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Creating “believable” aliens: an interview with James L. Cambias


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Just when you have abandoned hope that all of the interesting potential of hard science fiction have been exhausted, along comes a fascinating new novel that reveals both a new world and great writer. A Darkling Sea, the first novel by James L. Cambias, merits serious attention both because he has described a believable extraterrestrial world and an encounter between humans and two species, one native and one not, of believably alien yet approachable extraterrestrials. The world he “builds” as the setting for the encounter is an ice covered ocean moon with an ecology dependent on thermal vents that resembles what has been imagined beneath the surface of Europa or Enceladus. His extraterrestrials are neither the improbably human sort peopling the Star Trek universe nor the godlike and often unseen “überaliens” in the novels of Arthur C. Clarke. Instead they are the products of biological evolutions that have generated not just different body forms but different minds. The capacity to conceive a theory of mind about other individuals of our species was crucial to becoming human but the capacity to conceive a theory of mind about individuals of other sentient species would require far more. A Darkling Sea is worth reading because it poses the problem of failing to develop that capacity by all of the species involved in a conflict that turns deadly. It is also worth reading because it is very good storytelling.

The author was generous enough to grant me an interview to discuss the novel.

I’ve never understood the idea that technological and scientific knowledge translate to moral or philosophical enlightenment.

Hickman: Extraterrestrial contact optimists tend to present any alien entity or species that humans might encounter as peaceful and enlightened. Being older and wiser than humans, they will assist our social, economic, scientific development rather than take advantage of any weaknesses they detect. In his 1997 book After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life, Albert A. Harrison was optimistic that the members of the cosmopolitan “Galactic Club” would be good at inducting new species like our own, perhaps with standardized procedures. That’s not how you picture the interaction between the three sentient species in your novel, the Sholen, Humans, and Ilmatarans. Why? Would you describe yourself as an extraterrestrial contact pessimist?

Cambias: There’s two answers to this: the first is what I think is most likely in the real galaxy, and the other is why I made the choices I did for my novel.

As to reality: I’ve never understood the idea that technological and scientific knowledge translate to moral or philosophical enlightenment. Most of humanity’s moral systems date back 2,000 years or more. We created them before we invented science. Meanwhile, in the centuries after the scientific and industrial revolutions we managed to invent many of the most dangerous and repellant ideologies ever known. Not what I’d call progress.

I don’t see why that couldn’t be true for alien civilizations. Their material advancement and their morality could be completely unrelated. The only limiting factor is that you need a certain “baseline” of civilization and ethics simply to achieve a high technology level at all. A culture of endless conflict won’t be able to organize large projects. But a cruel despotism could be just as good at high technology as the most enlightened utopia. Maybe we should be glad we haven’t discovered any other intelligence in the galaxy so far.

In the novel, I wanted conflict because I needed to drive my plot along. So I deliberately shaped Sholen society in order to make them antagonistic to my future humans. Now, I didn’t want them to be just one-dimensional bad guys, so I tried to root their society in history and biology, to make it believable that they’d act the way they do in the story.

Hickman: So no drama without conflict?

Cambias: Obviously. There’s got to be some conflict, even if it’s internal. Even Goodnight Moon has the baby bunny trying to avoid going to sleep by saying goodnight to everything in the room.

Hickman: The two extraterrestrial sentient species interacting with humans in your novel, the Sholen and Ilmatarans, were alien but still understandable. How big a role did biological differences play in constructing their minds?

Any civilization which we would easily recognize as such is undoubtedly going to have some form of political organization. One advantage to science fiction is that we can play around with different forms and try to imagine how aliens might do things differently from ourselves.

Cambias: I’m a bit of a biological determinist—not whole-hog, but I have no doubt that our mental processes and what we charmingly call “reason” are heavily influenced by hard-wired features of our brains. In this novel I focused on sex and reproduction as drives which affect our behavior. How many of my character Rob Freeman’s decisions are influenced by his love of Alicia Neogri? More than he’d like to admit. The Sholen are hypersexual, which is why they’ve practically wrecked their homeworld through past overpopulation and devastating wars. This affects their attitude toward humans, since they expect us to do the same. It also means that the social controls they’ve adopted to keep from wiping themselves out yet again are working directly against their strongest inherent urges. They’re making themselves crazy, which is one reason they react to humans with such mistrust. By contrast, the Ilmatarans are practically asexual. They can relate to each other as friends, colleagues, enemies, employers, etc., but the ideas of romantic or parental love are alien to them. Ilmatarans love places and things, not people.

Hickman: Do you suspect that we are mostly unaware of the power of our hardwiring?

Cambias: Well, yes and no. We can see it in others much more easily than in ourselves. It’s amazing how everyone you talk to is perfectly rational and perceptive, but they’re quick to tell you how all those other boobs are helpless pawns of emotional manipulation and crackpot beliefs.

Hickman: One of the major Sholen characters, Tizhos, doubts the morality of her species’ behavior. Are you convinced that some potential for morality is likely to accompany sentience?

Cambias: Absolutely. Unless your species lives in a constant war of all against all, you’ll need some basis for cooperation, or at least peaceful coexistence. That sows the seeds of law and morality. And since cooperation is a positive-sum game, groups with moral systems gain practical advantages, allowing them to grow. That doesn’t mean they’ll have the same moral ideas, but in my story the Sholen—like humans—frown on mass murder.

Hickman: That the Ilmataran cull and cannibalize some of its young was disturbing. Was that fun to write?

Cambias: As a parent, I suppose I should say “of course not” but in all honesty, yes, it was fun to write. Just as showing the Sholen using sexual harassment as a management tool was fun. I kind of enjoy poking things which we think are eternal verities.

Hickman: All three species in the novel appeared to be political in the sense of engaging in both cooperation and competition both between individuals and between groups. Do I read that correctly? It is your sense that any sentient species is going to be political in that way?

Cambias: I can imagine a sentient species of highly solitary beings—some kind of big top carnivores, say—who could be perfectly intelligent but have no desire to interact with one another (except for reproduction, of course). Politics among them would mostly consist of chasing rivals away and such. But it’s also hard to imagine beings like that ever developing much of a technological civilization. So any civilization which we would easily recognize as such is undoubtedly going to have some form of political organization. One advantage to science fiction is that we can play around with different forms and try to imagine how aliens might do things differently from ourselves.

Hickman: What drives conflict and resolution of conflict among the three species? Is it biology? Culture? Material interest?

Cambias: Culture. In any story with interstellar travel it’s very hard to figure out how to make material resources a cause for conflict. You either wind up inventing some kind of imaginary “unobtainium” to drive the plot, or you have to postulate that alien beings can colonize other people’s planets very conveniently. I just don’t buy it, myself. The universe is very big; there’s room and stuff for everyone and we’re unlikely to want the same spots. So the source of conflict between spacefaring civilizations has to be cultural, or ideological. And as I mentioned above, that’s going to have some basis in biology.

Hickman: In one passage on page 152, the Ilmatarans struggle with what seems a collective action problem called the Stag Hunt Game. Was this intended as a major clue about how Ilmataran society emerged?

Historically, there aren’t very many examples of contact and exploration without some acquisitive goals… However, there is one huge precedent which people keep missing: space exploration.

Cambias: Yes! While I wasn’t familiar with that particular game model, that’s generally how I envisioned Ilmataran society developing. Each Ilmataran is highly territorial but not very parental. So they’d behave like one-person nation states toward each other. An Ilmataran village is something like a regional economic and defense alliance among countries on Earth. Now I hinted here and there that the Ilmatarans have tried other forms of social organization in the past. Their history is very long, so they’ve probably had towns run as collectives, or as despotisms, or whatever. I expect that it’s pretty common to find Ilmataran settlements controlled by a small gang of armed goons led by a boss like Strongpincer.

Hickman: Finally, some of the humans in the novel seem to “go native” in this novel. Was that influenced by your reading of history?

Cambias: Not so much “going native” as finding common ground with the Ilmatarans. They have a basis for cooperation: jointly expanding their knowledge of the universe. The humans can learn about Ilmatar while the Ilmatarans learn about the rest of the cosmos. But the humans can’t really settle on Ilmatar. I believe I mention in one place that my human explorers are reducing their life expectancy the longer they remain. Historically, there aren’t very many examples of contact and exploration without some acquisitive goals. Even Enlightenment-era explorers like James Cook or Lewis and Clark were scouting out good locations for trade and settlement… However, there is one huge precedent which people keep missing: space exploration. Even though it began in the middle of a massive rivalry between superpowers, space exploration has been a model of cooperation and scientific sharing. I think that’s a very encouraging template for the future.


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ISPCS 2014