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Alien Encounters

by Matthias Teeuwen

I had read “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (1998) and I wanted to write a blog about it. It contains a lot of interesting ideas including classic science fiction tropes that have often fascinated anthropologists. In fact, the editors of The Geek Anthropologist blog have alerted me to the interesting synergy that exists between anthropology and science fiction, as did the article of Peter Pels on the fictionalisation (and commercialisation) of nineteenth-century anthropology. One of the fascinations that the genre holds for anthropologists is the possibility of an encounter with totally other life forms or worlds and what this might reveal about humans.

“Story of Your Life” is about an encounter with alien life forms. The movie “Arrival” (2015) is based on it and even though it does a great job at visualising the story, I think it doesn’t quite do justice to the profound plot of the original. In this sci-fi novella Linguist Louisa Banks together with physicist Gary Donnelly are appointed by the U.S. government to learn the aliens’ language and to communicate with them. Banks not only discovers that the aliens have a non-linear language but, following the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that they also have a radically different way of thinking. Instead of taking time linearly, with the future ahead of them and the past behind, the aliens experience time non-linearly.

There is a lot of physics involved, for example the Fermat-principle, a proto quantum physics principle about light always taking the shortest path. Which is interesting, but for me the main fascination lies in the possibility of encountering wholly other ways of thinking and experiencing. Perhaps taking the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis too far, Chiang has Louisa Banks experiencing life differently as her mastery of the alien language increases. But the idea itself, having humans who think linearly meet aliens that think non-linearly, is enlightening. It brought home to me the very historical contingency of our very way of thinking and that our way of experiencing is not the only possible way of knowing things.

Thinking through alien encounters is one way to hypothesize about other ways of thinking and experiencing, but I think that if we go far enough back into our own history we will also encounter ‘alien’ senses of what it is to be human. I have to think here of Charles Taylor’s account of how our sense of self has changed over the last centuries since the ancient Greeks. He shows how people have come from regarding themselves as part of a greater cosmic whole to regarding themselves as individuals with an inner authenticity. The difference between these two world-views, but also between the concomitant ways of thinking and experiencing, is huge. As a matter of fact, why not take a medieval peasant with his medieval way of thinking, give him a different body and a spaceship, introduce him to the present age, and thereby create a whole new science fiction story?

Chiang has probably written one of the best, and certainly one of the most convincing, accounts that I have read, about an encounter with aliens. Of course, anything we cook up here on earth about aliens is going to be shot through with human assumptions. We can’t know whether a medieval peasant would be as different to us as a Martian peasant would be. But “Story of Your Life” does a pretty good job at trying to imagine an encounter with the third kind. However, for a new branch of anthropology studying extraterrestrial or non-human ways of thinking we will have to wait for an actual encounter with aliens or for Artificial Intelligence to have evolved beyond our comprehension.

Matthias Teeuwen is student of the social science research Master at the University of Amsterdam and editor at Standplaats Wereld. His research interests include religion, language, and the philosophy of science.


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