Me Human, You Alien: How to Talk to an Extraterrestrial by Jonathan Vos Post

(c) 1996 by Emerald City Publishing an excerpt from a book entitled THE HANDBOOK OF UFO CONTACT, to appear Spring 1997, New York: William Morrow & Co.
Copyright 1996, by Emerald City Publishing. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission. May be posted electronically provided that it is transmitted unaltered, in its entirety, and without charge.
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Aliens, Language, and Twilight Zone

In four seasons on television, The Twilight Zone was the first introduction to science fiction for many Americans. For that reason, it is worth examining in this handbook. At least eight times the story dealt with extraterrestrials, but when we examine these episodes, they tell us more about what ET language will NOT be like than what it might be like. In Third From The Sun {60}, the aliens look just like human beings, but smaller. This is astronomically unlikely, and was due to the limited special effects budget, rather than to any scientific plausibility. Similarly, in The Invaders {62}, the aliens look just like human beings, only larger. The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street {61} gives us hostile aliens who control the electricity of a small town, inciting panic and hostility between the townspeople, who destroy their community, as a prelude to the same being done to wreck human civilization as a whole. The ETs here are merely a plot device to warn us of our own failure to communicate with each other. The episode Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up {63} has two different species of aliens both passing as human in a small cafe filled with a bus-load of people trying to determine which one of them is really the invader from outer space. In an amusing denoument, the cafe owner lifts the brim of his hat to reveal a third eye, as he is a Martian spearheading an attack on Earth, and a customer reveals his third arm, saying that he's a Venusian whose invasion force has intercepted the Martian invasion force. This is entertaining, but doubly unlikely, first, in that aliens have little incentive to invade Earth (it's too expensive), and second, in having two competing alien species happening to meet this way. By the way, the first use in fiction of a Martian with a third eye in his forehead, passing for human by covering that eye with a hat, is in "Enemies in Space" {92} by Karl Grunert -- in 1907! The classic story To Serve Man {64}, by Rod Serling (from a story by Damon Knight), hinges on a ludicrously unrealistic linguistic conceit. An book by the superior alien "Kanamit" species on Earth is translated just as our hero is boarding the Kanamit flying saucer. He already knows that the title has been translated as "To Serve Man," which he takes to mean that the Kanamit intend to help human beings in every way possible. Too late for him to escape, he is warned that the translators have made further headway -- "it's a cookbook!" This is funny and horrible at the same time. The animated TV show The Simpsons has parodied this very story. What is absurd from a linguistic viewpoint is that exactly the same pun should exist in two unrelated languages. In Hocus-Pocus and Frisby {65}, the protagonist, abducted onto an alien flying saucer, discovers by accident that the sound of his harmonica knocks out the aliens, allowing his escape. True, ETs may have different reactions to specific sounds than we do, but the idea that a harmonica is humanity's secret weapon is such a tall tale that the other people in this very story refuse to believe Frisby when he tells them. Probe 7 -- Over And Out {66} is based on the single most common clichˇ in science fiction. Two ETs, each escaping planetary disasters, meet on a third planet, and turn out to be Adam and Eve on Earth. Bad enough that each ET looks human, the biology is totally unlikely that the two could interbreed. That would mean that they are, literally, the same species. In reality, two beings are of the same species if and only if they have an ancestor in common. The same species simply cannot evolve independently in two different places at the same time. Finally, Black Leather Jacket {67} again gives us aliens who mess up human electrical apparatus. Again, they can pass as human, and favor motorcycles and black leather jackets. They also have telekinesis (the ability to move objects by mind power) and telepathic mind control over humans. One of them falls in love with an Earth-girl. The story is ridiculous on several counts, but it does bring up the interesting problems of emotional communication between human and extraterrestrial. In summary, although The Twilight Zone was an entertaining introduction to many Americans of the dramatic possibilities of extraterrestrial contact, we can use it only as a guide by exclusion to what our contact will be like: (1) The aliens will NOT look so human as to be able to pass for humans in a crowd, nor be just like humans except bigger or smaller than us; (2) The aliens may have technology that can disrupt our electrical systems, but it won't be part of their physiological makeup; (3) The aliens will not desire to invade our world, as the economics of interstellar travel make full-scale invasion impossible. Whether they like us or not, they are more likely to want to trade information, cultural artefacts, or biological samples. Good communications will make mutually profitable trade more likely. (4) The alien language may have ambiguities and puns, but they will not be exactly the same as ours. (5) The aliens might have different reactions to stimuli than we do, almost certainly, but are not likely to be paralyzed by our musical instruments. (6) Alien-human love is a possibility, and maybe even alien-human sex, but alien-human interbreeding is biologically impossible.
Footnotes: {60} Third From The Sun, Rod Serling, Twilight Zone, 8 January 1960 {61} The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street, Rod Serling, Twilight Zone, 4 March 1960 {62} The Invaders, Richard Matheson, Twilight Zone, 27 January 1961 {63} Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up, Rod Serling, Twilight Zone, 26 May 1961 {64} To Serve Man, Rod Serling (from a story by Damon Knight), Twilight Zone, 2 March 1962 {65} Hocus-Pocus and Frisby, Rod Serling, Twilight Zone, 13 April 1962 {66} Probe 7 -- Over And Out, Rod Serling (directed by Ted Post), Twilight Zone, 29 November 1963 {67} Black Leather Jacket, Earl Hamming Jr., Twilight Zone, 31 January 1964

Aliens, Language, and The Outer Limits

Another classic television show in which some episodes, but not all, involve aliens, is The Outer Limits. This show, like The Twilight Zone, deserves special attention because of its influence on popular culture, and its variety. By way of contrast, some other shows, such as V and Alien Nation deal with the same set of aliens in each episode, and thus are not as densely packed with new ideas about communication with extraterrestrials. For more on the "newcomers" in Alien Nation, the best World Wide Web reference is Alien Nation Alf and Third Rock From The Sun have their moments, but are not meant to be taken seriously. Besides the classic episodes of The Outer Limits, there is the revival of the series. More about this can be found by World Wide Web at Outer Limits One of the frst of the new episodes to deal with extraterrestrials is Quality of Mercy. Here, Defense Pilot Major John Stokes is taken prisoner in an "ongoing intergalactic war." His jailer is a "huge, hideous, expressionless" alien. The ETs are surgically -- and painfully -- turning fellow captive Bree Tristan into an image of themselves. I suspect that this is based on the novel Cage a Man {80} by F.M. Busby, but have not been able to confirm this. The reverse idea, of humans surgically altering ETs to make them look more human, can be found in Celestis {81} by Paul Park. The CETI concept at the heart of each work is that we (and presumably ETs as well) are very emotionally dependent on facial expressions as an aid to interpreting spoken language. Birthright, which first aired the week of January 15, 1996, shows us how "an environmentally friendly U.S. Senator's life changes drastically after a freak accident, when he realizes he's actually an alien in disguise, with mission to surreptitiously reconfigure the earth's atmosphere." This includes the idea that, to best achieve communication between human and extraterrestrial, one or the other should be hypnotized so as to believe that he is one of the other species is dramatically compelling, but flies in the face of the objectivity that this handbook recommends. The idea that ETs would want to make earth's atmospheric chemistry more like their own is an obvious projection of our desire to "terraform" alien worlds to be more Earthlike. It has been used in science fiction in the story "Storm Warning" by Donald Wollheim {90} in 1942, and in the novel The Nitrogen Fix {91} by Hal Clement. The Conversion, which first aired the week of November 13, 1995, exhibits "a greedy man in prison [who] encounters aliens who teach him compassion." Again, this is a dramatic projection of the alien as a superior "other" who can transform people to be better. This has litle to tell us about real ETs; it is, rather, wish fulfillment, projecting the ET into our image of Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, or the like. The Voyage Home, which first aired the week of October 2, 1995, relates how "When an astronaut returning home from Mars discovers and alien aboard ship, he must make the ultimate sacrifice in order to prevent the alien from reaching Earth." This is an old, old idea. It was seen on film in Alien, and a lawsuit was then settled out of court between 20th Century Fox and A.E. Van Vogt, whose story "Discord in Scarlet" seems to have the same main plot line. That story was part of the novel Voyage of the Space Beagle {82}. The Second Soul, which first aired the week of September 25, 1995, tells about "Man't first encounter with beings from another planet -- the N'Tal -- appear to be a mutually rewarding arrangement. But a leery doctor/scientist must decide whether the N'Tal are friends or foe." This is, explicitly, a First Contact story, and thus particularly interesting to raders of the Handbook. The Sandkings, which first aired the week of September 11, 1995, is about "Scientist Simon Kress [who] finds himself the master of a colony of creatures from Mars that look like insects, but have the intelligence of much higher beings." Based on the award-winning story by George R.R. Martin, this is one of the best examples of science fiction on television in recent years. We may not, indeed, be able to correctly assess the intelligence of ETs, especially if they are very different from ourselves in appearance. Without linguistic contact, we run the risk of deadly misunderstandings.

A Collection of Memorable Aliens

Editor Ian Summers and science fiction illustrator Wayne Douglas Barlowe created a wonderful compendium of artstically and textually rendered extraterrestrials, chosen (and faithfully portrayed) from classic novels of the field. Their book, Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials83 is worth referring to, if only to illustrate the variety of ETs imagined by first-rate writers. The other reason to peruse this volume is to prepare yourself not to be horrified by the un-human look of possible ETs, but instead to be able to see them analytically and as representing an alternative kind of beauty. The ETs, alphabetically by name, and the authors and books of origin are:
  1. The Abyormenite, from Hal Clement's Cycle of Fire, New York: Ballentine, 1957
  2. The Athsheans, from Ursula K. LeGuin's The Word for World is Forest, New York: Berkeley, 1975
  3. The Black Cloud, from Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud {28}
  4. The Chulpex, from Avram Davidson's Masters of the Maze
  5. The Cinruss, from James White's Sector General novels
  6. The Cryer, from Joseph Green's Conscience Interplanetary
  7. The Cygman, from Donald Moffitt's The Jupiter Theft {85}
  8. The Cygnostik, from Michael Bishop's A Little Knowledge, New York: Berkeley, 1977
  9. The Czill, from Jack L. Chalker's Midnight at the Well of Souls
  10. Demons, from Keith Laumer's A Plague of Demons, New York: Berkeley, 1977
  11. The Demu, from F.M. Busby's Cage a Man, New York: New American Library, 1973
  12. The Dextrans, from David J. Lake's The Right Hand of Dextra
  13. The Dilbians, from Gordon R. Dickson's Spacial Delivery and Spacepaw
  14. The Dirdir, from Jack Vance's The Dirdir
  15. The Garnishee, from Harry Harrison's Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers
  16. The Gowachin, from Frank Herbert's The Dosadi Experiment
  17. The Guild Steersman, from Frank Herbert's Dune Messiah
  18. The Ishtarians, from Poul Anderson's Fire Time, New York: Doubleday, 1974
  19. The Ixchel, from Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time
  20. The Ixtl, from A.E. Van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle
  21. The Lithians, from James Blish's A Case of Conscience
  22. The Masters, from John Christopher's Tripod trilogy
  23. The Medusans, from Jack Williamson's The Legion of Space
  24. The Merseians, from Poul Anderson's Ensign Flandry
  25. The Mesklinites, from Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity
  26. Mother, from Philip Josˇ Farmer's Strange Relations
  27. The Old Galactics, from James H. Schmitz's Legacy
  28. The Old Ones, from H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness
  29. The Overlords, from Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End {24}
  30. The Pnume, from Jack Vance's The Pnume
  31. The Polarians, from Piers Anthony's Cluster
  32. The Puppeteers, from Larry Niven's Neutron Star and Ringworld
  33. The Radiates, from Naomi Mitchison's Memoirs of a Spacewoman
  34. The Regul, from C.J. Cherryh's The Faded Sun: Kesrith
  35. The Riim, from A.E. Van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle
  36. The Ruml, from Gordon R. Dickson's The Alien Way {26}
  37. The Salamen, from Brian R. Stableford's Wildeblood's Empire
  38. The Sirians, from Frederik Pohl's The Age of the Pussyfoot
  39. The Slash, from Piers Anthony's Kirlian Quest
  40. The Soft Ones, from Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves
  41. Solaris, from Stanislaw Lem's Solaris {46}
  42. The Sulidor, from Robert L. Silverberg's Downward to the Earth
  43. The Thing, from Don A. Stuart (John W. Campbell)'s Who Goes There? {31}
  44. The Thrint, from Larry Niven's World of Ptavvs
  45. The Tran, from Alan Dean Foster's Icerigger
  46. The Tripeds, from Damon Knight's Rule Golden
  47. The Tyreeans, from James Tiptree's Up the Walls of the World
  48. The Uchjinians, from Jack L. Chalker's Exiles at the Well of Souls
  49. The Vegans, from Robert A. Heinlein's Have Spacesuit Will Travel
  50. The Velantians, from E.E. Smith's Children of the Lens