Human Extraterrestrials


Even though science fiction is often focused on the future, its assumptions are tied to the present.

Aldrin descends from Apollo 11In some respects this is obvious.  A story about the near future can become dated by history itself.  Every SF story prior to 1969 that describes the first moon landing in detail (happy 51st anniversary, last week!) is obsolete.  And every story that predicted a smooth reach out into colonizing the solar system directly after that first landing, unfortunately, is also defunct.  Stories can also be rendered unbelievable by scientific advance:  all the delightful tales based on a habitable Venus or Mars are gone with the, er, vacuum.

But there’s also a subtler way.  Even though F&SF specialize in examining our assumptions about the universe, the assumptions that seem plausible shift over time.  Fashions change.  To take a heartening example:  SF stories from the late 1940s and the 1950s tended to take it for granted that there would shortly be a nuclear world war.  (Hence it’s spot-on characterization when the 1955 version of Doc Brown in “Back to the Future” accepts Marty’s recorded appearance in a hazmat suit as logical because of the “fallout from the atomic wars.”)  But for over seventy years, we’ve managed to avoid that particular catastrophe.

One assumption that’s always intrigued me is whether we are likely to meet people like ourselves—and I mean, exactly like ourselves—on another planet.  If we discovered an Earthlike planet of another sun, might we climb down the ladder from our spaceship to shake hands with a biologically human alien?

Not Really Alien

I’m talking about a “convergent evolution” hypothesis—the notion that the human species might have developed independently more than once.  And, incidentally, the standard biological definition of “species” as “interfertile” (a more precise definition can be found on Wikipedia) is what I’m using here; because, obviously, one of the potential uses of the assumption in a story is to make possible a romance between two characters from different worlds, and romance is not unrelated to sex and reproduction.

The Cometeers coverSo we want to set aside, to begin with, a class of stories in which people from different planets are all human because they have a common ancestry.  For example, in Jack Williamson’s classic space opera The Cometeers (1936), Bob Star finds his true love Kay Nymidee among the human subjects of the decidedly nonhuman masters of an immense assemblage of space-traveling planets, the “comet.”  But the reason there are human beings present is that a research ship from Earth was captured by the Cometeers long ago, and these are the descendants of the crew.

It’s not uncommon for the inheritance to work the other way around.  David Weber’s “Mutineers’ Moon” (1991) starts with the eye-opening assumption that our Moon is actually a long-inert giant spaceship—and reveals that the humanity of Earth is descended from the original crew members of that spaceship.  Thus, it’s perfectly plausible when hero Colin MacIntyre falls for a preserved member of the original crew; they’re from the same stock.  Similarly, in at least the original 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica, the human survivors of the “rag-tag fugitive fleet” are human because Earth itself was one of their original colonies, which apparently fell out of touch.

The Era of Planetary Romance

In the early days of modern SF—say, from about 1912 through the 1930s—it was commonly assumed that the answer was yes:  human beings (with minor variations) might be found independently on other planets.  Arguably, this may have been because the early planetary romances—melodramas set on exotic worlds, heavy on adventure and love stories—were less interested in science than in plot devices.  But biology was less advanced in those days; recall that DNA was not identified as the basis of genetic inheritance until 1952.  It’s easy to forget how little we knew about things we take for granted today, even in relatively recent periods.

A classic early case is that of Edgar Rice BurroughsBarsoom.  In A Princess of Mars (1912), Earthman John Carter is transported by obscure means to Mars, called by its inhabitants “Barsoom.”  Those inhabitants include the nonhuman “Green Martians,” but also people identical to humans in several colors, particularly the “Red Martians” among whom Carter finds his lady-love, Dejah Thoris.  As a Red Martian, Dejah is human enough for Carter to mate with, and they have a son, Carthoris, thus meeting the “interfertile” criterion.

Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris in John Carter of Mars

Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris

To be sure, the biology here is a little mysterious.  Dejah looks entirely human, and even, to borrow a Heinlein phrase, “adequately mammalian” (see, for example, Lynn Collins’ portrayal in the loosely adapted movie John Carter (2012)).  But Martians don’t bear their young as Earth-humans do; they lay eggs, which then develop for ten years before hatching.  It’s not easy to imagine the genetics that could produce viable offspring from an individual whose genes direct live birth and one whose genes result in egg-laying.  But that didn’t stop Burroughs.

E.E. Smith, whose initial SF writing goes back just about as far as that of Burroughs, was willing to accept this trope as well.  In The Skylark of Space (published 1928, but written between 1915 and 1921), our intrepid heroes travel to a planet inhabited by two nations of essentially human people—although the double wedding in the story does not involve any interplanetary romances, but is between two pairs of characters from Earth.  Smith’s later Lensman series (1948-1954), which features one of the most diverse arrays of intelligent creatures in SF, also allows for apparently interfertile humans from a variety of planets.  My impression is that this sort of duplication was also true of some of the nonhuman species in the Lensman unverse—there might be, say, Velantian-types native to planets other than Velantia.

This approach wasn’t universal in old-time SF.  The more scientifically-minded John W. Campbell’s extraterrestrial character Torlos in Islands of Space (1930) was generally humanoid in form, but quite different in makeup:  his iron bones, for instance.  It’s been argued that a roughly humanoid form has some advantages for an intelligent species, and hence that we might find vaguely humanoid aliens on different planets—though this is pure speculation.  But “humanoid” is a far cry from biologically human.

Darkover Landfall coverWe see some persistence of this tradition into the second half of the twentieth century.   Marion Zimmer Bradley’s iconic planet Darkover, for instance (first novel published 1958), is populated by the descendants of Terran humans from a colony ship and also by the elf-like indigenous Chieri, who, despite minor differences like six fingers and golden eyes, not to mention the ability to change sex at will, have interbred with the Terran immigrants.

An interesting variation can be seen in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile (first story published in 1981).  When modern humans are sent on a one-way trip into the distant past, they are enslaved by the Tanu, aliens from another galaxy who have settled on Earth.  The story indicates that the Tanu were specifically searching for a place where the local gene pool was similar to theirs—which might also account for why they came all the way from another galaxy (also a somewhat antique trope) to get here.

It’s slightly odd that, even where basically identical human beings turn up on other planets, other animals never seem to be similarly duplicated.  On Burroughs’ Barsoom, one doesn’t ride horses, but thoats; is menaced not by tigers, but by banths; and keeps a calot, not a dog, as a pet.  In a planetary romance or science fantasy setting, one is less likely to see Terran-equivalent fauna than parallel creatures with exotic names and slight differences—whence the SF-writing gaffe “Call a Rabbit a Smeerp” (see TV Tropes and the Turkey City Lexicon).

At the Movies

The all-too-human trope is carried on into the present day in video media—movies and TV.  Again, this may be partly because the science is often subordinated to the plot; but the cost and difficulty of putting convincing nonhuman characters on-screen is surely another factor.  Filmmakers’ ability to depict exotic creatures, however, has changed immensely in the last forty years, to a point where almost any imaginable creature can be created if the budget is sufficient.  Thus, the original Star Trek series of the 1960s stuck largely to slightly disguised humanoid aliens, perhaps relying on the ‘universal humanoid’ hypothesis mentioned above, while later series were able to branch out a bit.  Similarly, the Star Wars movies could readily give us nonhuman characters like Jabba the Hutt, Chewbacca, and C3PO; they, too, grew in variety as the capabilities of CGI and other techniques expanded.

Jupiter Ascending movie posterStill, it may be harder for us to adjust to interactions among characters where we can see their nonhumanity, rather than just reading about it.  So we still tend to see extraterrestrial humans on-screen.  The Kree in Captain Marvel (2019), for example, are indistinguishable from humans—an actual plot point, since this makes it possible for Yon-Rogg to tell Carol that she’s an enhanced Kree rather than a kidnapped human.  The Kree do have blue blood, in the movie; it’s not clear what kind of biological difference (hemocyanin?) might result in that feature.  We also see a number of alien humans in Jupiter Ascending (2015), though I think of that tale as a deliberate throwback to pulpish science fantasy or planetary romance.

A Match Made in Space, fictional coverI keep wanting to cite the fictional novel written by George McFly as shown in the closing scenes of Back to the Future, “A Match Made in Space,” since the cover seems to suggest an interplanetary romance (and one thinks of George as a nerdy romantic); but it isn’t actually clear whether that’s the case.  All we have to go on is the title and the cover, and that could just as easily depict a match between two humans, fostered by an alien matchmaker (or vice versa).

The Modern Era

We don’t see nearly as many extraterrestrial humans in modern SF, and for good reason.

The more we understand about genetics, the less likely it seems that another human species, so closely similar as to be interfertile, could evolve independently.  What we know about evolution suggests that there are just too many random chances along the way—cases where the prevailing mutations might have turned out differently.  Even if we assume that humanoid form is probable, why not have six fingers, or hemocyanin rather than hemoglobin?  While I’m not well enough educated in biology to venture any actual probabilities, I think our growing sense of the complexity of the human body and its workings, over the last seventy years or so, has simply made it seem vanishingly unlikely that an independently evolved intelligence would come out that close to the human genotype.

For example, the scientifically-minded Arthur C. Clarke depicted a galaxy in which each intelligent species, including humans, was unique:  The City and the Stars (1956, developed from an earlier story published in 1948).  In one of the unused story fragments he wrote while working on 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968), his hero, well along on his journey into mystery, thinks:

He did not hesitate to call them people, though by the standards of Earth they would have seemed incredibly alien.  But already, his standards were not those of Earth; he had seen too much, and realized by now that only a few times in the whole history of the Universe could the fall of the genetic dice have produced a duplicate of Man.  The suspicion was rapidly growing in his mind—or had something put it there?—that he had been sent to this place because these creatures were as close an approximation as could readily be found to Homo sapiens, both in appearance and in culture.  (Clarke, The Lost Worlds of 2001, ch. 39, p. 220)

Contemporary SF writers who are really adept at building interesting and coherent aliens—David Brin and Becky Chambers, to name two of the best—give us a wide range of wildly exotic creatures from other planets, but not humans.

The Uplift War, coverIf we are still fond of the idea of interplanetary romance, we might find a possible work-around in the shapeshifter.  The Tymbrimi female Athaclena in Brin’s The Uplift War (1987) uses her species’ unusual abilities to adjust her appearance closer to that of a human female—but of course she has an entirely different genetic heritage, as that ability itself demonstrates.  The result wouldn’t meet our criterion of interfertility, no matter how close the similarity in physical structure.  To adjust one’s genes in the same way would be another order of change altogether.

Starman movie posterThe 1984 movie Starman, in a way, plays off this idea.  The alien in this case is apparently an entity made of pure energy, without a physical structure of its own.  Using hair from the female lead’s deceased husband, it creates a new body with a human genetic structure.  The two do, eventually, prove to be interfertile.  If we’re willing to accept the notion of an energy being in the first place, this approach is actually more plausible than, say, mating with the oviparous Dejah Thoris.

If one were writing a SF story today, it would be rash to assume that Earthborn characters could run across independently evolved humans elsewhere.  The idea may not be entirely inconceivable.  But it’s out of fashion for good reasons.  Attractive as the notion of interplanetary romance may be, at this point we’d best confine it to the kind of case noted above, where some common ancestry—no matter how far-fetched—can account for the common humanity.

Happily Ever After

Six weeks ago I complained about the lack of happily-ever-after romances in the Star Wars series.  It occurred to me that it would be useful to take a look at what exactly makes for a “happy ever after” ending (“HEA” in genre romance code).  What do we really mean by that, anyway?

The Thrill of the Chase

All the world loves a lover.”  We enjoy seeing stories about people falling in love, whether it’s with someone they’ve just met or by discovering someone who was always “right before my eyes.”  (Unless, of course, we’re too cynical to give any credence to so vulgar and sentimental an idea; in which case it’s the trope we love to hate.)  I’d call it the courtship phase of a relationship, if that term weren’t so archaic.  But “courtship” does express in a useful way the stage I’m referring to, when the lovers-to-be are maneuvering around each other, trying to figure each other out, and (almost invariably, in fiction) overcoming initial obstacles to their mutual attraction.

Couple silhouetted against sunset

“Forever Mine” by welshdragon at DeviantArt

It’s not hard to see why this is.  The courtship phase includes a lot of fun stuff.  We get to see the thrill of discovery, the novelty, the tentative reaching-out and missing connections, the achievement of initially establishing a base of trust and affection.  There’s uncertainty and thus suspense in those first contacts.  The process reminds me of the “handshaking” by which communications systems establish a protocol for exchange of information (anybody remember that windy ‘modem connecting’ sound on a dial-up connection?).

And this process is both tricky and essential.  The relationship can’t move forward until the common foundation is established.  I’ve quoted Lois McMaster Bujold before:

The question a romance plot must pose, and answer (showing one’s work!) is not “Do these two people get together?” but rather “Can I trust you?”  Which is most certainly not a trivial problem, in art or in life.  (Response to a reader question on Goodreads (10/30/2017).)

And the relationship does have to move forward.  Courtship is only a prelude.  It inherently looks forward to something else:  a life together.  (Even to “forever,” but that’s another subject.)  We feel something is missing in a case like that of Romeo and Juliet, where circumstances cheat the lovers of that opportunity.

Falling in love is fun to watch.  But if that’s all a character is interested in, we get the self-centered thrill addict who keeps wanting to have the same experience over and over again—as if they wanted to relive high school graduation repeatedly, Groundhog Day-style.  We can’t fall in love indefinitely; eventually we have to land somewhere.  Whether the story ends with a wedding or just a commitment, there has to be a conclusion.

Yet the conclusion itself is only the kickoff for the real relationship—the HEA.  “Each happy ending’s a brand new beginning.”

What It Isn’t

“Happily ever after” doesn’t mean the initial thrill of falling in love lasts forever.  That simply isn’t possible; human emotions can’t remain at that fever pitch.  At some point, the “dizzy dancing way you feel” is going to ebb.  If we expect to feel the same way always, as I’ve just noted, we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment and unnecessary disillusion.  On the other hand, that thrill can always reappear from time to time.  Wise couples will take steps to encourage and renew that early glamour throughout their marriage.

Couple dancing, from Dancing in the Minefields music videoNor does HEA mean freedom from all troubles.  We can put this aside momentarily to celebrate a wedding, visualizing only a life of unimpeded bliss; but real lives invariably encounter problems and difficulties.  We may even want to remind ourselves of this on the occasion of union itself.  When I ran across Emily Hearn’s wedding video online, I was struck by the fact that the first piece of music set to the video was Andrew Peterson’s “Dancing in the Minefields”:  “And it was harder than we dreamed / But I believe that’s what the promise is for.”

Even the vision of a couple facing adversity staunchly side by side isn’t always going to be valid.  We’re told that even healthy couples have their arguments and disagreements.  Indeed, a couple that never disagrees may be harboring unresolved issues under the surface.

It seems to me that all these flaws or troubles can still be accommodated in the “happily ever after” archetype.  Couples can recover from adversity; it can make them stronger.  Even crises in a lifelong love affair can be healed or overcome.  It’s the overall trend or direction, and the overall tenor of the romance, that leads us to call it “happy.”  Of course, when we wish someone happiness forever, we hope that their troubles will be relatively few and their recoveries maximally joyous.  But a life together need not be perfect to be “happy.”

What It Is

If the ever-after need not be perpetual bliss to count as HEA, what is it made up of?  I am hardly so wise as to prescribe sure-fire ingredients for a happy marriage.  But if we think about what we’d expect to see in a story that depicted a happy couple, we can point to a few things.

Carly Simon singing The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of at Martha's Vineyard

Carly Simon sings “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of”

If it’s going to compete with the initial falling in love, being in love has to gain in depth and resonance what it loses in surface intensity and thrill.  It’s “the slow and steady fire.”

What can a couple that’s been together a while do that lovers who’ve just met can’t?  Consider the cumulative pleasures and joys of two people who know each other well and have learned how to please and help each other.  If they continue faithful to each other and to their union, their mutual trust will grow and deepen.  And the more they trust each other, the more each can express their individual strengths (and admit their individual weaknesses).

Since loving someone doesn’t consist only in having a feeling about them, but in enacting love for them, we can learn to love someone better through experience and attentive learning.  I may start by giving you a gift I would like—but eventually I learn how to give you the gift you would like.  Meanwhile, the sharing of memories and experiences, families, running jokes, can enrich and strengthen the bond.

All these things are compatible with the imperfections and difficulties noted above.  They make up what we’d expect to see, down the road, in a story that goes beyond the courtship—a happy-ever-after.

How We Tell the Story

Because the HEA lacks the surface glitter of the falling-in-love story, we see far fewer stories depicting it.  But for purposes of example and illumination, it’s very useful to see depictions of ongoing marriages.

Such mature romances can crop up in odd places.  For example, in a series that goes on beyond the resolution of initial relationships, or perhaps longer than the author expected, we may see the original lovers ‘age out’ of the focus, but still have the chance to watch them practice the art of love.

Shards of Honor coverExhibit A is Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga.  The first two books in the main sequence, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, deal with Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith, whose son, Miles, is the principal character in most of the stories.  So we see Cordelia and Aral fall in love—but then we see them continue through a whole series of other tales as both parents and political prime movers on Miles’ homeworld of Barrayar.  We get to see them working together in common causes, both personal and cosmic.  We see their continuing affection and evident harmony.  Each is so distinctive a personality that we never think of either Aral or Cordelia as merely an extension of the other; rather, they provide an ongoing example of the kind of relationship we wanted to see in their initial stories—and to which Miles aspires for himself, having that example always before him.

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern give us another example.  In the first book (as published, not chronologically), Dragonflight, we see the rocky road of the strong-willed main characters, Lessa and F’lar, to love.  Both of them are so stubborn and willful that it’s hard to picture them in a peaceful marriage.  And indeed, on Pern, nothing is ever entirely peaceful for long.  But as more couples come and go through the long series of sequels, F’lar and Lessa remain onstage a good bit of the time.  Neither is ever tamed, though they both mellow a bit.  The scrappy young Lessa becomes a little steadier and more mature as she gets older and has a child, but she still retains the original fire.

I frequently refer to the classic Lensman series, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned that the final novel, Children of the Lens, shows us the lovers whose activities dominated the three middle books, Kim Kinnison and Clarissa MacDougall, as middle-aged parents a generation later.  The story is so action-oriented that we don’t get to see much of the family in peace, but what we do see gives us the satisfaction of knowing that Kim and Cris have lived a happy life together (and will continue to do so).  And since the surclimax (if I may invent a word for a secondary climax occurring after the main one) involves Clarissa’s use of the power of their mutual love to retrieve Kim from an otherwise unsolvable trap, it’s clear that the romantic connection consummated at the wedding in the previous volume (twenty years earlier) has not lost its fire.

Second Spring coverAndrew Greeley wrote a whole series of novels in which the romance is generally about falling in love.  But in his O’Malley family saga, in which the titles all refer to seasons (of life), he continues the story of one such couple from the post-WWII era right through their “Golden Years.”  The young lovers of A Midwinter’s Tale have to grapple with some pretty serious psychological issues themselves, as well as family drama, over the course of years.  But the “crazy O’Malleys” emerge stronger from their troubles as they go on, giving us a picture of people who are always becoming more themselves as they adjust to changing circumstances.

God is an Englishman coverThere is a subgenre of family sagas—the kinds of long-running, multicharacter stories that always make me think of TV mini-series—and some of these also give us extended looks at maturing romances.  In some such stories, the conflicts arise from the dysfunctionality of the family itself; Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna novels are a case in point.  But in others, we can see a couple holding strong.  I recently reread R.F. Delderfield’s God Is An Englishman, the first book of his “Swann saga.”  His central couple, Adam and Henrietta, grow in significant ways over the course of the story.  Their love waxes and wanes, but after it wanes, it always comes back.  I’d count that as a HEA.

The novella I’m just finishing up, Time Signature, takes place in the Deerbourne Inn common setting created by the Wild Rose Press.  This gave me the chance to show how a secondary couple who were engaged in Amber Daulton’s Lyrical Embrace was getting along, a little later.  While their appearance is brief, I enjoyed the opportunity to represent a growing post-courtship romance, even in its early years.

Real Life

For purposes of inspiration and example, of course it’s even more helpful to be acquainted with real-life successful relationships.  My parents, for instance, lived long and happy lives, and despite religious and political differences, they always remained in harmony.  Though they argued about many subjects, they never, so far as I know, quarreled.  While their lives could not be said to be untroubled (after all, I was one of their children), I’d say they qualified as a happy-ever-after.  I’m privileged to know a number of other couples whose romances have flourished over many years, on whom I’d be glad to bestow the accolade of HEA.

The accumulation of such real and fictional examples gives us the wherewithal to refute those who scoff at the happily-ever-after ending.  None of the characters of our favorite romances will have perfect later lives unmarred by any suffering or any down times in their love affairs.  But if we’re willing to accept that solid happiness can be consistent with life’s inevitable troubles, we can look forward with hope to a satisfactory ending for those couples who approach their lives with both realism and love.

Preferred Atrocities

One might suppose that people would write stories in which a society followed their preferred points of view.  We would see socialists writing about the peaceful harmony of the commune, libertarians about collections of sturdy self-reliant individuals, feminists about places where women were ascendant, or at least equal.

Handmaid's Tale coverBut The Handmaid’s Tale wasn’t written by a man.

More often than not, authors seem to write about the opposite of what they appear to prefer.  Their heroes and heroines struggle against epic oppression by regimes of exactly the type the author finds most atrocious.

Evidently, we love stories about the things we hate.

Dystopias Made to Order

Just as our views about good and bad character influence the kinds of people we see as heroes, our views about good and bad societies influence the systems we create—in the negative.

Thus, in 1985 Margaret Atwood writes about a near future in which a theocratic revolution in the United States takes the oppression of women to unprecedented levels—the worst cast for a feminist.  A robust agnostic like Robert A. Heinlein depicts a revolt against another type of theocracy in the 1940 novella If This Goes On— (though putting it that way vastly oversimplifies the relationship between Heinlein and his stories).  Anti-collectivist libertarian Ayn Rand gives us a society in which even first-person pronouns have been eliminated with the novella Anthem (1938)—and the America of Atlas Shrugged (1957), while not yet so extreme, is tending in that direction.

The Mercenary coverIn the second section of Jerry Pournelle’s The Mercenary (1988), John Christian Falkenberg’s mercenary army is hired to help maintain order on the planet Hadley, where Earth’s “Bureau of Relocation” has dumped job lots of involuntary “colonists” with few skills and no will to work.  The result is a classic welfare-state nightmare.  In the climactic sequence, the bad apples have all concentrated themselves in a self-appointed constitutional convention in a stadium, seizing power and essentially enslaving the technicians who keep the colony running.  When this self-serving mob initiates violent resistance against the nominal government, Falkenberg orders his troops to secure the stadium.  The mob attacks after refusing to heed warnings—and the troops systematically slaughter all the armed attackers who will not surrender.

The way Pournelle tells the story, the reader is wholly sympathetic to the “mercenaries” and feels righteous satisfaction when the tables are finally turned on the antagonists.  The cumulative misdeeds of the mob are what give us the sense that the last-resort violent countermeasures are justified.

There may even be examples of preferential atrocities in the young adult dystopias that currently spread across the landscape.  The common element in The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, and perhaps The Maze Runner is that likable teenagers are cruelly oppressed by sinister adults.  Societies in which young adults are subjected to the arbitrary and exacting rule of hostile grown-ups might be considered to constitute the anti-ideal for teenagers—the characteristic dystopia.

The Appeal of the Atrocious

If we ask why so many writers depict worlds entirely at odds with their own (or their audience’s) preferences, one simple answer is that utopias are notoriously boring.  A story requires conflict.  And, once we’ve defined what makes our heroes virtuous, the obvious opponent is their opposite—depicted in as extreme a way as possible.

But I think there are also other factors at work.

We could perhaps write a story about defending a utopia against attack, rather than attacking a dystopia.  But it’s easier to depict something that’s obviously noxious than to show how a really well-working society would go.  Destroying is easy; building is hard.  If the bad guys are sufficiently bad, we may never have to wonder about, say, exactly what kind of reformed society the Rebel Alliance would put into place after defeating Darth Vader’s Empire.  (To its credit, the Hunger Games series does provide some hints at the end about the pitfalls of establishing a better successor regime—although, again, more by showing how the revolution could go wrong than by showing it going right.)

OrcsMore important, it’s easier to engage our emotions by showing how bad the bad guys are.  Personally, I am even more moved by awe at the acts of heroism and virtue; but rousing our outrage against evils may be more visceral.  In a dystopic story, the despicable practices or institutions of the society justify our hatred of the antagonists.

It’s hard to overstate the adrenaline rush of righteous anger.  It’s seductive.  When a storyteller takes the despised behavior of the oppressive society to an extreme, they allow us to imagine, and desire, the equally extreme response.  Shoot ’em all down!  Blow up the Death Star!  No quarter!

From Story to Fact

This is one of the places where the stories we tell extend their reach out into the real world.  If we get too attached to that defiant rush, we may be more susceptible to the possibility of finding it in reality.  The prospect of being forced to ultimate measures is appalling—but there’s also a certain thrill.  What if the apocalypse is finally here?  We can finally abandon restraint and pull out all the stops!

Of course, there genuinely are times “when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary” to take extreme measures.  There are always two ways of going wrong.  We may be too rash and rush to extremes; but we may also be too complacent.  Either way may involve, in part, a failure of imagination.  It’s one kind of failure not to recognize the anti-ideal when it genuinely begins to happen.  But the other kind is to pounce on every sign that our favorite stories—the ones with the atrocities we despise—are coming true.  It’s when we prematurely think we see this in real life that the stories in the back of our heads become dangerous.

Image of old piano with rose petals

Image by SeaReeds from Pixabay

Extreme measures need to be kept to a true last resort, because civilization is more fragile than it seemsWe cannot lightly throw away the rule of law.  If we do, the result is likely to be worse than the original problem.  We need to keep that essential idea firmly in view, even in difficult circumstances—including those where the rule of law itself is being violated and needs to be reasserted and reawakened.

There is no substitute for thinking things through, with care and determination.  The adrenaline rush so familiar from our favorite stories can’t be allowed to keep us from drawing the right lines, at the right times, in the right places.  If we are too complacent, or too belligerent, we may simply be lending ourselves to making someone else’s preferred atrocity come true—and earning their equally extreme resistance.  That isn’t the kind of resolution we need.

Describing the Indescribable

Showing the Unshowable

In our last exciting episode, we noted that fantasy and science fiction stories often seek to transcend the boundaries of human experience—to show us things beyond our ordinary understanding.  Take it further:  the author may wish to present things that are beyond all human understanding.  How do we get across to human readers, or viewers, something that we’ve just postulated as indescribable or incomprehensible?

We’re not asking whether there can be things the human intellect or senses cannot grasp.  Kant or Aquinas, for example, would have rather complex answers to that question.  Rather, we’re focusing here on how to put the ungraspable into a story.

Beyond the Senses

Doctor Strange casts a spellThere are plenty of things that are impossible, but easy to describe; we can detail how they appear to our senses, though explaining how they can actually occur is another matter.  For example, magic spells cast by Doctor Strange frequently manifest as flat discs suspended in space, generally with symbols or letters inscribed.  Both the comics and (using CGI) the movies can show us these with no problem.  That’s not what we’re interested in here.

What’s intriguing is a sensory experience different from any we normally experience (or, perhaps, can experience).  In James Schmitz’s The Witches of Karres, our hero Captain Pausert, who is just beginning to exhibit witch powers, detects an extra-universal entity called a “vatch.”  His young witch companions have referred to “relling” a vatch, but this is the first time Pausert himself has had the experience:

The Witches of Karres, coverIt was something like smelling a grumble, or hearing dark green, or catching a glimpse of a musky scent.  As Goth had suggested, it was not to be described in any terms that made sense.  But it was quite unmistakable.  He knew exactly what he was doing—he was relling a vatch.  (ch. 9, p. 250)

I tried this same technique of combining nonsensical sensory references to suggest something magical about spell-casting music in my short story The Green Song.

While Schmitz chooses to present this supernormal power as “magic,” such special powers can just as well be described in science-fiction terms (often as “psionic” powers), which is how we normally use words like “telepathy” and “telekinesis.”  Though it’s worth noting that fantasy characters like Gandalf and Galadriel can “speak mind to mind” as well—they just don’t call it telepathy.

I’ve just finished The Pursuit of the Pankera, a recently-discovered earlier version of Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast which takes off in a quite different direction.  In chapter 38, one character, Deety Burroughs Carter, meets a Lensman from E.E. Smith’s Lensman series and tries to describe the famously indescribable Lens itself:  “The nearest I can think of is an enormous fire opal with a light behind it—but take that and cube it.  It’s all colors and the colors keep changing and the lights come from the Lens itself and dance like a color organ but brighter and more alive—and I still haven’t described it.”

Heinlein’s method is instructive.  In this brief passage, we start with a known image—fire opal—and are told to extend it in an unspecfied way (“cube it”).  The second sentence is a run-on, piling image on image in a way that suggests an inability to capture the item in any single description.  She finishes by apologizing that the result is still inadequate (“I still haven’t described it”).

An extraordinary experience like Schmitz’s “relling” is neutral—just an unfamiliar new sense.  But once we’ve postulated the non-natural, it’s easy to transition to the “unnatural,” in the pejorative sense of the term.

The Colour Out of Space, magazine illustrationI recently revisited H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Colour Out of Space (1927)—the only Lovecraft piece I’ve ever actually read.  According to the story, a meteorite arrives on earth in 1882, in the Arkham area (there’s a reason why the lunatic asylum in Gotham City is called the “Arkham Asylum”).  Weird growths emerge from the meteorite and transform plants, animals, rocks, water, and humans in horrible ways.  The creatures so affected are characterized by an unearthly color, first noticed in globules in the meteorite:  “The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the metetor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossbile to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all” (p. 150 in the anthology I have).  Skunk cabbages infected by this influence are described unpleasantly:  “. . . they held strange colours that could not be put into any words.  Their shapes were monstrous, and the horse had snorted at an odour which struck Stephen as wholly unprecedented.”

The notion of extra colors that can be seen with ordinary vision is dubious, given what we now know about neurobiology and the electromagnetic spectrum.  But the notion does communicate a sense of the weird and unnatural.  That’s what Lovecraft was driving at, according to Wikipedia—“to create an entity that was truly alien.”

More important, Lovecraft, like other horror writers of the pulp era, was quick to treat the incomprehensible as evil, or at least destructive to humans.  If you’re writing horror, I suppose that comes naturally.  But it isn’t a necessary conclusion.  Something not naturally perceivable could be neutral, as in Karres—or it could also be incompehensibly good.

The Extraordinary and the Supernatural

An extra sense or a psionic talent would be beyond ordinary human capabilities, but not beyond the range of nature itself.  Those powers needn’t be good or evil—just neutral, like most human abilities, able to be used for good or bad purposes.  Bur we’re especially likely to run into the indescribable when we speak of the supernatural.

The supernatural tends to have an evaluative charge, so to speak:  either good or evil in itself.  Lovecraft’s unnatural horrors tend in that direction; he doesn’t describe them as theological, exactly, but they’re definitely horrible (at least to humans).  Something supernally good, however, may be just as difficult to describe.

At the end of C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, two eldila—planetary angels of a sort—ask Ransom, the main character, in what form in which they should appear to do honor to the new human masters of the planet.  Their first attempts aren’t very successful:

A tornado of sheer monstrosities seemed to be pouring over Ransom.  Darting pillars filled with eyes, lightning pulsations of flame, talons and beaks and billowy masses of what suggested snow, volleyed through cubes and heptagons into an infinite black void.  “Stop it . . . stop it,” he yelled, and the scene cleared.  He gazed round blinking on the field of lilies, and presently gave the eldila to understand that ths kind of appearance was not suited to human sensations.  (ch. 16, p. 197-98)

Lewis handles the incomprehensible by referring to some familiar things, but placing them in unexpected or incoherent contexts (darting pillars, with eyes; bird imagery and pure geometry).  He also uses Ransom’s reaction, as Lovecraft used the horse’s reaction to an “unprecedented” smell, to evoke the strangeness and unbearableness of the experience.

A Wind in the Door, coverMadeleine L’Engle is also talking about angels, more or less, in The Wind in the Door (sequel to A Wrinkle in Time) when she introduces a being called Proginoskes.  The human characters first see—

wings, it seemed like hundreds of wings, spreading, folding, stretching—
and eyes
how many eyes can a drive of dragons have?
and small jets of flame

On a closer look, Meg reacts this way:  “She had the feeling that she never saw all of it at once, and which of all the eyes could she meet? merry eye, wise eyes, ferocious eyes, kitten eyes, dragon eyes, opening and closing . . .”  (ch. 2-3, pp. 53-54)  Again, some familiar things are mentioned, but in unexpected relationships.  The notion that “she never saw all of it at once” acknowledges the inadequacy of her perception, along with the baffled question about which eyes to meet.  (The cover illustration shown on the Wikipedia page attempts to show in pictorial form what Meg is describing.)

These examples occur in a theological context, but they’re not good or evil themselves.  Lewis and L’Engle are showing us that creatures of a different kind may be beyond our perception.  But in some cases there emerges a sense that the very goodness of something may exceed our ordinary knowledge.

Lewis’s The Great Divorce adopts the fanciful notion that souls from Purgatory or Hell (or both) may be allowed a “vacation” in the lower realms of heaven.  Our narrator, one such soul, finds that heaven is not the vaporous or cloudy region we sometimes imagine; on the contrary, it is more solid and more real than lower things.  Blades of grass are so solid that  don’t bend under the feet of the visiting shades (ch. 3, p. 27); the rain so substantial that it penetrates them like bullets; the flowers are hard like diamonds.

The men were as they always had been; as all the men I had known had been perhaps.  It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison.  (p. 28)

Simply being in this region causes the narrator’s sensory capacity to expand.

. . . something had happened to my senses so that they were now receiving impressions which would normally exceed their capacity.  On earth, such a waterfall could not have been perceived at all as a whole; it was too big.  Its sound would have been a terror in the wood for twenty miles.  Here, after the first shock, my sensibility ‘took’ both, as a well-built ship takes a huge wave.  I exulted.  (ch. 6, p. 49)

Lewis’s evocation of strangeness here is in the service of a theological point:  he wants to demolish our tendency to think of the spiritual as less real than the solid earth and propose that it is more real.

The Ball and the Cross, coverIn a similar way, G.K. Chesterton suggests that ordinary objects can be subtly transformed for us—can appear to a greater degree as what they are—when we are transformed by the dawn of love.

The difference between this experience and common experiences was analogous to that between waking life and a dream.  Yet he did not feel in the least as if he were dreaming; rather the other way; as waking was more actual than dreaming, so this seemed by another degree more actual than waking itself.  But it was another life altogether, like a cosmos with a new dimension.  (The Ball and the Cross, ch. 9, p. 111)

As Lewis’s Heaven reverses our usual reactions to indicate something more substantial than our ordinary world, Chesterton reverses the usual relationship of dream and reality to imagine a vita nuova more awake than waking.

Finally, attempting to show us complete transcendence at the very end of the Narnian books, Lewis can only fall back on very rough metaphors and, again, a confession of inadequacy.

“’The term is over:  the holidays have begun.  The dream is ended:  this is the morning.’ . . . but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.  And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.”  (The Last Battle, final pages)

Where Lovecraft presents the transcendent as unintelligible, repelling our comprehension, these examples rather seek the superintelligible, something that draws our comprehension deeper.

How It’s Done

From these examples, we can throw together a list of some techniques used to evoke the incomprehensible.

  • Deliberately mix sensory references in a way that’s literally nonsensical, so as to suggest an unknown sensation.
  • Astronaut in bedroom, near end of 2001: A Space OdysseyRefer to ordinary objects, but in a surreal sort of way, as in the ending of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Lead us up to the pinnacle of something that we know, and then point beyond it: the method of “supereminence” that I spoke of last time.
  • Describe people’s reactions to the indescribable thing: horror, exaltation, comfort.  This is particularly appropriate and effective if we’re dealing with supernatural good or evil, as in The Colour Out of Space, or the descent of Venus in That Hideous Strength (ch. 15.1).
  • Acknowledge the insufficiency of our explanation; leave much of the description mysterious and unaccounted-for.

Such methods may be helpful if we want to write about what is beyond description.  They might even be of some use in interpreting our own experience if we should encounter such things ourselves . . . which is never entirely out of the question.

Portraying the Transhuman Character

More Than Human

Kevin Wade Johnson’s comments on my recent post about The Good Place raised a couple of issues worth a closer look.  Here’s one:

Lots of science fiction, and some fantasy, deals with characters who are greater, or more intelligent, or more gifted in some way, than mere humans.  But we the authors and readers are mere humans.  How do we go about showing a character who’s supposed to be more sublime than we can imagine?

It’s one thing to have characters whose capabilities are beyond us.  Superman can leap tall buildings with a single bound; I can’t.  But I can easily comprehend Superman’s doing so.  (I can even see it at the movies.)  On the other hand, if a character is supposed to be so intelligent I can’t grasp their reasoning, or has types of knowledge that are beyond me, that’s harder to represent.  I can simply say so:  “Thorson had an intelligence far beyond that of ordinary men.”  But how can I show it?

Long-Lived Experience

There are a number of ways this can come up.  For example, if a character lived a very long time, would their accumulated experience allow for capabilities, or logical leaps in thinking, beyond what we can learn in our short lives?

I’m thinking of a Larry Niven story—I’m blanking on the name:  maybe one of the “Gil the Arm” stories?—in which a character who appears to be a young woman turns out to be centuries old, and when she drops the deception, she moves with uncanny grace—she doesn’t bump into anything or trip over her own feet, because she’s had that long to train herself in how to move (without the limitations imposed by our bodies’ degeneration from aging).

Of course, a story about long-lived people doesn’t have to take long-lived learning into account.  The depiction of the “Howard Families” in Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children and Time Enough for Love almost seem dedicated to the opposite proposition, that no matter how long we live, we’re basically the same kinds of personalities; we don’t learn much.

Galadriel, radiantIn a similar way, Tolkien’s immortal elves may seem ineffably glorious to us, but their behavior often seems all too human—especially if you read The Silmarillion, where elves make mistakes, engage in treachery, and allow overweening pride to dictate their actions in ways that may surprise those of us familiar only with LotR.  On the other hand, the books and movies do succeed in convincing us that characters like Galadriel and Gandalf are of a stature that exceeds human possibility.

Logic and Language

There are other ways to have transhuman abilities.  As Kevin observes, Niven’s “Protectors” fit the description.  Niven imagines a further stage of human development—something that comes after childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—that we’ve never seen, because when our remote ancestors arrived on Earth from elsewhere, they lacked the plants hosting the symbiotic virus necessary for transition to that final stage.  The “trans-adult” Protectors are stronger, faster, and more durable than ordinary humans.  They also think faster.  Thus Niven shows them as following out a chain of logic with blinding speed to its conclusion, allowing them to act long before regular humans could figure out what to do.  Because this is a matter of speed, not incomprehensible thinking, Niven can depict a Protector as acting in ways that are faster than normal, but are explainable once we sit down and work out the reasoning.

Sherlock Holmes, arena fight sceneA visual analogue is used in the 2009 and 2011 Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey, Jr.  Unlike most other treatments of the character, Guy Ritchie’s version supposes that Holmes’ incredible intelligence can be used not only for logical deduction, but to predict with lightning speed how a hand-to-hand combat may develop.  Holmes thus becomes a ninja-like melee fighter, so effective as to confound all opponents.  The movie shows us this by slowing down the process that to Holmes is instantaneous:  we see a very short montage of positions and moves as they would occur, or could occur, before we see Holmes carry out the final “conclusion” of his martial reasoning.  This allows us to appreciate what the quasi-superhuman character is doing and why, without actually having to execute the same process ourselves.

Preternatural intelligence may be more subtle in its effects.  Such a person may, for example, be able to understand things fully from what, to us, would be mere hints and implications.  So, for example, when Isaac Asimov introduces the members of the Second Foundation in his Foundation series, he tells us that their tremendous psychological training allows them to talk among themselves in a manner so concise and compressed that entire paragraphs require only a few words.

Speech as known to us was unnecessary.  A fragment of a sentence amounted almost to long-winded redundancy.  A gesture, a grunt, the curve of a facial line—even a significantly timed pause yielded informational juice.  (Second Foundation, end of chapter 1, “First Interlude,” p. 16)

Second Foundation coverBreaking the fourth wall, Asimov warns us that his account is “about as far as I can go in explaining color to a blind man—with myself as blind as the audience.”  (same page)  He then adroitly avoids showing us any of the actual conversation; instead, he says he’s “freely translating” it into our ordinary language.  This move illustrates one of the classic ways of presenting the incomprehensible in a story:  point out its incomprehensibility and “translate” into something we can understand.  (Note that this is much more easily done in writing than in a visual medium such as TV or the movies.)

A similar technique is used by Poul Anderson in his 1953 novel Brain Wave, which starts with the interesting premise that in certain regions of space, neurons function faster than in others.  When Earth’s natural rotation around the center of the galaxy brings it into a “faster” area, the brains of every creature with a central nervous system speed up, and human beings (as well as other animals) all become proportionately smarter.  Anderson notes that the speech of the transformed humans would be incomprehensible to us and, like Asimov, “translates” it for our convenience.  When a couple of the characters, in a newly invented faster-than-light spaceship, accidentally cross the border back into the “slow zone,” they are unable to understand the controls they themselves designed until the ship’s travel brings them out and lets their intelligence return to its new normal.  (Anderson’s concept may have been the inspiration for the “Zones of Thought” universe later developed in several fascinating stories by Vernor Vinge.)

Showing and Telling

We can glean some general principles from these examples.  If the extraordinary acts don’t actually have to be shown in the medium I’m using, I can simply point to them and tell the reader they’re there.  In a written story, I can say my main character is a world-class violinist without having to demonstrate that level of ability myself.  (Although if I have some experience in that particular art, I’ll be able to provide some realistic details, to help make my claim sound plausible.)  But if the supernormal achievement is something that can be shown in our chosen medium, we have to be able to demonstrate it:  a movie about the great violinist will have to exhibit some pretty masterful violin-playing, or those in the audience who know something about the art will laugh themselves silly.

Flowers For Algernon coverWe should note that there are good and bad ways of telling the audience about a character’s superiority.  In the unforgettable short story “Flowers for Algernon,” which consists entirely of diary entries by Charlie Gordon, the main character, the text vividly shows us the effects of an intelligence-raising treatment on a man of initially lower-than-normal intelligence.  The entries improve so radically in writing competence and understanding that when Charlie describes how his brainpower is beginning to exceed that of ordinary humans, we believe him, because we’re already riding on the curve of rising ability up to our own level that is apparent in the text—a true tour de force of writing.  On the other hand, in the drastically worse movie version, Charly (1968), the screenwriters are reduced to having Charly stand in front of an audience of experts and scornfully dismiss the greatest intellectual achievements from human history—a weak and ineffective technique at best for conveying superiority.


This quick review of the problem turns up several methods for handling supernormal abilities in a story.


  • If the superior ability is intelligible to us ordinary people in the audience—maybe it’s just doing normal things faster—we can have the wiser or super-enabled person explain it to someone less wise: our last post’s Ignorant Interlocutor.
  • If the advantage is mainly a matter of speed, we can slow it down to a speed at which regular people can follow the action.
  • If we can get away without actually showing the ability in question, we may be able to point toward it, or “translate” it into something we can understand, and convincingly tell the audience about it—if we can achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief.
  • If a character is supposed to be, let us say, preternaturally wise, and there’s simply no way to avoid showing that in the dialogue, the best we can do is to evoke the best we can do—have the character be as wise as possible—and imply ‘like this, only more so.’ This method—like “projecting” a line or a curve—is the method of “supereminence,” which is sometimes employed in theological talk about things that are inherently beyond our full understanding.


Kicking around this question makes us aware that portraying the more-than-human character is only a special case of a more general problem.  When our stories try to incorporate anything that’s indescribable, incomprehensible, how do we handle that?  Our F&SF stories frequently want to reach out beyond the boundaries of human experience, yet in a tale written for ordinary humans.  We’ll talk about the more general question next time.