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

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

  1. hrafnwasser

    hrafnwasser Well-Known Member

    I've been thinking about this thread.

    Asimov and his robot oeuvre are an invitation to empathise with the complexities other non-biological morality. It's not exactly non-human as the Laws of Robotics are constructed (as algorithms, perhaps?) and programmed by humans. In a real sense Asimov has programmed the reader (using the right words and syntax- like all programming languages) to buy into the Laws of Robotics.
    This leads to another level of, perhaps, the phenomenonology of reading.
    If I push this point to the fullest (absurdist) extent no books have human characters; rather books have words that writers, more or less successfully, put together in a way that the reader then can build "human" characters. It is the engagement of the reader with the words that brings to life the words and makes them into characters.
    It must be possible, then, to have a full spectrum of both enjoyment and emotional connection with any collection of words. This would rely on 1. The skill of the writer. 2. Willingness of the reader to engage. 3. The skill of the reader to imagine.

    Just a few thoughts.

    Or I might be bloody bonkers.
  2. hrafnwasser

    hrafnwasser Well-Known Member

    Just searched the web with a well-known search engine (other brands are available).

    Phenomenology of reading is out there ..., fellow inquirers after the truth(s).

    A summary of Georges Poulet's "A Phenomenology of Reading"

  3. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    I need to read this and will come back to you.
  4. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    I was vaguely familiar with the phenomenology theory. However, regarding your point:

    It implies some type of cognitive recognition and therefore a connection between the book and the reader, no matter how alien the idea might be as long as it is decoded appropriately. I honestly have no idea how this goes, but it just reminds me of the forever debate about the theory of ideas proposed by Plato and argued by Aristotle. What comes first the idea of the chicken in order to recognise a winged creature as a chicken, or the chicken itself and thereafter the concept/idea of chicken?

    I think individual readers decode a story differently according to their respective ways of how they process and recognise information. This phenomenology theory seems to rely too much on the uniformity of readers' response when prompted by a singular message.

    This is definitely a topic that triggers bonkers responses...
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  5. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    Whatever hokus-pokus you want to name as the process of constructing a (vaguely) shared mental simulation of the world in the book might be, the process breaks down if you truly attempt to use empathy to describe true "otherness". Alien-ness is, implicitly, outside the bounds of the mental experience that frames empathy. It is no more likely to be a genuine process than trying to imagine the mental experience of a tree.
    hrafnwasser likes this.
  6. hrafnwasser

    hrafnwasser Well-Known Member

    Admittedly I may have not expressed my view clearly.
    I don't believe there is, necessarily, an "appropriate" way to decode words to render an idea, alien or otherwise; rather the opposite; that there will be multiple, if not infinite, ways of co-constructing understanding of words and stories. So I agree that individual readers will, potentially, construct unique perspectives.
    The point, I clearly failed to make clear, is that I see this being no barrier to forming an "emotional connection to (non-human) characters"; I know of many children who love "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" or "Wall-e", for example.

    @Tiran 's point about the breaking down of the process of empathy in the understanding of "true" otherness is well made. As Homo Sapiens we have a neural architecture that sets boundaries to being able to replicate the "mental experience of a tree". We can only ever make of sense anything as humans and individuals.
    Hocus Pocus (great rock album from Focus, by the way - Sylvia was a later single, my Mum's name - ), or the Voodoo that You Do, will always be limited. Will never truly transcend the "alien-ness" gap (void).
    Surely it is the intention and the drive to understand; the creative, imaginative endeavour that counts.

    However, to paraphrase Keith Moon, "What do I know, I'm only a f......g drummer..."
  7. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    Anyone with a pet should know we can make connections to non-humans. Even fairly "alien" ones like snakes or octopi. Our connection comes from whatever slim slice of recognizable anthropomorphic behavior (we believe) we observe. We will even assign the emotions of parenting to a seahorse with a mouth full of young because engaging in anthropomorphic empathy is actually mentally simpler than processing complex instinctual behavior.

    We paint our world with our motivations, which is why Greek gods are petty and Shinto rocks have thoughts.
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2017
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  8. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Admittedly, the thread was about reading or writing science fiction based purely on alien interaction. Therefore, despite all the very interesting opinions and facts written so far in this thread, communication is the one element in this equation we can't exclude: it simply a must between writer and reader when telling a tale.
    Now, how to go about it in a successful, inspiring and original fashion is a different topic altogether; one I’m clueless about.
    But maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel, I have just come across this: The Universal Translator is Real Now, Get Ready to Make Alien Friends

    If this gadget takes off, I’ll lose in no time half of my workload...
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  9. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    Isn't the problem of communicating alien perspective what we've been discussing? What line are you drawing?
    This device isn't "universal". It can't guess at meanings when it hears words it never has before - it is just a bunch of translation dictionaries packaged with voice recognition.

    A very useful device, but not something that would help anyone communicate with a language that isn't pre-programmed.

    I am often surprised just how often human languages have an inability to express something that is commonly useful. We often construct clumsy similes to describe things we don't have words for, or simply borrow them - ennui, umami.

    Here's a fun list:

    I think zeg is a good example of a feeling English speakers feel but would be hard pressed to express, despite the fact that English has the largest vocabulary of any language. Now imagine trying to express something that you can't imagine feeling on the road to describing alien motivation.
  10. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    Absolutely. However, I’m drawing on the fact we are still talking within the genre of fiction. Therefore, I believe the writer must convey a message in order to have a story. The alternative would leave us with an “it is not possible to write a good story with only non-human, alien characters”
    I just don’t resign myself to that idea. I believe there are some very talented writers with a superb imagination. I will look forward to reading a fictional, amazing only alien story.

    Boreas recommended me Empire of the Ants by French author Bernard Werber. Half the novel is from the perspective of a worker ant as it investigates the end of the world. I read it and I thought it was extremely well written and cleverly engaging.

    Yes, I know. It was a joke; a bad one admittedly but a joke. Something similar to this "universal translator" would be CAT (Computer Assisted Translator) is mostly used to translate instruction manuals, medicine leaflets, and sorts. They do a good job in this field. However, this is very different to e.g literary translation. For that, you would need not only an accomplished translator but a writer in his/her own right in order to do a good job.
    Computer-assisted interpreting is utterly hilarious. Where I live, the expat community is large and not many foreigners learn German as they tend to leave after a couple of years. Many rely too much on these automated voiced translators: I have witnessed extremely funny situations because of these gadgets.

    This is a very interesting list. I have worked in the past as a translator. Idioms, Proverbs, humorous expressions, poems are in general quite tricky to translate and one has to be extra careful. It can change the whole tone in a passage and consequently the meaning intended by the author.
    Translations are, in my opinion, a necessary evil because nothing stands up to the original.

    However, as a teaser, Borges used to says: The original is unfaithful to the translation. He thought a translation could/should be better than the original. Well, he did manage that, but only Borges could pull that one off...

    Does English really have the largest vocabulary? Well, does it really matter? When taking into account all the borrowed words from other languages, derivative words with a common root, slang etc. what it counts to me, when learning a foreign language is its musicality, syntax, and functionality.

    By the way, the meaning of Zeg can be easily translated into German übermorgen or into Italian dopodomani. Both of common use.;)
  11. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    Sometimes it is fair to say "literature can't do that". I read someone wondering why there isn't more written SF about giant robots (aside from novelizations of comics and film), and a reasonable answer is because literature is not a good place to make something like a giant robot interesting in the way visual mediums can. Writing isn't sufficient to describe physicality at different scales in a somatic way. There are no good written methods to keep impressing upon the reader just how cool/scary/surprising it is that a 60 foot robot punched another 60 foot robot. Animate the same sequence and everything changes.

    I think trying to explore alien cognition in the first person is so difficult it would collapse the narrative structure in the attempt. That doesn't mean writers shouldn't try, but it does mean that what we think of as "story" is inextricably linked to how we think, and a realistic depiction of alien thought won't jive with that. So the writer runs the risk of creating something that is either all exposition (as if it were non-fiction), or collapses the alien cognition into conveniently anthropomorphic terms to support the narrative structure.

    And maybe that sounds dismissive to the power of literature, but I think it is just a fair assessment of what a story is. We can only depart from the strictures of storytelling so far before it isn't a narrative anymore, just as other art forms have limits on what they can do before they are no longer simply "music" or "visual art". Narrative structure very much IS a reflection of human (and other higher order earth animal's) cognition. It takes only so many forms, and if they are stretched too far it stops being narrative.
  12. Diziet Sma

    Diziet Sma Administrator Staff Member

    You have made very good points, Tiran. In particular this one:

    However, as I am optimistic by nature and a bit stubborn too, I still believe that the power of literature can be as wondrous and startling as the imagination and dreams of any talented writer. This is why I love reading and I look forward to being blown away by an alien story translated in such a way humans can participate in it.
  13. Tiran

    Tiran Well-Known Member

    As there aren't many all-nonhuman books written, two books that I would suggest for their depiction of sentient alien life are Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. But the pack minds and cyclic vision spiders still think and relate in an entirely modern human way, which is why Vinge was able to tell their stories from a first person POV.
    Diziet Sma likes this.

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