"You can't write that story. I can't write that story. Nobody can!" So spake John W. Campbell, dean of science-fiction editors, to sf author Vernor Vinge in response to a proposed tale focusing on a intelligence-amplified human. The notion of an unwritable story is fascinating, perhaps because it echoes some great philosophical paradoxes, e.g. Thomas Nagel's famous question of "What is it like to be a bat?" or the Gödel Theorem true-but-unprovable riff.

Campbell apparently believed that it's impossible to describe superhuman mental processes in human-comprehensible terms. And he may have known the huge problems associated with narratives when one of the characters is far beyond the others in capability. (The failures in this department in various Star Trek episodes led some friends to coin the acronym APGCs — "All-Powerful Godlike Creatures" — as the bane of good plotting.)

But what Campbell really meant to convey, however, may have been a much simpler message: "You can't sell that story — at least, not to me!"

(cf. GeniusAndComplexity (25 May 1999), TheUnspeakable (31 May 1999), VernorVinge (17 Sep 2001), FaceToFaceWithGod (13 Nov 2001), DrawingTheLine (11 Jul 2004), CountermeasureAndGodshatter (30 Oct 2004), ...)

A related problem is the "alien" character. Almost by definition, a true alien would be incomprehensible to the reader/viewer in terms of communication, thoughts, motivation, reactions, etc.

It is commonly the case that fictional aliens are either just another human with a nose job (Trek-verse), Grr-Argh costumes (BEM), or some permutation of documented but for reader/viewer hopefully sufficiently different human cultures.

Isaac Asimov was in later years criticized for populating the known galaxy in the Foundation series with only american mid.west small-town characters. But this approach was the norm in the pulp fiction of the 1950s, so one can instead admire that Isaac could go so far with such constraints.

From a pragmatic point of view, of course, every single person is an "alien" to another. People often spend the better part of a lifetime in relationships where in the end they simply give up and declare they just can't understand their partners. And this fundamental communications failure occurs within the same cultural framework.

Sufficiently far from the human average makes any such person "alien" as well: autist, genius, artist, pervert, serial killer, religious visionary,... It is assuredly just as difficult to write about such characters in a believable and understandable way as any extra-terrestrial being.

However, the matter of believable yet understandable aliens does raise the philosophical question of how "alien" an alien might really be. There is the feeling in some circles that given a roughly human-like body interacting with the physical world, and a recognizable social structure, there would be enough common ground that we might well recognize many "human" aspects.

From a complementary point of view, within AI has been raised the notion that we would be well advised to create "human-like" perceptual environments and models for any AI entity we try to create, or suffer the consequences of unleashing an intelligence that will be unable to relate to its human creators.

Anyway, the plot device of "alien" in whatever form is not so much to describe the alien as to make some point about our known and taken-for-granted attitudes. -- Bo Leuf

TopicLiterature - 2005-10-12

(correlates: FascinatingVersusInteresting, Twitter Poetry, ThreeLawsOfRoboticsRevised, ...)