Sunday, January 11, 2009

Emic and Etic: Anthropology and Aliens in SF

One of the hardest things about writing science fiction, I think, is the creation of alien cultures. Don’t get me wrong: it’s unlikely that I can toss out some hard science or mathematical theory and have it successfully shape an entire world, like the best science fiction writers do on a regular basis. But beyond the science, it’s the alien peoples who seem to be the most difficult to concoct, particularly because they are the aspects of a story that can fail the most spectacularly.

I recently read Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, the prequel to his enormously successful A Fire Upon the Deep. Both were Hugo Award winning books, popular not just for their really stunning theoretical science but for the interesting alien cultures that inhabit them. I enjoyed them immensely, but like any theoretically sophisticated work should do, they invite you to critique them in order that we might move beyond them.

I do agree that Vinge’s alien races were quite compelling and that he really has a knack for some surprising and fascinating turns. There are Fire’s alien Tines, dog-like creatures that share a consciousness between 3-6 bodies. In Deepness, the aliens are arachnid-esque, hibernating below the earth every 60 years when their sun cyclically dies. The richness of their cultures and the charm of the alien characters is very attractive for readers who are looking for something truly different.

But are they that different? I was struck by how Vinge’s aliens were…well, so human, their histories and concerns following distinctly human lines. The cultural evolution of both the Tines and the Spiders mimic the rise of our own civilizations as the academics used to see it, moving from primitive to the most advanced. This reflects Vinge’s interest in technological singularity, the idea that as we become more and more intelligent, our machines will become more intelligent; our machines will then evolve faster than we, and that explosion of evolution will totally destroy all our paradigms and create something beyond any possibilities we could imagine. And so will begin the post-Human Era.

But for all his notions that AI’s crossing of the intelligence threshold will result in a future we can’t conceive, Vinge never applies the same theoretical gymnastics to culture and to the societies of his aliens. Their desires and fears, their relationships and motives, all fall within the human paradigm.

The Post-Human Era.

SF writers have been trying for years to create something utterly inhuman. The most popular alien life-form that is used in this context is the insect. Bugs are, after all, about as alien as you can get on the Planet Earth. There is something about them that not only frightens us entirely, but that is unknowable and strange. And thus Robert Heinlein, in his spectacular Starship Troopers, created mankind’s greatest enemy in the form of an insect. The Bugs have no personality, no history, no culture. They are the perfect enemy, completely de-humanized, bent on human destruction. They can be killed without guilt because, after all, there is nothing human about them.

Insect aliens have ever after been a favorite. Orson Scott Card’s Ender Wiggen battled Bugger’s who possessed the hive mind of bees, as did Wurts/Feist’s cho-ja in their fantasy Empire Trilogy. Perhaps, due to the difficulty of creating aliens as far beyond our understanding as aliens must be, insects are the best way to go.

On the first day of any anthropology-like class, the words emic and etic are defined on the board. They refer to the perspectives we can take as we try to understand cultures. Emic means that an explanation comes from someone within that society, since they have intimate knowledge of why certain things are done. An etic perspective is that of an outsider, the observer, the analytical researcher.

It seems that with respect to alien cultures, we have generally not moved beyond an emic approach; sitting within the shape of the human world, we can’t look outside, we’re insiders who can’t get to an etic perspective. Usually it's the outsider trying to look in, and unable to get the right ideas about things, but with respect to ET, we can't seem to get out. Aliens have myths, legends, fears, desires, and interpersonal conflicts just like any human. If not, then they are insect-like or they compete like mindless animals in the survival of the fittest.

Granted, I haven’t read every SF book ever written. But I’m hoping that somewhere out there are books that take the theoretical innovativeness applied to physics in SF, and instead apply that to alien culture (or lack-of-culture, or beyond-culture. You know what I mean). An insider emic approach is cool in many instances, but I can’t wait for some SF that tries to shake up the humanistic paradigm that dominates our favorite extraterrestrial.


icowdave said...

Interesting article! Aliens have got to be the hardest thing in SF to depict. How do you make them truly alien to our human experience without alienating the reader?

The frames of reference with our own experience/culture is what makes the aliens seem more real and approachable. It makes us sympathetic to them and their point of view. If you went all out to make them completely different I think it would be difficult to read. How much can we empathize with the aliens if their lives and motivations are completely foreign to our own experience?

In Vinge's Deepness, the ship's crew follow the lives of the spider creatures through an interpretation that makes them more human, more familiar. It allows them to see the common traits they share without the strangeness of the alien's appearance coloring their understanding. Like you pointed out, Heinlein uses our cultural aversion to insects to great effect in Starship Troopers. We can readily imagine giant bugs trying to kill us and we would have no qualms about killing them. The characters in Deepness try to counteract that fear with the show they put on for the crew.

Star Trek doesn't even bother to make their aliens different except for some kind of squiggly on their foreheads or maybe a different skin color. All the differences are very shallow. The Klingons are just Spartans after all. But that ease of association is part of what makes Trek so popular. You don't have to work at it. Something really alien would require work for the reader, probably at the expense of readability.

One book that I think has amazing aliens is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. (There is a synopsis and excerpt on my site.) The aliens are well crafted and certainly more "alien" than your average ET. It's a first contact story fraught with misunderstandings and mistakes because of the lack of cultural and linguistic understanding. Definitely an etic perspective as the characters try to come to grips with the aliens they're living amongst.

Jeremy LaBuff said...

Wait, you haven't read every SF book ever written? Slacker!

Jeff Mazurek said...

Amazing writing, Katie. How you treat your scholarly life and still come up with such fully realized gems such as this baffles me.

I should read this again before writing, perhaps replacing the world "alien" with "other," to see if the impression changes, but ...

If a writer decides to fashion an alien (race) the beginning questions are bound to ourselves (humans) or other parts of the world as we know it (animals, starfish, whatever). How do the aliens subsist and / or live among one another, do they have language, do they reproduce like sponges or ferns or what.

One might begin with the most basic (a-human?) questions possible, but one's dealing with an organism, so to operate in a novel's universe (or even in a piece of writing without narrative) , these questions beget decisions about behavior.

What SF writing that follows these initial dilemmas is either 1) a field study on a particular sort of alien (made-up biology), or 2) an alien participating in or affecting a narrative. It's what we got to work with, I guess.

But I'm straying from the thrust of your article.

Re: physics
I can't help but think that two twist this is to stop writing about aliens and start writing about the devil, or the otherworldly / supernatural.

And I can't help but nominate the house in "House of Leaves" as the most un-human, physics-defying creature or thing (as opposed to haunted house) I've encountered in a novel.

Katie said...


Thanks for your great comments! I did think that was an interesting twist in Deepness, that the humans are able to feel interest and affection for the aliens precisely because they do not see their physical appearance at first. Like you said, the Star Trekian qualities of the aliens make them easier to empathize with. You're right, it is a wonderful foil and contrast to Heinlein's Bugs.

But I wonder at our presumption that we will ever be able to interact with aliens at all - we are social creatures biologically engineered to communicate and to develop social relationships with other beings. But are aliens? We assume that aliens must be the same and that they can develop a culture of some sort. But what if alien existence is so far beyond what we understand (like Vinge's post-Human world) that the whole idea of society is moot? Of course, like you noted, that might not end up to be very good story-telling.

I'll definitely check out the Russell. Fortunately it's available for the Kindle! I'll get it for my next book, and will let you know what I think...

Katie said...


I like what you said about the impact of narrative, and the way it entirely shapes the questions that we ask in novels. Narrative - ugh. Something I'll have to deal with in my dissertation, unless I can come up with a way of getting around it...

House of Leaves? I'll make that number 3 on my list.

Benjamin said...

Hi Katie. Very interesting article. You certainly have an excellent point that SF writers tend to create physically unique aliens without developing the psychological and cultural side of them. I wonder if writers, and in human beings in general, are capable of creating a truly alien perspective.

I'm sure you've probably read or at least heard of CJ Cherryh. I've always thought that her aliens were well developed psychologically even if not being very unique.

One SF book with the most interesting aliens I can think of is Blindsight by Peter Watts. The aliens he created are one of the strangest I've seen. The book takes an interesting look at the definition of intelligence and sentience.

icowdave said...

I hope you'll post some thoughts on The Sparrow when you read it. It's a fantastic book that left me thinking about it for many days after. I've not run into too many people that have read it so I'm especially keen to hear what you think.

Benjamin, I've heard some good things about Blingsight. If you like the strange, Alastair Reynolds does some pretty weird aliens in his Revelation Space series and in Pushing Ice. Some of which are rather revolting.

JPL said...

I think fundamentally humans just aren't very creative (a sentiment perhaps influenced by my own deficiencies in that area). After all, when SF authors explore the impact of some physical or mathematical concept in a work, they're not creating a totally novel physics, but just applying a perturbation to the one we already have. I think this is partly by design (I agree with icowdave that people want to read about things that are familiar to them on some level), but I think it also reflects just how limited our capacity is to conceive of something truly new.

I think the same thing applies to academic research as well. When people start off in a truly new direction they tend to take pretty small steps, because it takes an enormous amount of effort to understand all the implications of something really novel. This is obscured by our reductive view of progress which emphasizes "revolutionary" discoveries, most of which are really just capstones on frameworks developed over years by dozens of contributors. If one were to sit down and start thinking about anthropology from scratch, how long would it take to come up with the concepts of emic and etic? How many other classifications would be proposed and rejected before you found the ones that were most essential and informative?

Your comment about insects as the ultimate dehumanized alien reminded me of an essay I quite like about Tolkien's orcs. The author argues that they fulfill basically the same role in LotR.