Amy Thomson Gives Good Alien

If you're sick of reading about aliens who seem like thinly-veiled references to races or nationalities on Earth, then it's time for you to dip into the novels of Amy Thomson. She's best known for her novels The Color of Distance and Through Alien Eyes, both about creatures called the Tendu who speak squid-style through colors on their skin and can manipulate their own gene expression. More recently she published Storyteller, about a whale-like species called Harsels that can telepathically link to humans; and her first book was Virtual Girl, one of the only novels I've ever read that deals intelligently with what life as a fembot would really be like (for example: she's molested by her horny geek creator before she's even one year old). What pleases about all Thomson's books is her unapologetic exploration of minds and cultures that are so alien that human taboos do not apply. We were lucky enough to interview Thomson last week, so read on to find out about where she gets her knack for alien-making. She also tells us a little about her new story, which she describes as "Pippi Longstocking vs. Conan the Barbarian with a side order of My Little Pony."

Do you think it's possible for a science fiction writer to invent a lifeform or culture that is truly alien, or are all aliens really stand-ins for human beings?

Yes, I think writers can and have created really alien lifeforms. The aliens in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, Robert Forward's neutron star dwellers in Dragon's Egg, and many others come to mind.

That said, it isn't easy to create really alien-seeming aliens. There are plenty of books with aliens that are just humans in funny suits in a lot of books. Sometimes that's all the story needs. More often it's not.

For me, I find the easiest way to create a really alien-seeming culture is to start with an animal and ecological model. For example, the Tendu and the rainforest, and the harsel and the ocean. I try to avoid mammalian animals, because warm and furry is too familiar, and to anthropomorphize. In The Color of Distance, I based the Tendu on tree frogs. The harsels are based on whale sharks, cold blooded, water-breathing filter feeders. I also try to give my aliens a very different reproductive biology than humans. I find that it gives them very different drives and motives.

I think readers empathize with my aliens because, like all life forms, they are subject to the limitations of their environment. The harsel are entirely sea-bound, and the Tendu's rainforest is full of inimical lifeforms. The struggle against limitations is a pretty universal phenomenon, as is suffering caused by the lack of sufficient resources, be they food, time, energy, or fertilizer.

The two alien creatures you've invented, those of the tendu and the harsels, both take a very nonhuman view of death: They choose to die voluntarily, though not without regret. This is an unusual choice. Often, writers inventing aliens make them immortal or nearly-immortal. Why did you decide to create aliens who choose death?

Partly to be contrarian. Many writers write stories about immortals who live forever, with little or no thought of the societal impacts. They are stories that glorify Western individuality. But I believe that societies whose individuals have immensely long lifespans, must either have very few young, resulting in a stagnant, inflexible, rigid culture, or else they must place cultural limits on lifespan in order to have the cultural renewal of a younger generation.

There is a Japanese movie called Ballad of Narayama (the Japanese title is Narayama Bushiko). It is quite literally, the heart-warming story of leaving your aged mother to die in the snow on the side of a mountain. It is a remarkable story about a village that can only support so many people, so the aged are left to die of exposure. The grandmother is content to accept this fate, and is, in fact ashamed to be so healthy at her age. I've never seen another story like it. It challenges all our accepted western notions of death, dying, sacrifice, and choice.

I believe in the importance of having a younger generation that tries new things, even if sometimes they do stupid things, or reinvent the wheel. Eventually, they figure out that the wheel runs more smoothly without corners, and sometimes design a better wheel. Then they go on to produce another new generation who reinvent their own wheels. I believe a society that continually renews itself would be more resilient and adaptable than an immortal one. I also believe that societies must counterbalance youthful renewal with the continuity and wisdom that elders provide, hence the enkar in The Color of Distance. I originally envisioned them as an itinerant council of batrachian Gandalfs, going around and solving problems.

All that said, I personally am very attached to being alive, and living a long time, preferably sound in mind and body. But most importantly I would like to have control and choice in the time of my dying. Do I believe that this is likely? No. Hence the difficult deaths in Storyteller.

Speaking of unusual choices about death, one of the intriguing aspects of tendu culture is that they eat and enslave their young. Yet they are also very advanced ecologically-speaking, completely at one with their natural habitats. Do you think that intelligent species can achieve balance with the environment only once they learn to curb their population growth using radical measures?

One of the reasons that I had the Tendu eat their young was to make them more alien. After all, cannibalism is one of the great taboos of our culture. I wanted to challenge the reader to see through the eyes of these aliens, to understand, and even to sympathize with them.

Do I believe such extreme measures are necessary to achieve balance in our environment? No. All we need is access to good birth control, a willingness to raise fewer children, and a desire to live in a way that benefits the earth and its people. Of the three, I believe the last is the hardest. So many of the environmental problems we face are a result of the tragedy of the commons, where one person's desire to have a bigger slice of the pie means less for everyone else. We've known about global warming for decades, but we've refused to curb our fuel consumption. We've witnessed the suffering in the third world for a century or more, but never found the will to make sure that everyone on the planet has access to clean water and enough nutritious food. There are countries in Europe that have achieved zero population growth, and are years ahead of us in terms of clean energy, health care, and social consciousness. Through Alien Eyes, the sequel to The Color of Distance, was partly intended as a cautionary tale about what might happen if we cannot control our population.

What is the biggest mistake you see SF creators making when they try to create alien cultures and worlds? Many people complain about Star Trek aliens being basically "humans with weird foreheads." Is that irksome to you too, or are there other mistakes you see being far worse?

I don't mind the fact that all the Star Trek aliens look like humans with wierd foreheads. That just the limitations due to the special effects budget back in the 60's. What I mind is that the Star Trek aliens tend to ACT like humans with wierd foreheads. That's a failure of imagination, and imagination is what SF is all about.

Are you working on a new book right now?

I recently finished a novel called Nomad. It's a love story between a nomadic herder and a woman who grew up in space. He loves the wide open steppes, she has severe agoraphobia. She crossed interstellar space in fusion-powered spaceships, he lived in a yurt and burned dung for warmth. But they both love horses, so of course Love Conquers All. It's immense fun. And I got to do a lot of research on Mongolian nomadic herders, which turned into something of an obsession. I wound up going to Mongolia, where I learned to build a yurt, drank fermented horse milk, rode horses, and got very drunk on some wicked Russian Vodka. About which the less said, the better. The thing I least expected was how funny the Mongolians were. I was expecting dour, macho folks, and instead they made jokes, and laughed a lot. Funny Mongols. Who knew?

At the moment, I'm working on a short story that's pretty much like Pippi Longstocking vs. Conan the Barbarian with a side order of My Little Pony. Our girlish heroine pretty much reduces the barbarian warrior to quivering jelly.

This story was also inspired by my Mongolian trip. I was trying to explain to these big strong, incredibly competent, manly, Mongolian men who had grown up on horseback about how in America horses were a girl thing. I could sort of see their manhood crumbling, so I changed the subject. "Lovely weather. My aren't those yurt walls circular." Dum de dum. But the memory of that brief conversation stayed with me and turned into this tale.