strange’ has erred too much towards the comfortable. This logic is what drove my picture of alien life in my novella ‘Missionary’, published in the Endless Worlds Vol. 1 compilation.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017