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Strangeness -- by Rick Ellrod

One of the specialties of science fiction and fantasy is to evoke a sense of strangeness.  In dealing with the alien, the cosmic, that which is far away in space or time, SF can make us feel we are encountering something that passes the limits of our knowledge or understanding.

This isn’t as easy as it looks.

The Used and the Unusual

Since at least the original Star Wars (1977), it’s been good practice to portray a “Used Future.”  Star Wars gave us a world full of beaten-up, grimy equipment that looked as if it had been duct-taped together.  This is generally a good technique.  It adds realism.  We feel at home in a world where everything is not perfectly cleaned and aligned; it’s like where we actually live.  There’s a sense of familiarity.

One opposite to the “used future,” of course, is the kind of earlier SF movie that was full of shiny, spotless spaceships and immaculate gizmos.  But the sense of familiarity also has its own opposite:  the thrill of unfamiliarity.

One way the challenge arises is with extraterrestrials.  Suppose a story has us meeting intelligent aliens.  If they seem just like us—“rubber-forehead aliens”—they won’t be convincing.  We expect something from another world to be different.  The writer or director has to show creatures, technologies, behaviors that are unlike anything we’ve seen on Earth.

Escher Wallpaper CaveYet these things must also be believable.  Something that simply looks random or arbitrary, like an abstract swirl of colors, won’t convince us we’re seeing a real thing at all.  How do we thread the needle between the too-familiar and the unintelligible?

Just Alien Enough

Natural laws do enforce certain constraints on physical objects.  But other characteristics are a matter of custom, design choices, or aesthetics.  To show something convincingly alien, we need to know the difference.

Arrival, alien ship, bottomSometimes a single feature can be odd enough to alert us that we’re “not in Kansas any more.”  The alien ship that appears in the movie Arrival looks strange at once, because it’s smaller at the bottom than at the top.  It looks as if it’s upside-down or sideways. Not the way we’d build, yes.  But is it physically impossible?  Nope.  The ship isn’t on the ground, balanced implausibly on a narrow end.  It’s floating in the air.  This not only frees the ship from the usual need for wheels or other supports; it also introduces a second, subtler strangeness.  When we humans land somewhere, we expect to land, to set ourselves down securely on a surface.  These folks seem quite comfortable floating just above the ground.

A classic example is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama.  A massive spacecraft—a spinning O’Neill cylinder—enters the solar system, apparently inert.  A human crew matches course to explore it before its hyperbolic orbit takes it out into interstellar space again.  The ship begins to “come alive” around them—but there’s no sign of intelligent life aboard.  The explorers find one strange and amazing feature after another.  The purpose of some becomes clear:  the long, shallow rectangular valleys turn out to be immense lights that illuminate the interior.  But they never find out the reasons for many other objects.  In the end they have to cut loose from the vessel, letting it go on its mysterious way.

Rendezvous with Rama, interiorClarke’s mastery of clear detail—how the airlock doors open, for instance—gives us the necessary sense of realism.  But leaving many things mysterious evokes the sense of mystery and wonder that is among the most distinctive experiences in science fiction.  The unfamiliar is clearly and concretely depicted, but the purpose remains obscure.

(Parenthetically, I advise paying no attention at all to the dreadful sequels Gentry Lee wrote to Rama under Clarke’s direction.  They make the classic mistake of erasing the mystery without replacing it with anything at all interesting.  As with certain other sequels, the only thing for a conscientious reader to do is declare them non-canonical and pretend they never happened.)

For another Clarke treatment, remember 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  The mundane and even humdrum character of the long space voyage makes the psychedelic sequence at the end feel even weirder than it is in itself.

Sufficiently Advanced Technology

Extraterrestrials need not be involved.  Distance in time or space, and the concurrent advances in technology, can also provide a good foundation for the sense of strangeness.  (It was, after all, Clarke’s Third Law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”)

Startide Rising, coverAmong the numerous virtues of David Brin’s Hugo-winning novel Startide Rising is that sense of entering a new and unaccountable world.  His Earthly spaceship crew of “uplifted” dolphins, with their small group of human companions, use advanced techniques that are still recognizable to us.  But they’re dealing with galactic cultures that draw on hundreds of millions of years of accumulated science.  The results can be mind-boggling.  One species, for example, travels by using a captive creature that creates portals “by the adamant power of its ego—by its refusal to concede anything at all to Reality.”  This isn’t your grandmother’s hyperdrive.

Fisher-Price toyThe body of another species, the Jophur, consists of a stack of distinct rings, like a child’s toy.  The Brothers of the Ebony Shadows employ a probability weapon that sends out “waves of uncertainty.”  The fact that these species are nonhuman is incidental to the fact that their immense background of far-advanced science lets them use techniques that seem to surpass our understanding.

For a purely human example, let’s look at Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars.  (Clarke really had the knack for this sort of thing.)  The main character, who bears the pedestrian name of Alvin, lives in Diaspar, the last city on Earth, billions of years in our future.  The city’s structure does not erode or decay; it’s maintained by “eternity circuits” according to the model held in its master computers.  The people do not die in a conventional sense.  After living for a thousand years, each individual walks back into the Hall of Creation and is dissolved—but is also retained in the memory circuits, to be rematerialized eons later.  Thus the population of the city is always changing, but the individuals continue.  And that’s only the beginning . . .

The City and the Stars, city view

Exotic Ways of Life

Technology is one thing; behavior is another.  The City and the Stars does a terrific job of imagining how the society of Diaspar is shaped by the extraordinary conditions under which its people live.

When I read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, it was billed as ‘military science fiction’—but it’s nothing like the general run of military SF.  The six factions in the story make use of technologies that create real-world effects based on “formations” of people and their consensus beliefs.  Much of the plot revolves around a revolt based on “calendrical heresy”—which is just what it sounds like:  deviation from the standard calendars.  In Lee’s world, calendrical uniformity isn’t just a matter of convenience, but of crucial importance.  The resulting society is correspondingly peculiar.  Reading the story makes you feel as if you’re constantly being knocked sideways.

Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time combines present-day characters with those living in a city one hundred trillion years in the future.  The far-future people consist of “noötic” or virtual mass, are defended by “reality generators,” and are trying to fight a cosmic entity that’s trying to destroy the universe by disintegrating its history, acting backward through time.  The present-day people in mundane Seattle keep us grounded, but trying to understand the end-of-time characters and what they are doing requires a constant stretching of the imagination.

Strangeness and Wonder

The sense of strangeness or mystery is one form of the “sense of wonder” often used to characterize science fiction.  It takes us out of the mundane, makes us strain to conceive the inconceivable.  We’re often told that world travel expands our horizons by exposing us to different places and cultures.  Science fiction goes further:  it exposes us to ideas and places and people that don’t exist in the world at all.  At its limits, SF seeks to show us more than we can even comprehend.  The lack of reality is compensated by the greater impetus to go beyond our mental limitations.

To achieve that experience, we seem to need the right combination of the familiar and the exotic.  The weird stuff at the end of 2001 isn’t entirely successful, in my view:  it’s too strange.  Not only do we not understand what’s happening; we don’t quite feel there is anything to understand.  You have to read the book to figure out what’s going on.

But when we have enough groundedness to effect the “willing suspension of disbelief,” yet enough mystery to defeat (in part) our attempt to understand, the combination is uniquely fascinating.  As I noted at the beginning, this isn’t an easy balance to strike.  But the payoff makes it worth attempting.

Posted by Rick Ellrod 14 Nov at 00:34
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Responses to this blog

Harpalycus 14 Nov at 01:29  
Excellent and thought-provoking blog. The balance between some grounding in the mundane and the 'magic' of the alien is the tightrope all scifi authors have to walk. But what fascinates me is that the alien remains the mundane, in the sense that it is some aspect of our reality stretched into something that seems new and original. Witness the lovely idea of a creature that refuses to concede to reality. We've all met someone like that. Or it is a chimera, a combination of disparate parts put together to create some seemingly original creature or artefact. Or the reworking of an old idea. Clarke's The City and the Stars is a tribute to Nietzsche's Eternal Return and that, in turn was based on some early scientific notions as to the implications of infinite time. I doubt that we can create something truly alien. And, if we could, by definition we would be unable to understand it. Our creations are always built from the lego blocks of our experience. Creativity in this model, would simply be cutting up reality into little pieces and gluing them back together again in new combinations. Do you remember the biscuit tins with three revolving parts so different legs, trunks and heads could be put together? Just a thought.
Vandrelyst 15 Nov at 11:24  
Great post and great response by Harpalycus.

"I doubt that we can create something truly alien. And, if we could, by definition we would be unable to understand it."

There's also the issue of writing about it. When I was just at the worldbuilding stage, I thought up all sorts of weird things to have going on in my world and invented cultures. Then I realized that while some could actually help my storytelling, a lot of them could weaken it or make it much harder to do well — I don't want to have to spend the entire book explaining emotions that humans don't have, for example, and even if I did, it wouldn't pack the same emotional punch. So I've had to keep a few things and dial back the exoticism in most other ways. Otherwise it just gets too weird.
Bethanne80 15 Nov at 15:03  
This is such a good post. I really enjoyed reading it!
Blandcorp 15 Nov at 16:33  
One of my favorite examples of the use of strangeness, which I've mentioned on CC before, is Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. The story, on its face, is magical. There's witches and something akin to demons and something akin to interdimensional ravens feasting on the demons, etc. But, you know, it's also possible, if you squint not too hard, to interpret the story as a child's overactive imagination painting over the child's dissolving family. (Read it, it's not too long.)

As in, to look at it another way, there is magic even in the mundane. I'm reminded by an essay by Chesterton where he mentions another British author, George MacDonald (who I have yet to read),

Quote by: G.K. Chesterton
All George MacDonald's other stories, interesting and suggestive in their several ways, seem to be illustrations and even disguises of [The Princess and the goblin]. I say disguises, for this is the very important difference between his sort of mystery and mere allegory. The commonplace allegory takes what it regards as the commonplaces or conventions necessary to ordinary men and women, and tries to make them picturesque by dressing them up as princesses or goblins or good fairies. But George MacDonald did really believe that people were princesses and goblins and good fairies, and he dressed them up as ordinary men and women. The fairytale was the inside of the ordinary story and not the outside.

For an example of the opposite of what Chesterton describes above, I'd give Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. It takes place in a city called New Crobuzon, populated by humans, and cactus people, and demonic hands possessing whoever they lay on, and winged humanoids and so on. I dunno why, but I got a feeling that is London in disguise somehow. And it's a good book too (at least until the slake moth shows up).


Blandcorp 15 Nov at 16:45  
irt. Harpalycus:

I'm sympathetic to the idea that the strange, in fiction, is used to stand in for the mundane for various reasons (such as palatability, analytical remove, or simple picturesque spectacle); Chesterton's fantastic-as-disguise for the commonplace.

I'm not sympathetic to the idea that we can't create something alien. We can, and we did— or else "something alien" is void of meaning. We, as a species, invented relativity and quantum mechanics. Don't scoff. These are very alien to our experience. Intuition does not "grok" these theories without deliberate effort on our part. And the fact that they can, with effort, be at all comprehensible is no indication against their alienness any more than people having lived in space is any indication that the vacuum between stars is a natural place for a human body to thrive in.

It's entirely possible, and some SF was written like this, to explore the more bizarre consequences of some newer maps of the Universe in fiction. If you will often find parallels between the weirdness of those stories and the mundane of our experience it's rather because, for the most part, we don't want to read about anything else. It's not that we cannot invent or imagine the alien, but we largely prefer something that has a correspondence to more usual experience. This is why the strange as disguise thrives while the strange for strangeness' sake is at best a niche, and susceptible to our instinct to ask how does this resemble, how is this applicable, to my mundane experience?

I stress though, there are some things for which those questions came second. The things themselves, in all their strangeness, came first. Even to a human mind.


Rellrod 15 Nov at 19:22  
Yes — the strange sometimes stands in for the ordinary; it's well known that F&SF frequently address real-world issues obliquely (and thus bypass defenses) by casting them in unfamiliar situations.

And Chesterton's particular genius, of course, is to see the ordinary in offbeat ways and thus be able to appreciate it anew (the theme of Manalive). The "Mooreffoc" effect, if you're familiar with that metaphor.

I have read some of Macdonald, though I don't seem to get as much out of him as Chesterton and Lewis did; which I suspect is because I've already absorbed his "good parts" via Chesterton and Lewis.

The question of whether everything we can think of consists of recombinations of things in our experience (Harpalycus), or whether we can go beyond them (Blandcorp), is even more interesting. The first approach is tempting, and clearly our inventions are often rebuilds of the Lego blocks of our experience. Yet human beings do seem to be able to learn new things that are not part of our direct experience. Blandcorp's examples of relativity and quantum mechanics are right on point — and so is our ability to understand strange cultures and systems of thought. (Consider the movie Arrival, or the Ted Chiang short story on which it's based.) I'd venture the guess that our ability to abstract, to lift a generalization out of particular experience and consider all its possibilities, may be the key.

Harpalycus 17 Nov at 15:43  
‘We, as a species, invented relativity and quantum mechanics.’
I would be very unhappy with the idea that we 'invented' quantum mechanics. We discovered it. We didn't invent electron interference patterns or the ultraviolet catastrophe or the photoelectric effect. Quantum mechanics is a description of a world that had always been there but undetectable by our macroscopic senses. It is salutary that we can use quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics has the reputation of being the most accurate prediction tool yet discovered by science, but what we can't do is explain it. As Richard Feynman reputedly said, ‘If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics.’ It is ‘alien’ to out limited intelligences. Or seems to be. The 'theories' that have been forwarded, the Copenhagen interpretation, the hidden variables, Wheeler's many worlds, are all clearly based on what we see in our world and how we understand it, and all are unsatisfactory in terms of a real, adequate explanation. Quantum mechanics is based upon empirical observation, it may be strange, but it is based on what we observe. It is part of our world.
And that is my point. That we have, as humans, a no doubt effective strategy of being able to link different concepts together to create something 'new' - it has been argued that this cross fertilisation of different mental domains is what made us essentially human -but what we cannot do is to imagine something truly alien, i.e. something totally new in itself.
Let me give you a for instance. Can you imagine a totally new colour? Not a new shade, but a new colour. We can imagine its existence, because we already know of the existence of different colours, but we cannot imagine the actual colour.
I think you must really differentiate here between the strange and unusual, which is still part of the possibilities of our known world and the truly alien, which has no relationship with our experience. For example, I know of snakes, so if someone tells me of a twenty-foot-long snake that is bright red in colour and has a venomed spine in its tail, that would be very strange, but nothing about its attributes is unknown.
Here's a challenge for you. Invent an attribute for the snake that is not 'known' in some way in our world.
Good luck.

Grumpybull 17 Nov at 17:11  
Great post.
Blandcorp 17 Nov at 17:32  
irt. Harpalycus:

You misunderstand my point, which is that we are capable to create and manipulate mental models for aspects of the world alien to our experience. And those aspects are sufficiently alien that the resulting models are not intuitive; the experiences in question do not match the experiences we as a species have had for thousands of years.

Further, those experiences/experiments are not the model. They may constrain thought while it produces a model to explain the observation, but no amount of observation replaces the thought required to interpret it and come up with Hilbert spaces and observables as applying, potentially non-commutative, operators.

Further still, those experiences/experiments are not necessary for the mental models to be artifacts of consideration. I haven't seen an electron interference pattern, but I can still appreciate a mathematical model that combines notions of particle and wave without needing it to have a real-world referent. Indeed, arguably string theory is a "beautiful mathematical theory" with no real referent. It certainly is created way ahead of observations that would constrain thought to create it and nothing else. No one has seen a string-theory 'string', and whatever that is, a real string is not a good approximation.

In terms of defining an attribute for a snake without using concepts derived from human experience, that depends how far out you want to go. A red snake is common, and we can see red anyway so this is well within experience. A color changing snake is weird, but conceivably physical since chameleons can do this. A color-sucking snake (turns things around it permanently gray, even when you cut them up) is weird and against physics as we know it, but not hard to imagine. A newcolor snake (always appears in a color impossible to produce by mixing colors the viewer has already seen) is weird, likely unphysical, and rather difficult to imagine but can be abstractly described.

It's there where our disagreement lies, at the border(s) between imaginable, abstractly describable, ineffable. You would put alien at ineffable and beyond. I'd put it at the border between imaginable and abstractly describable. I argue mine is the better category. Yours, by necessity, is empty as far as us humans are concerned, and empty categories are largely useless. Mine recognizes the distinction between ideas you can associate actual sensory information with, to those to which you cannot obtain sensory equivalents. The simplest example is, it's easy to imagine three lines meeting at 90 degrees between each pair, but it becomes impossible to do so for four, at least for us humans. Nevertheless, we can do multi-d geometry. So there is a difference between imagining a man who can run faster than a bullet, and thinking about four dimensions.

Harpalycus Yesterday at 05:05  
Perhaps the word alien was not a good choice. The definition of alien is:
1. Belonging to a foreign country
2. Unfamiliar and disturbing or distasteful
3. Supposedly from another world or extraterrestrial.
We certainly come across the alien, at least in senses 1 and 2, both on this world, at the meeting of different cultures and at the cutting edge of art and science, if one can interpret the word country metaphorically. So, I am not arguing that it does not exist in our ‘reality’.
The alien in this discussion falls within the context of definition 3, and particularly in the imaginative creation of a scifi writer.
I made the observation that, for all their imagination and creativity, it seemed to be that all such attempts were, on analysis, ‘chimeras’, aspects of our ‘mundane’ world, mixed together or extended until it was certainly ‘alien’ but not ‘truly alien’, by which I meant something that was not a reformulation of aspects of our world, no matter how strange and bizarre it might appear to be, but which had at least some features which had no analogue at all within our known world, though I should have defined this more clearly.
This is why I remarked that we would be unable to understand it, that is the truly alien, not the mundanely alien. That, I believe, was the point of Arthur C Clarke’s famous Third Law that Rick alluded to.
It was not a criticism, but an observation.
To ensure that we understand each other let us explore the concept of alien a little further. It could well be argued that we come across the mundanely alien every day. How unfamiliar does something have to be to be so regarded? And it certainly could be argued that everything within our world, clouds, cows, anger or algebra, was once alien to our experience, though there is evidence for some instinctive recognition of patterns in babies. No matter how counter-intuitive and weird it might be, even the alien at the frontiers of science, such as quantum mechanics, simply becomes part of our world. Alien would seem to be a concept incorporating the temporary only.
Of course, we can learn new things. One could even accept not necessarily from direct experience, but surely always out of our experience, even if mediated by a microscope or data from CERN. I cannot think of anything we learn/know that is not based on our experience (or, I suppose, one should add instinctive responses for completeness). I would be interested in any examples.
We can certainly visualise the possibility that we will meet the truly alien (though it would not remain that for long) but what we cannot do, in my humble opinion is to imagine new things in the sense of the ‘truly alien’.
That we can come across and incorporate the alien into our understanding (to some extent at least) is not at issue. It’s what we do. What is at issue, is can we imagine something truly alien? I return to my challenge regarding the snake. We are familiar with the washing out of colour, so to imagine a snake doing it is putting two previously recognised knowns together (washing out of colour and snake) to come up with a pretty impressive chimera, but not something truly alien. We know there are many colours, so, to imagine that there could be a new one is just extending the known. My point about that, was that you try and actually imagine this new colour and to see it in your own mind. The colour itself is truly alien and it cannot be done (in my humble opinion).
I would certainly put truly alien as ineffable. Mundanely alien is easy. A pink Disney castle full of terrified leprechauns hanging upside down from a gigantic fishing rod would certainly be unfamiliar and, I imagine, somewhat disturbing. Alien but not truly alien. It is a pastiche of parts known to our brain. I cannot give you an example of the truly alien for obvious reasons. I can’t imagine one.

Blandcorp Yesterday at 08:22  
irt. Harpalycus:

I took the snake challenge as an opportunity to illustrate different kinds of weird. The color-sucking snake is a strange but imaginable chimera, I mean you can picture in your mind to any detail you'd like what that snake and its effect on its surroundings would look like. The newcolor snake is defined into being unimaginable, but it's still obviously possible to describe. That is a different kind of weird, different even from the Disney leprechaun fishrod dungeon.

Or in other words, at some point incremental changes become changes in kind. The number of spatial dimensions is another example. You could picture 1, 2, 3 dimensions of space easily. When going to 4 and up however most of us can't use their visual/tactile experience anymore and must continue to think about those spaces in purely abstract, divorced from sensory experience ways.

Hessian6 Yesterday at 12:26  
Wonderful post! I esp liked the examples from Arrival and Rendezvous with Rama to help visualize the vastly different approaches to creating alien otherness. I also realized with dismay that I had actually never read Clarke's 2001, just seen the film. That one's on my list to read immediately.
Harpalycus Yesterday at 13:56  
irt Blandcorp

Or in other words, at some point incremental changes become changes in kind.

You are describing the old medieval controversy of nominalism. The Ancient Greek sorites paradox. Add a pebble at a time and when does it become a heap. Or, to look at a more meaningful example, when do the genome changes create a new species.
Only I am uncertain what it has to do with the issue in hand.
My claim is that there is clear dividing line between what we know from our senses, or can infer from that knowledge, and what we do not know. Imagination can, and does, work with the former. Creating new and wonderful kaleidoscopes of different facets or extending the limits beyond the normal.
It cannot work with the latter, on what it does not know. If I am wrong, simply show me some work of the imagination that cannot be derived from aspects of the reality we know.
That was all that I was saying. That all imagination, no matter how surprising or bizarre its results may be, can only work on the Lego box it has been given and cannot conjure totally new and different bricks from thin air.
And please do not take the metaphor too literally because, by definition one might say, I cannot imagine a metaphor that could possibly exemplify it.

Blandcorp Yesterday at 18:56  
Quote by: Harpalycus
Only I am uncertain what it has to do with the issue in hand.

Think harder.

I've given you several examples of unimaginable (as in, you are not going to conjure up an image or other mental equivalent of sensory experience) things that are nonetheless conceivable. One can even go from the imaginable, take some steps, and land into the unimaginable (incremental changes become changes in kind).


Harpalycus Today at 00:34  
irt Blandcorp

We seem destined to pass in the dark and never get within hailing distance. At the substantial risk of turning Rick’s excellent post into a borefest (just ignore us, folks) let’s try and hammer this one out (there again, there are luxuriant pickings of mixed metaphors to be had).
My contention is that the limits of the imaginable are the limits of our known world. Which does not necessarily imply that that is a complete definition of the unimaginable.
You have given a good example of adding extra dimensions to result in a conceivable world, yet it cannot be described by the imagination. As far as it goes, that’s fine, but ultimately I think it illustrates my contention as well as anything.
The adding of an extra dimension is a perfectly normal ‘worldly’ concept. If there are three islands off a coast I can readily imagine another and so forth (sorry). So there there is no problem. But to then imagine what it would be like in such a multi-dimensional universe either utilises known experiences or simply fails. I might say something like ‘I went up the stairs to go down into the cellar’ using an Escher-like image, or, ‘as the figure moved towards me along the extra dimension it gradually assumed a solidity’. These are all known experiences being put together in a new way in a new context, not imagining something that is truly beyond our experience.
I can conceive of infinity. It is simple enough. Just keep adding one and never stop. But now imagine what it would be like to be infinite in some way. The imagination fails. The best we can come up is the mundane idea of something very, very, large.
Now both these are concepts that are conceivable, built upon a framework of existing knowledge and yet hit the unimaginable barrier.
Ultimately, however, we are talking of what has not even been conceived. That we cannot describe something, using our imaginations of course, that is totally unknown in our world. We cannot even think it. There is a simple way of showing that I am wrong. Describe something unknown, which has at least one property that cannot be derived from experience of this world. That would do the trick.

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