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Review Shorts: How to Build an Alien

The Aliens Are Coming!: The Extraordinary Science Behind Our Search for Life in the Universe (2016) / Ben Miller

Death on Earth: Adventures in Evolution and Mortality (2016) / Jules Howard

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (2016) / Peter Godfrey-Smith

The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building (2015) / David J. Peterson

There really are never too many books about how to build aliens, RIGHT? NEVER TOO MANY. I’ll tell you what, this might become a regular feature of this blog.

The Aliens are Coming was thorough, engaging, and entertaining, and it’s a good solid pop science-level overview of the current science of deep evolutionary biology – from the big bang and the suitability of the physical laws of our universe for the evolution of life-supporting star systems to the current state of our (and their?) technology, popular culture, belief systems, and expectations about life on other worlds and the possibility of contact. I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more if I hadn’t read Cosmic Biology first, and I would absolutely recommend this book to someone who wants a narrative grounding in this topic but isn’t quite ready for the math and chemistry or just does not dig the textbook dryness of Cosmic Biology.


Death on Earth asks the question: what evolutionary purpose does death serve? Why do all living things die? How does that work? What does it mean?

Simply put, death is the thing that happens after life. There is no evolutionary pressure to abolish death, because not dying once reproduction has ceased serves no advantage for natural selection, but not dying does expend a lot of resources that could be invested elsewhere in more reproduction. Many bodies self-obsolesce immediately upon finishing breeding; for the others (including us) survival after the end of reproduction is a long slow gamble of attrition and diminishing resources.

So it starts from a very technical place, exploring concepts of physics and biology, and then dives off a cliff where the phenomenon of death intersects with rising levels of self-awareness in complex animals (and, of course, ourselves). There’s an exceptionally poignant chapter where Howard describes trying to explain death to his three-year-old daughter in the context of a dead magpie, and then, later, in that of his grandmother. Three-year-olds don’t fully grasp death. Neither do donkeys or jackdaws. But they do experience what can be observed and described as distress. What that distress in the presence of death feels like, subjectively, to very small children or jackdaws or elephants or ants or caterpillars or trees, and what that means – that’s a different question, and one that seems impossible to answer. Subjectivity – on any subject – is is inherently slippery, individual, and embodied, and the only things we really can do to access another’s experience are to observe how they act out that experience, and to listen to what they have to say – which is, after all, just more sophisticated and elaborate observing. So we observe with respect and humility and empathy, and recognize that we can’t ever bridge the chasm of full understanding.


Other Minds, which explores that question of otherness and subjectivity and biodeterminism in self-awareness, is… really beautiful. It is a study on the most alien, most distant animal intelligence, evolutionarily speaking, from human intelligence, known to exist on earth today.

Peter Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher of biology (isn’t that a wonderful thing? that that is a specific intellectual discipline that exists in the world?) and an avid scuba diver who was inspired to write this book by spending many hours at a place he calls Octopolis, an outlier site where normally nonsocial common Sydney octopus (octopus tetricus) gather and interact in large numbers.

In a chapter entitled Mischief and Craft, where he writes about – yes – the sheer weird uncanny wicked clever orneryness of these creatures and where that might come from, he says,

[A]n octopus has less of a fixed shape than other animals. The same animal can stand tall on its arms, squeeze through a hole little bigger than its eye, become a streamlined missile, or fold itself to fit into a jar. When advocates of embodied cognition… give examples of how bodies provide resources for intelligent action, they mention the distances between parts of a body (which aid perception) and the locations and angles of joints. The octopus body has none of these things – no fixed distances between parts, no joints, no angles. Further, the relevant contrast in the octopus case is not “body rather than brain” – the contrast usually emphasized in discussions of embodied cognition. In an octopus, the nervous system as a whole is a more relevant object than the brain: it’s not clear where the brain itself begins and ends… [t]he octopus is suffused with nervousness… the body itself is protean, all possibility…

A meditation on what it means to be alive, what it means to be self-aware, and what is possible. So thought-provoking.


The Art of Language Construction: Seriously, there are books that I say “this is excellent, and I’m definitely going to be buying it, and (if you’re writing speculative fiction) you should too” and then there are books that by the time I have finished reading it, I have already ordered a copy, and my library copy will not be pried out of my hands on pain of death until my very own personal mine-forever copy arrives. Guess which one this is?

This book caused eleventh-hour rewrites on Sanctuary. Entirely my own fault and I was furious with myself for not reading it a year earlier when I first came across it. I’ve got a pretty good grasp on foundational linguistic theory – I have been a language student and a linguistics student, I have done translation work – and so I did not do a terrible job at throwing some seat-of-the-pants fake together; there was internal consistency, there was a believable sound and feel to it. (And there are only about 45 actual words of Semhet in Sanctuary.)

But when I ran what I’d done so far through a properly robust grammatical framework, it transformed. And I added eleven pages of backstory and cultural history notes to my worldbuilding file in two days. That work is going to impact Refuge MUCH more than it impacted Sanctuary, because of stuff like this:

“This city – this part of the city – is over three thousand years old, on top of a demolished fortress thousands of years older. This valley has been a superb natural fortification for most of its history. So much history here that most of it’s been forgotten. No small part of it, intentionally.”

“It was necessary,” she said softly. “To keep the peace.” These northern people kept their own collective memory, her grandmother had told her, an oral tradition handed down generation to generation, at odds with the official history.

“I’m not convinced of that.”

“Doesn’t much matter, does it? It was all a long time ago.”

“I think it matters very much,” he said. “For the first time in a thousand years, we are not united under a single banner. We have to figure out… how to live with that. Earth is as we were in those days, a patchwork of alliance and conflict. They’ve been talking about global unity in some form for a hundred years and are no closer to achieving it than they were when they started – maybe farther from it.”

“Maybe they can learn from us.”

“Maybe they don’t want to. Maybe we’ll learn things from them we aren’t prepared for.”

“You’re in a dark mood today.”

“I’m really not. I’m just contemplative.” He stopped to buy a fruit ice from a vendor, made an inviting gesture. She chose oje, gratified to discover it was the real thing and not flavoring, the floral taste just bitter enough to be short of cloying, the caffeine kick that followed pleasant but not overpowering.

“What kinds of things?” she asked.

He looked at her oddly, as though she’d challenged him to a dare. “All right. You say it was necessary to keep the peace. What was necessary?”

“You know. All the Sanctuary Reforms. The companies and the Guard.”

“The pax imperia.” She shook her head, shrugged. He lapsed into the Earth language from time to time, sometimes without realizing it, but this seemed intentional. “Hegemonia. These are words we don’t have in our language, and by our language, I mean Semhet, which you know is derived from old Orotrat.”

“What other – “

“I learned Genz when I was a child. Lost most of it, but it’s coming back to me. Do you know Sedencie?”

“I don’t.” She was oddly embarrassed by this. She had no reason to be. “Why should I? It’s only good for ancient literature.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. Smirked a little. “And how do you think that came to be the case?”

 

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