Since my current release, Twin-Bred, concerns an attempt to improve communication and understanding between humans and aliens, I thought I'd give a shout-out to ten of my favorite treatments of this theme. Here they are, in random order.
--The Sparrow (and Children of God), Mary Doria Russell: The first of these two books, The Sparrow, is one of my favorite novels in any genre and from any period. The writing is exquisite, and I loved spending time with the characters. Russell does a superb job in both books of creating unique alien races and showing how attempts at comprehending an alien culture can go terribly awry. Children of God, the sequel to The Sparrow, is almost as good, and carries the story forward in a satisfactory way, delving further into the results of human contact with the alien society.
--Footfall, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: An examination of a species with distinct similarities to a (nonhuman) Earth species, best understood by extrapolating from that species to its intelligent alien analogue. The aliens' struggle to understand humanity is at least as interesting as the human attempts to fathom the aliens. One of my favorite touches: the President of the United States, faced with alien contact, creates two teams of science fiction authors -- one assuming friendly aliens and one "Threat Team" -- to advise him on what to expect. The characters "Robert Anson" and "Virginia Anson" are a lovely tribute to the science fiction author Robert A. (Anson) Heinlein and his wife Virginia.
--The Mote in God's Eye, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: More wonderfully conceived aliens, and more examples of how humans and aliens could start by making fundamentally incorrect assumptions about each other's biology and culture. The plot thickens as one species (I won't say which) realizes the other's ignorance on a key point and tries to preserve that ignorance as long as possible.
--Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card: This sequel to Ender's Game has some mind-boggling aliens not present in the first book. Once again, we see how much trouble can come from the nigh-inevitable misunderstandings as radically different intelligent species confront each other's customs.
--The Birthday of the World, Ursula K. LeGuin: this collection of short stories includes some stories set on the planet where the better-known The Left Hand of Darkness takes place, and most of the others are set in that same universe. Members of the species taking center stage in The Left Hand of Darkness are asexual except during periodic episodes of "being in kemmer," when they become, quite intensely, either male or female, usually with no predisposition to transform in one direction rather than the other. LeGuin explores how this very different approach to sexuality would shape a culture. I choose the collection of stories rather than the novel because of its more extensive cultural themes and variations.
--The Host, Stephenie Meyer: With ten trembling fingers, I defend Ms. Meyer's abilities as a writer. She has her flaws, as do we all, but she is one heck of a storyteller and creates many appealing characters. The Host -- which I would say has fewer flaws than the Twilight saga, much as I enjoyed the latter -- takes place after a species of intelligent parasites has invaded and largely conquered Earth, taking over humans and living in a transformed superficially-human society. The narrator, Wanderer, is one of these parasites, placed inside Melanie, a particularly strong-willed human rebel. Melanie's memories of those she loves affect Wanderer in ways that transform them both. This is a story of the growth of empathy and understanding.
--Sector General series, James B. White: White is a great storyteller, and perhaps not as great a craftsman. But this series of novels about a galactic hospital is great fun. The main characters come from about half a dozen species, all with their interesting attributes. Many of the stories involve the appearance of newly discovered species, in immediate and desperate need of medical attention. The challenges posed for the medical staff are daunting indeed. One useful invention is the ability of surgeons to temporarily take on the memories and skills of a renowned doctor of another species, so as to treat that species more effectively. The greater challenge, undertaken by only the most emotionally stable, is to receive semipermanent mental imprints of several different alien doctors at once. Those who hold up under this assault of alien personalities become diagnosticians, best equipped to speculate on what is ailing new aliens and what to do about it.
--The Uplift War, David Brin: This is my favorite of Brin's Uplift series. The background: an intergalactic civilization called the Five Galaxies has existed for billions of years. Throughout that time, existing intelligent "patron" species have altered pre-sapient "client" species, who then occupy a subservient position to the patron, but can go on and uplift new clients. Earth's humans do not fit into this picture, having no known patron. Moreover, when discovered by the Five Galaxies, humans were in the process of essentially "uplifting" chimpanzees and dolphins, putting them prematurely in the "patron" category. Different members of the Five Galaxies have different attitudes toward these distressing new upstarts, with all sorts of political and military results. In The Uplift War, humans are in the process of reclaiming Garth, an environmentally devastated planet, when one of the more hostile patron species, the Guthru, invades and takes the human population hostage. The relationships between various patron and client species, as well as the social characteristics of Guthru (essentially large flightless birds), are thoughtfully and imaginatively worked out.
--Robert Silverberg's Majipoor series (starting with Lord Valentine's Castle): This science fiction series has the feel of fantasy in some respects, but it takes place on a distant planet, involves multiple alien races from yet other planets, and does not take any more liberties with physical laws than your typical science fiction novel. Humans came to the planet Majipoor in some distant past, co-existed uneasily with the shape-shifting indigenous species, eventually conquered and marginalized that species, and then invited the inhabitants of other planets to come and fill up their large new world. I can't say much more without spoilers, but the books gradually reveal a good deal about the society and viewpoint of the native species -- or rather, viewpoints, as there are two quite different approaches about how to reclaim a proper place in planetary society. The human political structure on Majipoor is also original (as far as I know) and interesting.
--Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein: The Grand Old Man of science fiction did not spend much time examining alien societies. This book goes further than most in that direction, though in the service of other themes. Valentine Michael Smith was orphaned as an infant, on Mars, and raised by Martians. As a young man, he is found by an Earth expedition and returns to Earth. We learn about Martians from him, and -- of more importance -- see human society from his essentially Martian viewpoint. This is, among other things, a science fiction spin on the coming of age story, as Michael gradually learns to become human, while trying to share some aspects of Martian culture.
Readers, please comment with your own favorites!
By Karen A. Wyle
Can interspecies diplomacy begin in the womb? After seventy years on Tofarn, the human colonists and the native Tofa still know very little about each other. Misunderstanding breed conflict, and the conflicts are escalating. Scientist Mara Cadell’s radical proposal: that host mothers of either species carry fraternal twins, human and Tofa, in the hope that the bond between twins can bridge the gap between species. Mara lost her own twin, Levi, in utero, but she has secretly kept him alive in her mind as companion and collaborator.
Mara succeeds in obtaining governmental backing for her project – but both the human and Tofa establishments have their own agendas. Mara must shepherd the Twin-Bred through dangers she anticipated and others that even the canny Levi could not foresee. Will the Twin-Bred bring peace, war, or something else entirely?
The human colony on Tofarn and the indigenous Tofa have great difficulty communicating with and basically comprehending each other. Scientist Mara Cadell is running a project where host mothers carry twins, one human and one Tofa, in the hope that the bond between twins can bridge the gap between species. Alan Kimball, a member of the governing human Council, is hostile to the Tofa and has inserted agents into the project.
Excerpt #1 from Twin-Bred
Tilda looked at her twins, cuddled close together in the crib. Mat-set had all four arms wrapped around Suzie. They seemed to cuddle any chance they got. Maybe they were glad to be free of separate amniotic sacs.
She looked down at Mat-set and remembered the rumors of Tofa with five arms instead of four. She had even seen pictures, but who knew whether they were authentic. Certainly none of the Tofa Twin-Bred babies had been born with extra limbs.
Tilda glanced over at the big dormitory clock and then back down at the babies. She gasped and staggered a step back. Mat-set was still holding Suzie with four arms. So how was he scratching his head with another one?
Tilda looked around wildly for a chair, found one blessedly nearby, and sank down on it. She pinched herself. Nothing changed. Well, who said you couldn’t pinch yourself in a dream and keep on dreaming?
She got up and walked, a bit unsteadily, to the intercom and buzzed for a nurse. Then she went back to the crib. Of course. Four arms, only four, and what was she going to do now?
She decided to be brave and sensible. If she had really seen it, the staff had to know. And if she hadn’t, and she didn’t wake up, then she was ill, and she should get the help she needed.
The chief nurse tucked Tilda in and watched her drift off to sleep, sedative patch in place. Then she went back to her station and called up the monitor footage on Tilda’s twins.
* CONFIDENTIAL *
CLEARANCE CLASS 3 AND ABOVE
LEVI Status Report, 12-15-71
Observation of the Tofa infants has shed some light on the longstanding question of whether the number of Tofa upper appendages is variable among the Tofa population. The thickest of the four armlike appendages is apparently capable of dividing when an additional upper appendage is desired. . . .
Councilman Kimball bookmarked the spot in his agent's report and opened his mail program. He owed an apology to the young man who had claimed his poor showing against a Tofa undesirable was due to the sudden appearance of an extra appendage. Apparently the man had been neither dishonest nor drunk.
After discharging that obligation, Kimball made a note to seek further details as to the divided arms' placement, reach, and muscular potential. His people needed adequate information to prepare them for future confrontations. After all, forewarned — he laughed out loud at the thought — was forearmed.
Karen A. Wyle was born a Connecticut Yankee, but eventually settled in Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University. She now considers herself a Hoosier. Wyle's childhood ambition was to be the youngest ever published novelist. While writing her first novel at age 10, she was mortified to learn that some British upstart had beaten her to the goal at age 9.
Wyle is an appellate attorney, photographer, political junkie, and mother of two daughters. Her voice is the product of almost five decades of reading both literary and genre fiction. It is no doubt also influenced, although she hopes not fatally tainted, by her years of law practice. Her personal history has led her to focus on often-intertwined themes of family, communication, the impossibility of controlling events, and the persistence of unfinished business.
Twin-Bred Playlist Promotion
I'm running a special promotion for Twin-Bred: be the first reader to suggest a song for a Twin-Bred playlist, and if I agree with your selection, your name and song choice will be included in an appendix to a future edition of the book!
Please send an mp3 file, or a link to a YouTube video where I can hear the song, to Karen A. Wyle at email@example.com. (At the same time, please let me know if you'd like to be on my email alert list, so you can hear about upcoming releases and events.)
I'll post occasional updates about the playlist on Twin-Bred's Facebook page.