The Cliche, or at least the Prejudice, of the Incomprehensible Alien

It’s an interesting theme of course, and as such worth exploration.  I would not disparage the idea of the incomprehensible extraterrestrial.  And, it has been very well done.  Lem’s Solaris, for example, is a masterwork of the subgenre.  And Tarkovsky’s filming of Solaris, a masterwork of SF film.

But, most times, I just don’t buy it.  A biological intelligence would have evolved — by definition.  And the constraints of evolution are universal.  Cultures can grow into dizzying varieties, of course, and as such resist explanation; but, in the end, each must obey the constraints of biology, or the culture will perish, and this provides the common foundation that means understanding must in principle be possible.  Just so, in the end, we can penetrate the purposes of an ant or a vampire squid, and we can penetrate the reasoning of a Yanomamo or Heroic-Age Greek.

I wonder if the idea of the incomprehensible alien is not a part or product of that greater cliche — the Great Cliche, we might call it:  the lazy pessimism of contemporary SF literature.  All is miserable in the future, our most awarded writers tell us.  Even those inclined not to people the future with cannibals roving sunken cities are likely to portray the future as at best incomprehensible (the singularity!).  This social and political pessimism bleeds over to an epistemic pessimism.  And yet, the evidence is against this misery mongery.

So there is here an interesting challenge:  SF that is optimistic, while realistic; that portrays aliens that are genuinely strange, but not incomprehensible.

This is a theme (or is it a meta-theme?) that I want to explore more.

Turing. And Godel. And Cantor.

My story, “The Man Who Betrayed Turing,” is available (for free) at Cosmos Online.  Cosmos is a fine Australian magazine, which does not have an equivalent on this side of the globe.  A bit like Omni, but not really — more as if Discover Magazine regularly ran SF.

The story aims to be one of a series of — what shall I call them?  Mathematical fantasies?  I’ve written two plays about Godel, but I also have a flash fiction about Godel in Shimmer, of which I am fond.  The Turing story is a kind of sequel to that, in my mind.  I’m working on one about Cantor now — though it is coming slow.

The story is at:

The historical figures are rather closely based on fact.  Whether the future figures are accurate — well, time will tell.

I hope you like it.  Let me know if you did.


An update from June, 2014:  The Cantor story, called “Cantor’s Dragon,” will be coming out in the November 2014 issue of Shimmer.

“Julie is Three” wins the Anlab!

Just returned from the annual SFWA meeting, AKA “the nebs.”  I was delighted to receive the Anlab award for short story for my “Julie is Three.”  Here’s the crew of 2012 Anlab winners:

  • Best Novella:  “With Unclean Hands,” Adam-Troy Castro (11/11)
  • Best Novelette, tie:  “Jak and the Beanstalk,” by Richard A. Lovett (7-8/11), “Betty Knox and Dictionary Jones in the Mystery of the Missing Teenage Anachronisms,” John G. Hemry
  • Best Short Story:  “Julie is Three,” Craig DeLancey (3/11)
  • Best Fact Article: “Smart SETI,” Gregory and James Benford
  • Best Cover: December 2011 (for “Ray of Light”) by Bob Eggleton

All I can think is:  I won an award that Clifford Simak and David Brin won!

I took a tour of the Smithsonian Air & Space museum led by astronaut Mike Fincke, a true Ubermensch, who answered all those questions writers want to ask, like, are the gloves stiff on those suits?  (Not in the American ones.)  Is it noisy in the shuttle while you’re going up? (It was a smooth ride after the solid rocket boosters were ejected.)  Do you get nausea in microgravity?  (Everyone does, but for different folks it lasts more or less time.)  And I learned lots of details I didn’t even think to ask about: the yanks breathe pure oxygen in their suits, and that it gives you a wicked dry throat.  And so on.

Best of all, I had the opportunity to meet legends (Stan Schmidt!  Gregory Benford!) and lots of soon to be legends.

The Polis of Positive Criticism? For you, I mean.

A kerfuffle in fiction!  Christopher Priest declares the Clarke Award short list dreadful.  Priest is a very admirable writer.  So are the people he criticizes.  Favorite of criticisms is calling Charlie Stross an internet puppy.  I like the internet, and I love my puppy,

and so this aligns with my liking Stross.  Similar praise could be offered by me about Mieville.

But I confess I appreciate the provocation.  It’s interesting to watch the prods of a critic, if she or he is thoughtful.  It makes you consider about the craft a bit more carefully.  And, published criticism of any kind of my own work is sometimes helpful to me.

But here’s the rub: most critics are presumably writing not for the producers but rather for the consumers (or, if you prefer, the ingesters) of art.  And I suspect, as a consumer of art, a negative criticism has never done me any good.

It helps me not at all to to be told a book is terrible or a film is inane or a play is a wreck.  I would not have read the book or seen the movie or play anyway.  Our problem as consumers of art is not to filter out the bad, as if there were so few options we could benefit from excluding one or two.  It is not the case that we have so few options that shaking out a few will leave us with only good works as remnants.  Our problem is to find the good in a forest of options.  We don’t need filters.  We need pointers.

If you ask a guide for directions and she points one way or another and says, “don’t go that way,” she has done you no good.  She’s wasted your time.  There are boundless directions you can take.  Ruling out one is nearly worthless.  If instead your guide points the way to some specific and beneficent location, she has done you a service.

The great service, and I suspect the only service, critics have done me, as a consumer of art, is to point out something good that I otherwise would have missed.  When someone directs me to a body of work I did not know and which I come to love, they have added value.  I’m greatly indebted.  What a great gift to have first been pointed to Tarkovsky, the Strugatsky brothers, Conor McPherson, Anselm Keifer….  The best criticism in the world would be a list of good things I’ve not discovered.  But when the critic tells me something is not good, she is just howling in the noise — indeed, she is just adding to the noise.  She has wasted my time (again, I mean my time as a consumer, as an appreciator, of art).

This is why criticism can seem self-indulgent.  Who are those snide comments meant to help?  Are they really just self-assertion?  One wonders if they compete with art — if these critical works all say, don’t look at that, don’t read that, look at me, read me.

In his book Real Presences, George Steiner imagines a polity without criticism, where the artwork is experienced always directly.  He recognizes that — at least in the Twentieth Century — criticism (he may mean academic criticism) had become the envy-driven enemy of art.  He concludes, however, by recognizing that the polity without criticism is an ideal we shall never have.  Fair enough, but why not strive for a polity of positive criticism?

Still, as a writer, I appreciate the negative criticisms.  Even if, as I said, I doubt they are meant for the likes of me.

The Howling

It is sometimes disturbing to read reviews on Amazon.  Sometimes books I consider masterpieces receive the most vicious criticism.  I wanted to send a friend a copy of John Gardner’s Grendel, which I consider a superb novel.  I re-read it often, and have always considered it a model of prose and pacing and characterization.  I believe it is one of our greatest modern fantasies.

My eye was drawn to the bright yellow stars, and then I saw that some people gave the book 1 star.  Unable to look away, I clicked on the disaster, and found comments like:

So due to this piece, I disregarded John Gardner as a complete idiot. A moron. An inept hack. The worst kind of author. One who has gained notoriety through some kind of fluke. John Gardner became a swear word within my group of friends, something only to be braught up so one could watch me rage against, “That idiot who probably didn’t even read the source material!”

It’s hard not to marvel at something like that.  (Also: it’s curious that some people act so personally hostile.  Why insult John Gardner?  Does he think Gardner isn’t a human being?  Does he think Gardner didn’t try his best?  Not to mention, of course, that this person would not have had the courage — nor, one hopes, the bad manners — to insult Gardner like this to his face, were Gardner still with us.  Why does print make it acceptable?)

But there is also something liberating about seeing these critical vomits.  They remind us that every book — every work of art — has to find its audience, and the people outside that audience might be not just uninterested, but even actively hostile.  Even hostile to a vile degree.

For a writer, it’s always painful when people write dismissive or mean things about your work, and always someone does.  But seeing that any work, even great works like Grendel, will earn some dismissive and mean criticisms reminds us that everything is hated by someone.  Indeed, everything is hated by someone eager to shout personal attacks on Amazon.

The Dark Forward

I’ve taken my first plunge into Kindlespace.  My Marrion stories, which appeared in Analog, have been collected into a novella available on Kindle, under the name The Dark Forward.  I’ve written an afterword, and also revised the third story in the trilogy after I decided the end could be improved.

Genetically engineered children is now a subgenre in SF.  But these stories are unique in developing the idea of an engineered trait with a moral aim.  The Marrion children are not engineered to be smarter or to be sleepless or to have any other trait of — shall we say — obvious commercial benefit. They are engineered to care more about the future.  My conceit is that this would be a very important, and perhaps even very dangerous, trait.

Asteroid Monte on Escape Pod

“Asteroid Monte,” which first appeared in Analog, and is soon appearing in Russian in the magazine Esli, is now available as a free podcast download at Escape Pod.  Reader Rajan Khanna did a fantastic job switching from Sussuratian to Irish to Aussie accents — and, heroically, pronouncing “Briaathursiasaliantiormethessess.”  Check it out at:

This is GOFSO (Good Old Fashioned Space Opera) with an ecological twist.  The world first appeared in a story in Analog called “Demand Ecology,” and reappeared in Analog in the story “The Cold Star Sky,” but “Asteroid Monte” is the first story with these two characters.  I have several other stories, and several novels, in the pipeline about these characters.  I refer to the world as Predator Space.