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Alien Scientist: An Alien Society Analogue

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: July 2005, Topic: Alien Scientist

In science fiction stories, aliens usually fill a variety of roles recognisable to humans. First, there are the kinds of alien who are analogues of ourselves - alien 'people' to do business with, make war or peace, dine or have experimental sex with. Then there are the scary alien monsters, analogous to predatory animals (like alien equivalents of lions or dinosaurs) or small nasty pestilent things (like alien worms or microbes). Other alien creatures might turn out to be analogous to pets that keep us company, or farmyard animals that we keep in order to eat. Finally, there may be particularly incomprehensible, unrecognisable life-forms seemingly put there to puzzle or disgust us and our scientific wisdom.

If Earth itself contained only non-human animals of those types - that we recognised as predators or prey, pets or pests, or specimens from science school - then we might be limited in imagining what an 'alien society', analogous to ours, might be like. We might simply fill the void with dreary humanoids and their quotidian quasi-terrestrial civilisations.

However, Earth biology has provided us with at least one class of creature that is both a bit like our own society and yet a bit alien: the social insects, and in particular, the bees.

A bee is recognisably a life-form; a creature with some anatomical affinity with us, but not too much: having a head with some kind of eyes, but really funky insect eyes, some kind of limbs, but a different number doing different things, and so on. A bee even looks as if it might be sentient and intelligent, or at least forms part of a social entity that appears so.

Most of all, bees seem to 'do' stuff that we recognise, including cleaning the house, going to work, fetching supplies and feeding the brood. They have a 'system' to maintain; an economy to run. They huddle and do little dances. They make stuff - honey, wax and royal jelly. They create a remarkably rational-looking architecture, as if possessing the otherworldly know-how of an alien civilisation.

In other words, beehive society is potentially a good analogue for what an alien society might be: it is sufficiently 'alien' in terms of its specific physical characteristics, and yet it is recognisably, analogously, a society.

Bees also suit this analogous role as they are neither our predators nor our prey; they are not considered pests, nor are they really pets. Sure, we have a working relationship with bees, but they don't really work with us or for us, in the way that beasts of burden or working dogs do, directly acting to our commands. (Whoever commanded a bee?) No, we just tend to build them hives and extract honey for rent, without them ever expressly doing our bidding or giving their consent.

So we do have a rapport with them, but it's not a direct one-society-to-another reciprocity. And this is exactly the kind of semi-skewed relationship we might expect if we encountered a society of extra-terrestrial aliens. In other words, first contact with an alien society might not be as familiar as bowing or shaking hands with a bunch of conveniently upright, appropriately limbed bipeds; or at the other extreme, as odd as an audience with a vat of self-aware vapours.

Rather, making contact with an alien civilisation might be like encountering a society of human-sized bees. We can imagine going up into their hive like entering the trapdoor a giant spaceship, with black-and-yellow uniformed guards with their stings at the ready, and treated to the science-fiction spectacle of flying round the interior of a shimmering skyscraper city of cells and galleries, before zooming in on the everyday realities of hive life.

We might then have a frisson of disapproval (albeit perhaps an inappropriately anthropocentric one) at their seemingly politically incorrect authoritarian regime; the impersonal production-line rearing of their young; the oppressive gender roles - either because the females do all the chores, or because the males are even more prisoners of society, fed and groomed like concubines in a harem, their only fate as sex slaves to the monarch and death.

So we might be welcomed as alien guests of honour, feted with alien dance performances and dining on alien royal jelly. Or we might be treated strictly as equals, and commandeered into their society, for better or worse. Or treated like intruders, stung, smothered in propolis and unceremoniously fed to the larvae.

In other words, we can't necessarily guess what analogues our alien counterparts will see in us.

<< Japanese Books for Beginners | Master Index | Science News: July 2005 >>

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