A book with only non-human characters. Would you read it?

Discussion in 'Science Fiction' started by Diziet Sma, May 11, 2017.

  1. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Today in class, we were roleplaying situations in which empathy and sympathy were to be prompted.
    How to best communicate with an alien by improving social communication was a fun scenario till all the students of the group decided to become aliens except for one.
    I won’t go into the details, but later on, I was brooding over this:
    • Have you read any books in which all the characters were non-humans?
    • Would you enjoy it while, most likely, lacking an emotional connection to the characters?
    • Would any of you writers consider this idea?
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  2. kenubrion

    kenubrion Well-Known Member

    I think the Redwall series is all animals. I have not read it but I was just looking at a Buzzfeed article titled The 51 Best Fantasy Series Ever. It is number 34 and apparently a children's series. The wiki article seems to suggest that it's all animals.

    I liked Watership Down a lot and it's primarily animals but there might be humans. I can't remember.

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  3. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I don't know of any novels with only non-human characters. I know of a series called the Age of Fire by E. E. Knight where the perspective is that of dragons. I believe there are humans in the books, but I don't think they are major characters.

    Sure, I'd read a story completely from a non-human perspective, but the problem is that just about all non-human perspectives will be anthropomorphised. I'm sure there are SF writers who write from truly, disconcertingly alien and strange perspectives, but then you need something normal with which to contrast it and to feel grounded. I think. A lot of characters I like have turned out to be non-human ones in SF, but they all have something of the human in them.

    When you get around to reading Brin's Startide Rising, you'll come across five or six interludes that'll give you a good dose of whatthefuck. It starts to make sense, but the first couple of interludes I read again and again...just so weird.
  4. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    This was precisely my point. I was appealing to the sense of pure alienness. It could well be animals, other species or even far developed transhumans. My doubt was whether a story could work when there is a very little emotional connection due to the lack of a human framework. Therefore, any anthropomorphised story wouldn’t apply here.
    Then again, if a true alien story is told well, readers could easily sympathise with the characters as long as they wouldn’t collide directly with their ethics and/or with the human capacity coping with an utter foreign physiognomy.
    It is part of people’s nature. I suspect most SF readers are drawn towards extravagant, exotic, bizarre and enigmatic tales. We are far too curious to dismiss these challenges just because they are too remote.

    A friend told me Blindsight by P Watts could possibly fit in here as all the characters, according to him, wouldn’t qualify as normal humans. I haven’t read it myself but Watts is an author I have bookmarked.

    Maybe I’m just venting off regarding how I feel about anthropomorphised aliens. It feels a bit lazy.
    This could well be a new thread: What cliché do you hate reading about in SF…?
  5. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    See, I don't need an emotional connection to appreciate a truly alien point of view. In fact, truly alien points of view would be difficult to connect to psychologically from the outset. I do want to be able to understand the thinking or perspective of the non-human character at some point, at least to some minimal extent, but that doesn't necessarily imply an emotional connection. In the Asher books I've been reading, the Prador are a good example of non-humans whose motivations and way of being can be understood, but I have no wish to empathise with them at all. They are absolutely amoral from the human perspective...mechanically so, to the extent that from our point of view we'd term them psychopathic monsters. But they aren't. I mean, they are...but they aren't. I like them because they make for great storytelling, and I guess some part of my brain appreciates their horrendous, callous regard of others. I keep contrasting them with Banks' Affront. The Affront cut closer to home. They're also totally alien in physiology, and they're equally monstrous...but there's a strong element of sadism and cruelty in their mindset that overlaps with human tendencies to take pleasure from the suffering of others. It's bearable, even enjoyable, because Banks presents their sadism through a prism of outrageous humour.

    A writer who really takes an extreme look at alien perspectives in some of his fiction is Stanislaw Lem. Lem's a pessimist when it comes to alien contact. While most SF writers will anthropomorphise their aliens, Lem's point is that true aliens are so far outside the scope of human understanding that their very nature cannot be comprehended, let alone their resulting or ancillary motivations. So, in his four or five novels of first contact - of which Solaris is the most well known, but Fiasco is the absolute best - he tries to approach the topic from a few different angles, but the result eventually leads to catastrophe because no common ground for comprehension can be found or, despite very intelligent characters who consider a wide range of possibilities, even the most fundamental assumptions are completely off the mark.

    Blindsight's a great novel. I credit this novel and Stephenson's Anathem with revitalising my interest in SF in a massive way over the last 5 years or so. To be honest, when I first finished reading Blindsight, it didn't have the effect I was expecting...which was somehow to be metaphorically blown away. But there was this almost insidious nature to the book that got deeper into my brain as the weeks passed and I kept thinking about it for a long time. I think Watts does something with this novel that doesn't happen too often. He takes humans and by dint of their augmentation - they are transhuman, or even post-human because the very nature of some of the characters are changed at a fundamental level from baseline psychology - makes them quite alien. And he tackles the very same issues that Lem dealt with earlier - the nature of cognition and psychology amongst a whole host of other concepts including game theory and evolution. This is also a first contact novel, and it's almost as pessimistic as some of those novels by Lem. The point being: is it possible to understand an intelligence whose evolutionary origins are completely alien to that of ours? And to what extent?
    Diziet Sma likes this.
  6. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Great points, Boreas but you know I like noodling…

    I think by you enjoying the Pradors, you have made at some level an emotional connection. I’m relieved to read you don’t empathise with them;), although you have to some extent sympathised because you like having them in the story: They are an enjoyable element of the narrative.

    In principle, in order to sympathise with the devil, we need to find the actions morally justifiable, and naturally, the Pradors’ are not.
    However, we readers are rather good at turning on/off our prohibitions against moral behaviour as long as we are dealing with fictional characters. This is because subconsciously we feel we can get more fun out of a story by liking and supporting the bad ones.

    I absolutely love coming across truly wicked villains in my stories. I can sympathise with them. I might even want them to triumph and prevail above far more noble characters.
    Another factor is, of course, escapism. There is something cathartic even therapeutic about observing a true villain acting out and getting away with it: This is as long as it is a fictional character or, on the other hand, one is indeed a true psychopath with a Prador’s killing instincts.

    I haven’t read either of them, but I suspect I might enjoy this premise. I am also looking forward to reading Watts. Sometime. If you saw my immediate TBR list, you would think of me mad: it can cause vertigo.

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  7. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Another really great book with non-human characters that I forgot about is Empire of the Ants by French author Bernard Werber. Half the novel is from the human perspective of some individuals living in an inherited house in or near Paris with something peculiar about it. The other half is from the perspective of a worker ant from a relatively nearby ant colony as it investigates its own mystery. I read this ages ago and absolutely loved it and couldn't find any other translated works by this same author at the time. The description of ant colonies and their inner structure and workings, plus the various ways in which ants communicate and cope with obstacles had me totally enraptured. Must find that copy and re-read!
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  8. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Thank you! Weber's work is fully translated into Spanish.:)
  9. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    I just checked Amazon, and still no more of his books available in English! It's a sad state.
  10. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Maybe it's time to learn Spanish...? ;)
  11. TomTB

    TomTB Administrator Staff Member

    Children of Time is fairly similar, but with spiders, in a future post-Earth setting. There are ants too!

    You'd clearly like it :)
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  12. Boreas

    Boreas n log(log n) Staff Member

    Don't you mean French?
    Bumping it up on my list!
  13. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Oops! I meant French. On second thought, 420 million Spanish speakers worldwide compared to the 130 of French… Well, it's a no-brainer. Is it not?
  14. R-Hat

    R-Hat Well-Known Member

    I would definitely read such a book. It's very challenging to write. I think a careful sprinkling of humans here and there can make it both easier to write and even more enjoyable. Thanks for all the mentions of books!
  15. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    Brian Herbert's Sudanna, Sudanna is entirely about aliens from their point of view. Alastair Reynolds has several short stories where the characters are machines or beings that may or may not be descended from humans.

    So I would say it is both do-able and has been done reasonably well. The "problem" is that there is no way for a human writer using human language for a human audience to avoid anthropomorphic description. We are trapped by human concepts like "motivation" that limit how alien anything can be in the first person.
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  16. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Welcome, @Tiran!

    Agreed! This one would get most definitely lost in translation.
  17. Kanly

    Kanly Well-Known Member

    Frank Herbert's son written something other than cashing in on his father's work? I checked out the book on Amazon and the description is intriguing, but the reviews look tepid. They say it was marketed as funny but there was nothing funny about it. Still worth a try?
  18. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    I read that book close to 30 years ago. It has a certain lightness, as does the Man From Two Worlds that Frank and Brian wrote together. But mostly I remember it being depressing because of what happens to the main character. I would much rather read either book than Brian's Dune trash.

    To a large extent, I don't think any sort of depiction of alien cognition from the alien's POV is going to really work. I find alien stories told from the befuddlement of human observers to be much more effective in describing the alienness. The most alien aliens' thoughts I've ever read doesn't seem as bizarre as the likely mental landscape of a cetacean. So I would vote to avoid anthropomorphism by sticking to third person description of alien behavior rather than first person.
  19. Kanly

    Kanly Well-Known Member

    What's weird is that even though I seriously love Frank Herbert's Dune books, I never read anything else by him. I tried reading some of the Dune prequels by his son and Kevin J. Anderson...they were all right. I mean, some of the story was interesting, but it had none of the magic. I stopped reading after two books.
  20. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    Brian Herbert does not seem to understand what Dune is about.

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