December 27, 2009

WRITING ADVICE: Jack McDevitt 8: Have Fifty Characters Named T’Challah

(The Twelve Blunders are used with permission of Jack McDevitt, from his webpage:

McDevitt’s advice here might best be summed up in two words: “Diversity pays”.

Looking at a class list for two periods of English Language Learners, these are some of the names I find: Joseph, Mirna, Mathieu, Nabila, Maria, Waqas, Victor, Wei, Karina, Mohamud, Joan Carlos, Konah, Yuritzi, Katya, Avena, Holyba, Luz, Lavanie, Eduardo, Obadiah, Rosa, Daisy, Tou, and Gao Ia. Last names are even more varied: Vang, Rivera-Parra, Massaqoi, Marcatoma, Guachichuica, Ho, Chacon, Vargas, Barantian, Meza-Murga, Saybo, Getu, Yonkedeh, Swaray, Lin, Khan, Kariuki, Chanthavong, Agnatodji and Badri.

The message here for me is that we have enough strange Human names, we can be at LEAST that creative with our “alien” names.

Even so, McDevitt avoids aliens like the plague because, “Aliens…are mysterious, romantic, compelling…but only as long as they remain distant. As soon as they get a name, or begin describing their peculiar social institutions, all that fades away and they become like us, only more boring.”

Here is where I deviate from his advice…sort of. My personal belief is that aliens allow us to explore parts of ourselves that are not currently clear or always apparent. I understand that when we meet them, aliens are going to be, by their nature, ALIEN. We will not “get them”. Even if we are members of a local group of stars that was “seeded” by common cometary DNA, it’s unlikely that we will turn out like the STAR TREK panoply of Vulcans, Andorians, Klingons, Ferengi, Romulans and Cardassians. Even if we do, it’s doubtful that we’ll be able to employ a universal translator because so much of Human communication is non-verbal, there’s no reason to expect that other intelligences will be any LESS complex and while we might say the words right, the context will be wrong.

By McDevitt’s logic, being Humans we can’t create aliens because they’ll just be Human – implying “why bother”? It’s why his aliens, as he says, “remain distant.” I disagree. Occasionally, Humans have imagined really alien aliens that don’t appear to be “Humans in rubber suits”. In SOLARIS, Stanislaw Lem imagines something that closely approaches an alien I find nearly incomprehensible. Even the STAR TREK franchise got it right once when they created the Horta and while I doubt we’ll solve such first contact problems in 43 minutes, it posed some fascinating questions.

I agree we need not label our aliens with gobbledegook names. Besides, when we meet real aliens someday, we will call them something pronounceable behind their backs. Most likely, they will pick up names derived from their looks or actions. But I disagree with McDevitt when I suggest we need more aliens, not fewer.

Julie Czerneda created the alien Dhryn and it seems like they are “humans in rubber suits” at first. But she succeeds where McDevitt feels SF fails: as soon as Brymn is named and Czerneda describes his people’s peculiar social institutions, myself – and others – find that the Dhryn’s “alieness” comes into focus and they become less like us and far more interesting. In exploring the alien Dhryn, we are forced to look more closely at our own species imperative – which some would say is embodied in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic command to “…be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…” (Genesis 1:28) [My argument: only 1/3 of the world’s population is JCI – the other 2/3 must be responding to a different imperative then…]

At any rate, I think we need MORE aliens not less; but we must build them well enough to satisfy even the most ardent critics – like Jack McDevitt. And we have to use them only when needed and for the main purpose of exploring our Humanity more fully.


WaterBoy said...

Very nice, love the phrase "humans in rubber suits".

But I mostly agree that aliens are typically going to be latex constructs -- if for no other reason than actions, motivations, and feelings are going to be described in human terms relating to how and why we act and feel. And the corollary is that describing an alien emotion which humans do not experience is probably going to fail, since we have no relational basis for understanding.

Vidad said...

Puppeteers are a personal favorite.

slxpluvs said...

"My personal belief is that aliens allow us to explore parts of ourselves that are not currently clear or always apparent."

I like this. I like this a lot.

GuyStewart said...


Becky said...

I find that one of the hardest things to do when i decide to have an alien, make them as un-human as possible while still finding a way to describe them/not have it look like something that has already been done.