Communications Breakdown: When Aliens and Humans Collide


This post is inspired by China Mieville’s Embassytown, coming to paperback on January 31, 2012.

Let’s say that one day when you’re on your way to work you find yourself faced with an enormous spacecraft. The thing is blocking off the four lanes of interstate, and traffic is backed up for miles. Stunned, you abandon your vehicle and join the throngs of your fellow commuters gathered around the craft’s perimeter. A hastily scrambled television crews gather to record this momentous occasion; millions off television viewers at home watching through their proxy eyes. This is the moment of truth: will our alien visitors greet us in peace with a message of universal brotherhood? Will they ask to be taken to our leaders? A gasp escapes from the crow as a portal opens and a walkway slides down.

Our alien visitors appear, but they’re nothing like anything we’ve seen before: Maybe they’re amorphous blobs with bioluminescent sparkles of light twinkling throughout their masses, or chitinous insects whose greasy carapaces give off a nauseatingly acrid whiff of pheromones. Perhaps they’re completely indescribable; something that H.P. Lovecraft threw in the wastebasket as being too unbelievable. What do they want? Where is their mouths? Their faces? They won’t say anything.

One brave young woman steps forth from the crowd. A friendly smile graces her beautiful face and her hands are raised palms forward toward our visitors. She knows from her sociology class that this is considered non-threatening by most cultures. She moves slowly, stopping a foot short from the base of the ramp before she greets the creatures. Her voice is melodic and soothing:

“On behalf of humanity, I’d like to welcome – “

Those are the last words she’ll ever say. The crowds scramble as the would-be diplomat is incinerated in flash of alien fire. The spacecraft blasts away, leaving an enormous crater in the interstate. Months later, the visitors return, but this time they’ve brought an army. Humanity’s last days are full of horror and war.

What might have happened here? Why did the aliens attack? Communication problems.

Most of us know that there are very few absolutes of communication among Earthly cultures. We don’t all speak the same languages, and even nonverbal communication isn’t a sure-fire way to cross cultural lines. Even the most basic physical expression, the smile, can be a source of conflict: While Americans generally consider a smile friendly, other cultures can consider smiles, especially when coming from strangers, to be threatening or a sign of dishonesty. Communicating between the same culture can be difficult, as well. Men and women sometimes see the same things very different ways. So can members of different religions, subcultures or races.

Communication human-to-human is fraught with difficulty, so why do so many science fiction stories presume that individuals from two different species can communicate with less trouble? It’s preposterous, but story after story features humans and aliens chattering away as if they’re foreign exchange students with a common but limited understanding of a third language. Oftentimes, these aliens are too human themselves: two arms, two legs, mouth, eyes, ears. The chances that two different species, both evolving on different worlds, would resemble each other enough to have the physical ability to exchange and understand each others’ ideas are pretty unlikely. Think about trying to have a conversation with a tarantula: your frames of reference would be utterly different. You couldn’t even make the same noises with your mouths. Communication would be an impossibility, and both of you share the same planet.

Let’s take a look at our alien visitors again. Were they really not communicating? That amorphous blob was twinkling away. Remember the bioluminescent sparkles? What about our insectoid aliens? Maybe that acrid stench was a form of pheromone communication. What kind of sight did the young brave woman present to our visitors? She approached mere inches away with her “claws” raised and fangs bared, making some kind of horrifying noise. What did her “words” sound like to them? Did they hear the sounds, or did their brains interpret the stimulus as something else entirely? It might be that her simple greeting was one of the most terrifying attacks the aliens ever encountered, but the rest of humanity will never know.

There are some science fiction stories that play with the problems of interspecies communications. Some of them make the issue an integral part of the plot. Not doing so isn’t necessarily a shortcoming: if you’re looking for realism in your reading then you’re going to miss out on a lot of wonderful stuff, but communication problems and culture clashes can be fertile grounds for fiction.

Lovecraft’s alien things rarely communicated with the humans that encountered them, and when they did, it was often at the expense of the human abandoning his or her humanity entirely. That’s what makes his creatures so frightening, anyway: we don’t really know what they want. Honestly, we wouldn’t understand what they want even if they could communicate it to us.

The battle at the center of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War started over a communication problem. A chance encounter between two space-going species without a common reference point or means to exchange information leads to an exchange of artillery, in turn escalating into a war that lasts centuries.

China Mieville’s Embassytown could be safely described as a science fiction novel about linguistics. A human colony on an alien world is dependent on the goodwill of the native species: a race of insectoid creatures who communicate using two mouths and a language that is utterly inhuman in its construction. The arrival of a new translator – actually translators – triggers a series of events that almost culminates in the death of the entire species.

Movies have played with these ideas, too: Who can forget the five notes of music used to communicate with the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? In Contact, the aliens (maybe) communicated with Earthly scientists by way of mathematics – a “universal language”. More recently, the independent sci fi horror film Monsters featured a race of octopoid creatures who communicated with bioluminescent flashes and tentacle-waving.

It should be said that language problems in science fiction aren’t an all or nothing thing, either to be ignored or obsessed over. Some science fiction creators have imagined wonderful technologies that address or sidestep the issue in a lighthearted matter. I couldn’t imagine Star Wars without beloved protocol droid C-3PO, or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without the Babel Fish. This is a perfectly acceptable answer, too.

Culture clashes and laser blasts might be ever person’s thing, but there are plenty of grounds here on planet earth to justify that kind of problem in outer space. Hopefully, if we ever meet another intelligent species we’ll fare better than our brave young woman. If we don’t, it’s not likely we’ll get a second chance.