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. Return to Table of Contents

Leiber's "Wanderer"

The Wanderer29 by Fritz Leiber is also a detailed and thoughtful examination of First Contact, in which a planet-sized UFO (The Wanderer) pulverizes our Moon for fuel and raises deadly tides on Earth. "Then a voice, strangely sweet and cajoling, called to him [astronaut Don Merriam] in only slightly slurred English: 'Come! Unsuit yourself and come down!'" [p.138]. The felinoid ET Tigerishka is offended that humans keep cats as pets, and on meeting her, Merriam ponders "It was unreasonable to think of an alien being being able to speak English without any preliminary parleying. Or was it?" [p.143]. It turns out that these ETs are telepathic, and disdain humans: "Monkeys! Cowardly, chattering, swarming -- no individuality, no flair!... We think he smells. Makes smells with his mind, too" [p.170]. They have a fabulous technology, though: "I come superior galactic culture. Read minds, throw thoughts, sail hyperspace, live forever if want, blow up suns, all that sort stuff. Look like animal -- resume ancestral shapes. Make brain small but really large (psychophysiosubmicrominiaturization)! We stay superior. You not believe?" [pp.192-3]. The story then gives an explanation for why we haven't seen ETs before, despite their being prevalent: "Because mankind is young, you think the universe is, too. But it is old, old, old.... You think that space is empty, but it's full. Your own solar system is one of the few primeval spots left, like a small, weed-grown lot overlooked by builders in the heart of a vast but ancient city that has overgrown all the countryside.... There is the drama of meeting other life forms -- shocks, moments of poignent wonder.... The universe is full.... Intelligent life is everywhere, its planets darkening the stars" [pp.255-256].

Violent Sci-Fi Movies

Must we assume that ETs will be similar to us in warlike aggression, as in Murray Leinster's story, or so many violent Sci-Fi movies such as War of the Worlds30, The Thing31, Invaders from Mars32, Invasion of the Body Snatchers33, This Island Earth34, or Forbidden Planet35? Not necessarily. Out of the Silent Planet36 by C.S. Lewis has protagonist Dr. Ransom enter into philosphical commmunications with peaceful and spiritual Martians.

Yefremov's "Heart of the Serpent"

Similarly, in "The Heart of the Serpent37," Soviet Paleontologist Ivan Antonovich Yefremov endorses the optimistic notion that any creatures technologically advanced enough to be able to travel to Earth must have evolved socially beyond the need for paranoia and militarism. As editor Groff Conklin put it, in his introduction to a reprint of Edgar Pangborn's story "Angel's Egg100": On the other hand, some authors take it for granted that the creatures from space will be friendly even though they are a few thousand years ahead of us, eager to help us even though most of us would blindly and savagely strike them down if we could, and willing to work painstakingly with the few humans who have the imagination and ability to learn, even though, in doing so, the aliens might become permanent exiles from their home planet.

MacLean's "Pictures Don't Lie"

"Pictures Don't Lie38" by Katherine MacLean suggests that it might be a mistake to assume that aliens are very much like humans, even if they look very human on television. The story opens with our expectant view of: ... the airfield where They would arrive. On the concrete runway the puddles were pockmarked with rain, and the grass growing untouched between the runways of the unused field glistened wetly, bending before gusts of wind. Back at a respectful distance from the place where the huge spaceship would land were the gray shapes of trucks, where TV camera crews huddled inside their mobile units, waiting. Farther back in the deserted, sandy landscape, behind distant sandy hills, artillery was ringed in a great circle, and in the distance across the horizon bombers stood ready at airfields, guarding the world against possible treachery from the first alien ship ever to land from space. Reporters and scientists speculate on how human the ETs will be, and how earth-like their home planet. Nathan, the Military Intelligence radio decoder who first descrambled the ET broadcast recalls: You see, there's an old intelligence trick, speeding up a message on a record until it sounds just like that, a short squawk of static, and then rebroadcasting it.... I'd recognized a scanning pattern, and I wanted pictures. Pictures are understandable in any language.... I recorded a couple of package screetches from Sagittarius and began working on them.... It took a couple of months to find the synchronizing signals and set the scanners close enough to the right time to even get a pattern.... It took eight months to pick out the color bands and assign them the right colors, to get anything intelligible on the screen.... Nathan sent the Disney-Stravinsky The Rite of Spring, from Fantasia, as a TV broadcast into space, towards Sagittarius, expecting it to take years for a response. Two weeks later, when we caught and slowed down a new batch of recordings, we found an answer. It was obviously meant for us. It was a flash of the Disney being played to a large audience, and then the audience sitting and waiting before a blank screen. The signal was very clear and loud. We'd intercepted a spaceship. They were asking for an encore, you see. They liked the film and wanted more. The ETs later sent a TV melodrama of their own, and are given coordinates to land on Earth. But they are late in landing. The tension mounts. They still don't see the alien ship, but get a frantic message: Radar shows no buildings or civilization near. The atmosphere around us registers as thick as glue. Tremendous gas pressure, low gravity, no light at all. You didn't describe it like this. Where are you, Joe? This isn't some kind of trick, is it? .... Where is the landing port? Where are you?.... A half circle of cliffs around the horizon. A wide muddy lake swarming with swimming things. Huge, strange white foliage all around the ship and incredibly huge,pulpy monsters attacking and eating each other on all sides.... Nathan suddenly figures things out. My guess is that they evolved on a high-gravity planet with a thin atmosphere, near a blue-white star. Sure, they see in the ultraviolet range. Our sun is abnormally small and dim and yellow. Our atmosphere is so thick it screens out ultraviolet.... This business about squawk coding ... I was wrong. They don't speed up their broadcasts... The ETs move at a far, far greater speed than humans do. They are also far, far smaller. The ET spaceship has sunk in one of the little puddles on the landing field. In order to rescue them, if possible: We'll need a magnifying glass for that.

Mann's "Eye of the Queen"

The Eye of the Queen39 by Phillip Mann, who lives in Wellington, New Zealand, is a psychologically sophisticated novel set a century from now, when the human race has contacted several extraterrestrial species. It becomes clear that an unseen force is preventing human spaceships from exploring certain regions of space, and gradually this superior force reveals itself: the 11-foot tall homanoids called the Pe-Ellians. Travelling to the Pe-Ellian world is Earth's greatest expert in alien linguistics, Marius Thorndyke, who tries to understand the aliens' language, culture, and philosophy, with unexpected consequences. Thorndyke is a founder of the so-called Contact Linguistics Institute (CLI). The CLI's great encyclopedia is called the "Grammaria Galactica." Perhaps the book you are holding in your hands right now will lead someday to a real Contact Linguistics Institute! In this novel, the key hardware for the CLI is the "CLI encoder" or "lightweight bio-crystalline encoder" which is a combination computer (for indexing and cross-referencing) and audio/video recording device. You, too, should be acquiring the best computers and recorders that you can. In The Eye of the Queen, there is "a history of antagonism between the CLI and the military wing of the Space Council." You shall be ensuring that the military, academic, and space program sectors will work together constructively. Some sayings from the Contact Linguistics Institute, and their "Contact Linguists' Handbook" which embodies the "Contact Linguists' Code" [p.32] and includes the following: * "The Earth is no yardstick whereby we can measure the known galaxy." [p.7] * "Do not rush to judgment. An alien race is not there to justify your prejudices, and you must always, at least in the early stages of a mission, avoid the temptation to like or dislike." [p.32] * "A contact linguist is a neutral observer, who always tries to understand the larger picture." [p.32] * "A few known belongings help to make even the most alien environment a bit more like home." [p.79] * "The most comprehensive [First Contact] plan ... Base-plan Alpha is a catch-all program ... [which] depends on a carefully graded sequence of questions which relate together, for example, climate and archaeology. Base-Plan is a program worked out for contact linguists who are in command of the flow of information." [p.86] * "True contact linguist manner -- cool, sequential, and purely factual." [p.111] * "The relevant section of the Contact Linguists' Handbook is very clear on the perils of too close an identification with an alien culture. The contact linguist is encouraged to participate imaginatively with a culture, but at all times to retain a sense of selfhood. Failure to do so invariably results in a loss of objectivity and can constitute the first steps towards madness. There are cases on file in which trusted and highly respected operatives have suddenly gone rogue and attempted to manipulate the local population" [p.123] * "In working with an alien race your method of procedure and inquiry must largely be guided by that race's sense of structure." [p.155] * The contact linguists' code is not just a book of rules and regulations, it is a moral statement, which binds one to certain kinds of actions and ways of thinking. Of course, different situations demand different reactions and one cannot plan for every eventuality." [p.211] * "The contact linguist's first responsibility is to his colleague. Don't become a mother, but don't lose your heart. The effectiveness of your work lies partly in the knowledge that you are never alone... Find common ground." [ p.212] * "A contact linguist scholarly lump rises in his throat as he thinks of the beautiful books he could have written. How he would have loved peeling back the layers of culture, revealing the meanings, coining new words that had no part in Earth's history, preparing the monographs, films, adding a new volume to the Grammaria..." [p.251] * "Over-ride Mortality ... is a technique taught to all contact linguists. It can be used only if the individual feels he is being taken over by an alien species.... Many alien life forms are parasitic.... It is an individualized program with guarantees [the human's] death instantaneously." [p.254] I suggest that you ignore the threat in this last quote: parasites have to co-evolve with their hosts. Since the extraterrestrial did not have an ancestor in common with you, it cannot be, biologically, a parasite. And if the extraterrestrial can "take over" you, it can do the same to anyone else, in which case you couldn't do anything about it anyway. Think positive! Don't panic!

Masson's "Not So Certain"

In "Not So Certain40" British librarian David I. Masson (born in Edinburgh in 1915) embroiders a story of first contact told with knowledgable concern for and reasonable suggestions for dealing with the linguistic problems. In particular, xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx

Niven's "Mote in God's Eye"

The Mote in God's Eye41, by Larry Niven and a writing partner, suggests that when a human and ET spaceship first communicate, the dialogue will go something like this: "One, two, three, four blinked the light, and cargill used the forward batteries to send five, six, seven. Twenty minutes later the light sent three one eight four eleven, repeated, and the ship's [computer] brain ground out Pi, base twelve. Cargill used the computer to find e to the same base and replied with that. But the true message was, we want to talk to you. And [spaceship] MacArthur's answer was, Fine. Elaborations would have to wait" [p.117].

Watson's "Embedding"

The Embedding42, the remarkable first novel by Ian Watson, is one of the most sophisticated novels to focus on issues of human and alien linguistics. Watson argues that there may be patterns common to every human language except one (of the roughly 5,445) and that that one might be the very one needed to communicate with ETs. Ironically, in his novel, the essential language is spoken by a tiny Amazon rainforest tribe (the Xemahoa) about to be destroyed by a huge dam project. Indeed, at least 1,000 of the human languages are "endangered species," and when they die within another century, 1,000 views of the universe die with them. In The Embedding, three different linguistic plots are intertwined. (1) Children in an experiment live in an artificial environment are speak a wholly artificial language. (2) The Xemahoa, under the influence of a certain drug, "maka-i," can speak and understand a language (Xemahoa B) normally incomprehensible to them. (3) The Sp'thra, extraterrestrials, offer space travel secrets in return for the "widest possible knowledge of language" to ensure their imperiled communications system. Ian Watson graduated from Oxford with a First in English, did research in comparative literature, and has taught in African and Japanese universities. His insights about alien linguistics in this novel include: The involvement of Rand, the Hudson Institute, NASA, and the National Security Agency [pp.21-22] "Ever since [MIT Professor Noam] Chomsky's pioneer work, we all assume that the plan for language is programmed into the mind at birth. The basic plan of language reflects our biological awareness of the world that has evolved us.... so we're teaching three artificial languages as probes at the frontiers of a mind." [p.45] "Speech processing depends on the volume of information the brain can store short-term .... but a permanent form isn't practical for every single word -- we only need remember the basic meaning. So you've got one level of information -- that's the actual words we use, on the surface of the mind. The other permanent level, deep down, contains highly abstract concepts -- idea associations -- linked together network-style. In between these levels comes the mind's plan for making sentences out of ideas. The plan contains the rules of what we call Universal language -- we say it's universal, as this plan is part of the basic structure of mind and the same rules can translate ideas into any human language whatever .... All [human] languages being cousins beneath the skin..." [p.49] "We shall have found out something about the mind's idea of all possible langauges..... All languages spoken by beings evolved on the same basis as ourselves. I can't vouch for languages that silicon salamanders elsewhere in the universe have dreamed up..." [p.53] "Honeybees evolved their communication system away from the direction of sound to that of dance. Only primitive bee still use noises. Evolved bees developed the aerial dance to express themselves more logically." [p.56] When the alien first lands on Earth, in Nevada, it says: "Nice planet you have here. How many languages are spoken?" [p.129] because it has learned English in three days, from audiotapes. "You can imprint a language directly into the brain then?" "Good guess -- provided it conforms to ... the rules of Universal Grammar!" [p.130] "We call ourselves collectively the Sp'thra. You do not hear the ultra and infrasonic components of the word so I drop them. It means the Signal Traders. Which is what we are -- a people of linguists, sound mimics and communicators.... Besides being expert communicators in many modes, we use language machines..." [p.132] "There are so many ways of seeing This-Reality, from so many viewpoints. It is these viewpoints that we trade for. You might say that we trade in realities..." [p.137] "The Sp'thra make the following offer for what we want to buy.... We will tell you the location of the closest unused world known to us, habitable by you. The location of the nearest intelligent species known to us ready to engage in interstellar communications, together with an effective means of communication using modulated tachyon beams. Finally, we offer you an improvement on your current technology for spaceflight within your solar system... [in return for] working brains [sliced from their bodies] competent in six linguistically diverse languages...." [p.143] The aliens are in an obsessive search for the Change Speakers: "They are variable entities. They manipulate what we know as reality by means of their shifting- value signals. Using signals that lack constants -- which have variable referents.... They are free. They shift across realities. Yet when we have successfully superimposed the reality-programmes of all languages ... we too shall be free." The aliens, on hearing about the Amazonian native Xemahoa now offer the much more valuable "interstellar travel technique." The novel does not have a conventional happy ending, and yet it does provide an impressive range of notions about the limits of language, and the possible value of human languages to extraterrestrials.