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:

http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/fiction/5952/the-man-who-betrayed-turing

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.

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

Get off the shelf, sluggard!

I’m reading a Dickens biography (Charles Dickens, His Tragedy and Triumph, by Edgar Johnson, Simon and Schuster 1952), and found a remarkable thing.  Dickens’s first novel was The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, written — as were most of his novels — as a serial.  He wrote each month about 12,000 words, and this formed a chapter that went into a monthly magazine.

 

Here’s the rub.  The first four issues — even, for a while, the fifth issue — of The Pickwick Club did miserably.  Johnson reports that things were so bad that even for the fourth installment, which eventually took off, they printed 1500 issues for provincial distribution, and 1450 were returned to the publisher.

Then something happened.  People fell in love with the character of Sam Weller, who appears in the fourth installment.  Word got around.  People started requesting the earlier issues.  And it was all good news from then on.   Eventually, Pickwick was such a sensation that there was even an explosion of Pickwick merchandise (Pickwick hats, Pickwick canes, etc.), along with endless copies, knock-offs, and theatrical piracies.  But for four months, even into the fifth month and installment, Dickens’s novel looked to be a certain failure.  Only a more patient time, and Dickens’s immense force of will, together prevented its cancellation long before its explosive success.

It is hard not to notice that today, The Pickwick Club likely would have been a failure.  The big bookstores would pull a book before it racked up four months of bad sales (suppose, for example, that The Pickwick Club had been intended to appear as a trilogy of volumes, which was also a common practice then).  Sure, a genius like Dickens would try again.  But maybe not with The Pickwick Club, and so a comic masterpiece would be lost.

The economy of art has become accelerated; works must be instantaneously successful.  (Perhaps this is a trend throughout the economy; nowadays, employees are not supposed to be trained, they are supposed to arrive at their job already experts.)  The question, of course, is what might we lose — and what have we already lost — to such demands?

The Master

Today I finished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and thereby finished a long project to read all 17 of Dickens’s novels.

Dickens is for me the essence of the novel.  I admire most of all his genius for character.  A character speaks two sentences, and you feel you know him, and could pick him out of a crowd.  It’s a mysterious skill, akin to the mystery of Shakespeare’s poetic invention.

Reading the novels together, you also get a sense of a complete world, with surprising insights into human nature, and into its most enduring features.  I was repeatedly  amused by the things that had not changed, how some of our news is not really new at all, but recognizable to the reader of fifteen decades ago.  (Random example:  there is a Bernie-Madoff-like character in Little Dorrit — shockingly like our own Madoff, except that he has the decency to feel guilty in the end.)

I’m sad that there is not another discovery before me, another Dickens novel to be read for the first time.  I have seen the arch of his genius, up to the unfinished termination.  Still:  I can always go back to the Pickwick Club, and begin again. 

1920-2012

 

To me he shall always be the writer of overflowing exuberance.  Yes, 451 is a masterwork, but I heard his voice clearest in Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked this Way Comes, The Martian Chronicles, and The Illustrated Man.  He created a form of metaphysical fiction by channeling ecstatic wonder.

“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.