A Guest Post by Mark Laporta:
Knock around the sci-fi space-time continuum, and you’re bound to run into familiar alien stereotypes. There’s the Galaxy-wise Sage full of cryptic maxims. Or the muscled-up bigot, who thinks you’re a threat to his warrior clan. Successfully dodge his e-mag blade and you could bump into a Sidereal Opportunist. Especially, that is, if your FTL cruiser needs a quick fix.
“What’s the Empire/Foundation/Republic ever done for me, eh?” this shabby techno-jockey sneers. But she soon softens up, once you awaken the dying embers of Idealism. And just before take-off, the cringing survivor of a once-proud civilization appears — with a time-orb tucked under his tattered cloak.
While these colorful characters add pizazz to a story, they also create false expectations. For my part, I can’t help wondering what real, everyday extra-solar folk will be like. Will they fuss over their weight, worry about their jobs, or struggle to cope with lonely Saturday nights?
Maybe you think such concerns are exclusively human, but I disagree. Sentience is sentience. As I see it, the self-awareness that goes with sentience will give aliens many familiar traits. For one thing, they’re liable to be tortured by self-doubt. And in species that reproduce in a way we’d recognize, I’ll bet there’s a touch of anxiety on Date Night:
“Are my eyestalks too droopy? What if my mandibles start sweating again?”
Besides, as we know from our own experience, fully sentient beings create complex societies, riddled with arbitrary and contradictory standards. So it’s easy to imagine an up-and-coming arthropod from the Khlandoor system, drowning in an ocean of social pressure. A female might be contemplating leg-joint reduction. A male might stress over the glint of his antennae.
“Does this sweater make my tentacles look puffy?” a sentient cephalopod might ask her boyfriend. I’ll bet you know the answer. The poor fool would blurt out the perfect white lie without a nanosecond’s hesitation.
Why? Because to be self-aware in an advanced civilization is to wonder if you measure up. Whether the ideal is skinnier tentacles, longer tentacles, slimier tentacles or scalier ones, you can be sure every teenage cephalopod on the planet wants “the cool kind.” Later on in life, they’ll be glad their tentacles still work at all, but there’s no point in telling them that now.
In our world, humans are already starting to get edgy about the idea of robots taking their jobs. That’s nothing. Somewhere out beyond the Andromeda galaxy, an alien sad sack just found out his ex-girlfriend is marrying an android. It’s enough to give him shooting pains in every chamber of his tricameral heart. His congratulatory holocall only makes things worse for him.
“Yes, I’m happy, too,” his ex tells him. “Z5719 is so good for me. He’s so rational, and I just love the way his status lights blink.”
And what tangle of emotional knots would be complete without an unhealthy dose of parental nudging?.
“When are you gonna settle down and give me some grandchildren?” echoes a scolding voice in the mind of a free-spirited reptilian. “Your cousin’s a warp-drive engineer. Her kids are headed for a top school in the Gliese system. But never mind, enjoy yourself. I’ll just crawl into a stasis chamber so I’m not too old when you need me to babysit.”
Of course, if young aliens start out with nagging obsessions, you know middle-aged aliens have all kinds of complex issues:
“The Ghaarjips have a vacation home on Phalendra 4, and what have we got? When are you going to ask that old shape-shifter for a raise?”
“Come on, Sugar-proboscis, we’ve been over this …”
“Over what? Your total lack of exoskeleton? I knew I should have married Thraldoom.”
It’s enough to make a chlorine-breathing insectoid start nasty rumors about his supervisor, to get ahead. I mean, who knows what goes on at the hotel when the big shot attends an interstellar trade conference?
And while we’re on the topic of wealth, power and greed,. I’m pretty sure any aliens who live in a money economy will never feel they have enough. No matter what the currency, Average Zontar alien is liable to feel his life would be perfect if his bank account were bigger. Imagine: you’re making your numbers month after month, until some Rexnolian sand slug smashes his hovercar right onto your Aucturian hardwood patio deck..
Oh yeah, that’ll set you back, ’cause you know that freaking Rexnolian doesn’t have insurance!
I hate to say it, but I’m sure another source of alien neurosis will be bias-related. Sure, the Interstellar Consortium passed the Universal Species Respect and Tolerance Act in 6497, but who knows if it’s worth the holoscreen it scrolls across?
Remember, on Planet Earth, we’re still struggling hard to accept differences resulting from minor genetic variations affecting less than 0.01% of our genome. Imagine the stress caused by frequent encounters with multiple sentient species. And should any of those species prove to be telepathic, a spike in paranoia can’t be far behind.
“Do you think Djern is on to us?” asks one member of a guilty couple, who are ardently engaged in breaking company policy. And should Djern be the type to enjoy a little blackmail … the potential for angst increases exponentially.
All told, I’d say, the odds that sentient aliens are neurotic is astronomically high. In 3568 (old style), when we actually meet some, we’ll be more surprised at how similar they are than how different. And that’s a good thing. Because in the end, acknowledging our common failings is more likely to lead to mutual understanding than all the “phone home” moments in the universe.
Note: Mark Laporta is the author of The Changing Hearts of Ixdahan Daherek (Chickadee Prince Books, 2017).
Illustration from Getty Images.