Constructive Incomprehension: Conveying the Alien

Recently finished Ann Leckie‘s celebrated Ancillary Justice. It’s well-crafted space opera with what feels like both a familiar and original setting. It’s well written to the extent that when you read the post-epilogue interview and see that she deliberately modelled it after the Roman Empire, you feel an ahhh of retrospective recognition without feeling as if the entire setting has been cribbed from Gibbon.

It is only a semi-spoiler to reveal that the central protagonist isn’t entirely human (even if in human form, moving mostly in human circles), and Leckie takes care to show this, without defaulting to the standard trope of an innocent abroad, making mistakes and being corrected by more culturally knowledgeable characters. The exposition is both gradual and subtle, using the benefits of a twin narrative from two different time periods in order to maximise the urgency of the current narrative whilst allowing the past narrative to be more relaxed and casual in dropping and explaining the multilayered nature of the protagonist’s identity. The headline device used for this is the exclusive use of female pronouns, and the protagonist’s confusion over the need to make such a distinction. The use is at first amusing, and eventually disorienting. At the end of the novel, the gender of most of the characters remains ambiguous, taking away one of the chief identifiers of human identity which readers are used to.

Along with a well-developed religious framework, Leckie manages to make her world both familiar on the micro level (a cultural obsession with tea being perhaps my favourite) whilst genuinely alien on another, in the sense that we as readers are unable to make sense of why things happen, and with enlightenment on cultural mores has to be inferred by context rather than explained.

Another example of this is the Festival of Lies in Mieville’s Embassytown. The alien race that is the centre of the book are neurologically unable to lie, which provides a point not only of difference, but of novelty.

For Hosts, speech was thought. It was as nonsensical to them that a speaker could say, could claim, something it knew to be untrue as, to me, that I could believe something I knew to be untrue. Without Language for things that didn’t exist, they could hardly think them; they were vaguer by far than dreams. What imaginaries any of them could conjure at all must be misty and trapped in their heads. Our Ambassadors, though, were human. They could lie as well in Language as in our own language, to Hosts’ unending delight. These eisteddfods of mendacity had not existed—how could they? —before we Terre came. The Festivals of Lies had occurred almost as long as Embassytown had existed: they were one of our first gifts to the Hosts.

A positive point in this portrayal is that the Hosts differences aren’t presented as symbolic plot device or as a highly exaggerated part of the majority culture. In other words, it is not using the exotic just to highlight or counterpoint what is familiar to the reader. If the reader does not have a frame of reference in which to place a form of behaviour, they are unable to easily contextualise it, to work it into their existing understanding of the imagined world of the book.

It is worth noting Mieville’s own views on this:

“if you are a writer who happens to be a human, I think it’s definitionally beyond your ken to describe something truly inhuman, psychologically, something alien.”

Whilst he is technically right, as a writer it is possible to convey the absence of comprehensible meaning, a dark chasm of unknowing which makes the reader frown in the awareness that there is something which does not fit into their paradigm of existence.

Conveying the alien does not always require leaving the planet, of course. From Watership Down to Christ Stopped at Eboli, authors have mined both factual and imagined cultures in order to confront readers with a way of thinking that they do not understand. The trick, however, is to make a culture alien, but at the same time making it comprehensible as a unit.

If there is no internal logic to an alien culture, (regardless of whether it is explicitly conveyed to a reader) then it becomes effectively random noise. The exception to this can be where a deliberately dissonant and comprehension-neutral deus ex machina is used in the plot, but as with any deus ex machina this can very easily feel like a cheat to the reader.

In my own work, I’m trying very hard to impart this sense of the alien. The alien culture I’m writing has to have both different conceptions of the physical world as well as different conceptions about social relationships. All this coalesces in a wonderful anthropological term known as cosmology (defined as “ideas about the universe as an ordered system and the place of humans in the universe”). Once you work out the cosmology  of your alien culture, you can then start to think about how that culture will react when faced with stimuli (as well as how that stimuli will be conceptualised and processed).

In one example, one character relates to the protagonist a tale of about how a colonialist character entered the lodge of the native culture and immediately went over to warm himself by the fire. An absolutely natural thing to do (you might expect).

The Lodge is however a very personal space rather than a public mess hall, and he has been invited there on sufferance rather than as an act of hospitality. The hearth is also an ancestral shrine and warmth is a precious semi-spiritual resource on this world. This is a near-unforgivable insult and act of aggression. It is pushing your way into your bedroom and rummaging through your drawers, trying on your clothes. It is presuming a casual acquaintance for an intimate relationship (I explain it here far more than I do in the book).

So I need to be able to convey both the magnitude of the insult as well as the unreachability (for the reader/protagonist) as to why this is an issue, and how this unbridgeable mental gap is representative not of the savage unreason of the culture he has walked into, nor of his own insensitivity of nuance, but genuine ignorance. To make this behaviour alien, but not so much as to be totally incomprehensible.

This is a line I have to walk for almost the entire book. To make the standard action-response curves of the reader’s expectation spiral off into the abyss, whilst letting them coil back into vision enough for the reader to maintain a sense of what’s going on. Using unreflective points of view from the native culture (i.e. not explaining the “why”) will be one device, as will the device of a scholarly dissertation on the culture in question (which I’m hoping won’t reach Stephenson levels of intrusion into the narrative). I’m also going to endeavour to present the what as well.

I’m mainly trying to present this as representation by action – be it violent or kind – rather than by dialogue or out-of-character exposition. But the framework of why still needs to be mainly inferred. In this way, it becomes characters acting not because the plot requires that they do it (though that is always going to be at least a partial motivation), but because their identity, both personal and cultural, provides the roads on which they travel, be it running pell mell, walking slowly and deliberately or even leaving the beaten track and heading off into the wilderness. But if they do so, it will because the road on which they have been travelling is the place they decisively choose not to be. Even if the reader does not know the difference between wilderness and road, they can at least infer when someone is taking the less travelled path.

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