Talking to aliens is not my bag. I could never write a science fiction novel because I would fall at the first hurdle. How the heck do you communicate?
I mean, I’ve tried. Two thousand words in and I was tearing my hair out trying to pick my way through that multi-dimensional minefield. (The alien was an interstellar traveller who had landed mistakenly in the upper reaches of the Thames in Oxfordshire. He was also a giant octopus.)
The sad thing is that I love science fiction. Adore the television series. See the movies several times. Read lots and lots of it. Recommend it with enthusiasm, including to people who recoil from the very idea.
A propos, try the novella The Seven Brides-to-Be of Generalissimo Vlad by Victoria Goddard. It’s a cracker.
Well, it’s on the cusp of science fiction and fantasy, I suppose. The author is best known for her epic fantasy series set in the Universe of the Nine Worlds, full of strangeness and moral challenges.
But the Generalissimo is a heck of whirl. Constructed like a fairy tale, plotted like true mystery, it has great world building, a fabulous brave and sassy narrator who makes me laugh, and a real lump-in-the-throat ending.
But in the universe of the Generalissimo everyone speaks the same language, even though they sometimes use electronic devices to disguise their voices. Nobody is actually talking to aliens.
Understanding the Reply – TV series
The problem, of course, is not just talking to aliens. It’s understanding what they say back. And sorting out whether they’re a threat to life and limb as you do so.
Television has always powered through the language problem in science fiction with insouciance. I have the impression that Dr Who’s two hearts and multiverse brain acts as a sort of instant translator. As a result everyone automatically understands everyone else.
Star Trek, even in Series 1, had got over the teething problems of first encounters. Klingon was clearly already on the Academy syllabus back in 1966. What’s more enemies usually declared themselves by firing on the Enterprise; when they weren’t trying to incapacitate the crew planet-side, that is. Both Courses of action were helpful behavioural indicators, of course. Language not really necessary.
Subsequent series from the military Battlestar Galactica, through the Gothic Babylon 5 to contemporary high tech robotics and/or mind bending scenarios seem to have side-stepped Alien conversation class.
Talking to Aliens – the movies
Movies generally tried harder, I think. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) the aliens have used abduction in the past (and have a go in the present) as well as a five tone musical phrase to communicate with earth people. There is a distinct suggestion that they use mind control.
The alien envoy in Starman (1984), one of my favourite films of any genre, acquires human DNA from a curl of hair and then learns English and behaviour from a home movie. You can see his language and understanding improving as he travels with an initially terrified grieving widow. (He cloned her late husband’s DNA.) There are some really interesting characters and moral dilemmas along the way. The villains are mindless military, while the scientist has to weigh feeling for a fellow creature against agonising scientific curiosity and the potential loss of his career.
But he doesn’t get the chance to learn Alien.
Talking to Aliens – Arrival
So I was absolutely blown away when, in 2016, a movie came out that was heavily involved with first encounter communication. At last!
The main character, Dr Louise Banks, is a linguist, who is summoned from her university to help an essentially military detail communicate with one of 12 alien ships that have arrived around the world. We watch her labour with the process. The aliens are enormous and non-humanoid, with seven tentacles that expand into a starfish-shape to emit inkblot “writing” answers to questions. The scientists (a wry and ironic bunch) call them Heptapods.
It all goes too slowly for the mission controllers. The military, interestingly, are more open-minded about her approach than the State Department official. He is suspicious and professionally paranoid, constantly monitoring other nations’ response to their own alien visitors.
Linguistics and Plot in Arrival
To be fair, linguists are not all as enthusiastic as I am about the way their discipline is represented. There’s a terrific debate about it, though I advise you not to read it until you have seen the movie.
I can see that there is some telescoping and loose terminology. But basically the points about the difficulty of translation with no shared experience to start with seem to me sound and well made. The really big one – which sets off a world crisis – is when, asked what they want with us, the aliens say, “Offer weapon.”
They are, of course, calling on ideas that Louise has used in talking to aliens. “We need to be sure they understand the difference between ‘weapon’ and ‘tool’,” says Louise desperately. But Russia and China have clearly got similar results and have taken themselves out of international sharing.
The truly interesting thing, though, which comes from the marvellous story by Ted Chiang on which it is based, is the perception of time. The movie plays totally fair and tells you so right from the start. “Memory doesn’t work like I thought it did,” says Louise in Voice Over. “We are so bound by time. Now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings.”
Hang onto that. It is the core of an intriguing, enlightening and exciting story.
I do really recommend this movie. Apart from great ideas and some fabulous acting, it is beautiful, with a wonderful, sparing use of music – and silence! It is exciting, too. And the personal story that is threaded through the politico-linguistic one is deep and kind.
Alien to Reading
In a small way, Louise’s struggles reminded me of trying to help someone with dyslexia to read. It was pre-Internet and the person concerned didn’t want to seek professional help. Now, I had been reading since I was three or four. My mother hated reading aloud, so she taught me as soon as I could hold a book, pretty much.
I genuinely didn’t remember what it was like to go down a page word by word. To begin with, it was as difficult as if someone had asked me to teach them to breathe. My dyslexic friend was surprised but, once I’d admitted it, I think it helped us both.
A couple of weeks ago I happened to hear a conversation on reading between two people who had struggled with it as children. It is really sobering to hear how alienated they felt – bullied, rejected and confused. It continued into adulthood.
One would pretend that he had bad eyesight, so people would read essential notices to him. The other would come home from work, refuse to go out again, and cry. “I really wanted to read a book,” said one, heartbreakingly. The older had improved his life enormously by getting help as an adult and wanted to become a reading coach himself. I think he convinced the younger man to get help too.
My friend and I stuck it out and made two really interesting discoveries. The first was that she strengthened her reading muscles by following the text of audio books. Novels with plenty of conversation in them worked best because there were more pauses.
The other was that once her reading had speeded up to the pace of moderate speech, she absolutely took off.
Within a year she was an absolute bookworm.
Talking to Aliens for Novelists
What she also taught me was that it pays a story-teller to remember that to some extent we are Aliens to our readers. We have a style and vocabulary that serves us perfectly with our narrow circle, our family and/or friends. But move out of that tight circle and words don’t necessarily mean the same thing to the readers as they do to us.
When I first started working in banking I picked up terminology that regularly stumped my father. And that in turn stumped me. It took my mother’s gentle questioning to help me unpick the knitting, as it were, so that the subject was clear to both my father and me.
It happens across generations, across professions and, especially, between countries who notionally speak the same language. It’s the linguistic equivalent of a local landmark or beloved radio programmes.
“Don’t talk about The Archers,” my very first editor told a group of new writers. “The Irish, the Australians and the States won’t know what you’re on about.”
Ever since then, I’ve watched out for the Narrow Circle Specials in my dirty drafts. Mostly I kick them out. If they’re fun, then I’ll add context and/or or spell it out first time round. Otherwise I run the risk of the reader running away with a simple tool that she thinks is a weapon.
And that way disaster lies.