What produces this feeling that we’re encountering something alien? And, eventually, the more practical question, how do we create this feeling in our writing?
First of all, it’s the sense of something “off,” a slight case of the unexpected, the unlikely, When a landscape, for example, seems basically the same, an expected version, but one aspect of it is just a little askew, whether it be a color, a texture, a movement, a smell, a sound, an image that doesn’t belong (like a face in the rocks—see the blog entry on “Images in Stone”), or a simple hint of something that shouldn’t be there, a slight sense of the uncanny.
It’s any peculiarity that reminds us we have a certain expectation that has not been fulfilled, and thus it’s a disturbance to our tranquility and our confidence in our own intellect. We feel displaced, as if we’ve tripped, mentally. We’re not getting back what we’ve “put out.” It’s the deconstructionist moment, the challenge of intellectual limbo, when the picture presented by the senses doesn’t compute. For example, as mentioned in the previous blog, the first images of the moon Io. They were just not “right” according to what we naively assumed.
How can this information and speculation about “first encounters” help science-fiction writers? What are some of the “alienation effects” that writers can use in describing such alien settings? SF writers know the scientific procedures of world-building, the rigorous deduction of the precise equations for luminosity, specific gravity, physical geology, meteorology, evolutionary biology, and all the necessary physics and chemistry. (Well, to be honest, most of us don’t know these equations, but we can find them if we want to.) Still, ultimately, unless your book is crowded with charts, graphs, and math, what you’re left to work with is just the words, the sentences and paragraphs. We still have to tell a story with characters and events, and that requires basic narrative. Too much technical “info-dumping,” in the form of academic lectures or formulas and calculus, will just slow the pace.
So then, what devices help us?
I once wrote half a dissertation on this subject, on “the fictional creation of alien worlds,” and, though I’d never use again the bulky jargon I applied in that study (“experimental” SF, “conventional” SF, “perceptual” worlds, “conceptual” worlds), I’m still interested in the narrative techniques of suggesting newness to a reader. I don’t mean the bald presentation of physical data (“this planet has gravity 1.4 terrestrial norm”) but statements more descriptive and sensory (“his feet still hurt at the end of the day”). Not the numbers—but the words.
Simon Schama, in his excellent book Landscape and Memory, talks of 19th century Romantic landscape painters as depicting a form of “sensory brinksmanship,” of pushing the viewer to an edgy vertigo, as in an image of a tree dangerously poised on the edge of a cliff, or where the viewpoint—and thus the viewer—is brought to the rim of a precipice. Alpine passages in vintage Romanticism often served this purpose by providing “vertiginous empiricism” or “sensory disorientation,” using mountains as chastisers of “human delusions about omnipotence and invincibility”(462), as seen in Turner’s painting of Hannibal swept under by alpine storms, or Cozens’ depictions of people dwarfed by “surreal, hallucinated” mountain landscapes.
It’s this sense of “brinkmanship” that the prose passage can convey or suggest, the feeling that one’s understanding, or, more accurately, expectation, is thwarted and challenged, resulting in a sensory vertigo. It’s not yet an intellectual response, though that might follow after. It’s that first “whistling in the dark” effect, the feeling “this isn’t what I bargained for.”
Here are two examples. One straightforward and quite literal, the second still direct but more subtle and suggestive.
The first is from Arthur Clarke’s classic Childhood’s End, and describes what a city would be like where all the inhabitants could fly. From the perspective of a normal earth-bound human, it would be hazardous, precipitous indeed:
. . . he caught momentary glimpses of the city, and realized how difficult—and dangerous—it would be for him to travel around in it. Streets were practically nonexistent, and there seemed to be no surface transport. This was the home of creatures who could fly, and who had no fear of gravity. It was nothing to come without warning upon a vertiginous drop of several hundred meters, or to find that the only entrance into a room was an opening high up in the wall. In a hundred ways, Jan began to realize that the psychology of a race with wings must be fundamentally different from that of earthbound creatures. (193)
A basically conceptual idea or standard SF thought-experiment, “what would a city be like where all the inhabitants could fly,” is made more directly alien by the sensory and emotional qualities of being pushed to an edge, literally, “a vertiginous drop of several hundred meters” encountered “without warning.”
A more tense or “edgy” example is taken from Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. A human and a Gethenian are crossing a “rotten” icefield that has already led to one of them dangerously falling into an abyss filled with surreal “blue towers.” The description of continuing on the ice gives a sense of a foreign, off-setting, and threatening experience:
. . . In the white weather one could not see a crevasse until one could look down into it—a little late, for the edges overhung, and were not always solid. Every footfall was a surprise, a drop or a jolt. No shadows. An even, white, soundless sphere: we moved along inside a huge frosted-glass ball. There was nothing inside the ball, and nothing was outside it. But there were cracks in the glass. Probe and step, probe and step. Probe for invisible cracks through which one might fall out of the white glass ball, and fall, and fall, and fall. . . . An unrelaxable tension little by little took hold of all my muscles. It became exceedingly difficult even to take one more step. (264-6)
Walking inside a “frosted-glass ball” with no shadows but with dangerous crevasses is a fine example of “sensory disorientation” and “vertiginous empiricism,” the disruption of Enlightenment precision, and the countering of expected size and measurement. To quote Schama (who was describing Romantic paintings): “the mind is almost lost in the sublimity of its own idea” and LeGuin’s “white, soundless sphere” leads “the mind beyond what the eye sees” (472-3).
Though Clarke’s passage still maintains an Enlightenment sense of measured deduction and sensible speculation, even when poised on a brink, the second leaves one with a ghostly sense of stepping beyond rationality, of settled thought being challenged by the featureless, or shadowless, white ball of experience on this endless icefield, or, as Philip Shaw put it in speaking of the sublime, where “thought trembles on the edge of extinction” or where the harmony “of a body of thought is brought into question” (148-49).
It’s a pause in expectation, a moment of intellectual limbo, when the picture presented by the senses just doesn’t completely compute—or, another way of describing it, “sensory brinkmanship,” standing on the edge of a new perception.
Just where you want to put your reader.
Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End. (1953) New York: Ballantine, 1974.
LeGuin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. (1969) New York: Ace, 1983.
Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Random House, 1995.
Shaw, Philip. The Sublime. New York: Routledge, 2006.