What Is Life?
Part 1 of this series on Alien Sexuality is
Part 1 is about the root of all conflict -- i.e. sexuality itself.
we discussed the various reasons writers of Science Fiction Romance novels should be sure to read C. J. Cherryh's FOREIGNER series novels, if not the entire Alliance-Union universe novels.
One reason we did not discuss for reading this 16 book series was the underlying style of the writing in the Foreigner novels.
They are chatty, internal dialogue focused, watching the linguistic gears mesh (or fail to mesh) inside the mind of a human who is being acculturated into a non-human society, and ends up sleeping with an Alien who does not have the capacity to comprehend the emotion of "Love." This Alien has a totally different, but equally "hot" emotion.
The current trilogy in the FOREIGNER series (so far, no cross-fertilization) opens a new jar of worms with the main protagonist (Bren Cameron) once again acting (after way over-thinking) to disrupt the balance of power in a war between the Kyo and a segment of humanity his own group of humans lost touch with two centuries before. So those humans would be almost as alien to him, culturally, as the aliens he lives with (the Atevi).
To create such a large canvas as C. J. Cherryh writes on (the Universe called the Alliance-Union universe), a writer needs a very large set of what I call "nested themes" -- wheels within wheels -- themes that accrete in layers like the layers of a natural pearl.
We discussed nested themes here:
Since this blog is about Alien Romance -- romance between a human and a non-human -- whether it be ostensibly science fiction or fantasy or Paranormal -- we focus on when, how, and whether to blend "science" with "romance."
I define "Science" as the facts we know (by independent verifying experiments) to be true about the structure of the universe organized in a way that the body of knowledge can be passed down from one generation to another, added to along the way.
I define "Fiction" as the art form that creates a story out of a selective arrangement of subjective "facts" (or emotions, spiritual states, Eternal Truths learned or discarded). A story may not be "true" at all, but has the power to reveal truths otherwise imperceptible. Story is an art form -- and can use real people and true facts about their actions arranged to reveal something which might not be true. The same art form can be used on imaginary people and non-real facts about what they did and why.
Sometimes, fiction can reveal more about reality because nothing in the story is true.
When you put Science and Fiction together in a seamless blend you may be able to "pass down from one generation to another" the Wisdom of the Ages.
Now add Romance to that mix, and you can communicate the Wisdom of the Ages about Life itself.
Science is in hot pursuit of "the origin of life" -- not just "life on earth" but the origin of life itself, somewhere out there among galaxies like grains of sand.
In a fascinating 2014 study for Nature, a team of scientists mapped thousands of galaxies in our immediate vicinity, and discovered that the Milky Way is part of a jaw-droppingly massive "supercluster" of galaxies that they named Laniakea.
In that image, each of the tiny pixel sized dots that make up the hair-like threads of light -- each dot is a whole Galaxy, some bigger than ours.
Studies are turning up "earth-like" planets and traces of complex organic chemicals far out in space, chemicals which are either the building blocks of "life" or maybe the by-products of "life."
Current arguments debate whether Earth is surrounded by deceased civilizations out there somewhere, or embedded in (maybe at the edge of?) interstellar traveling civilizations we just haven't found yet. (which may or may not have found us.)
Yes, that very old debate is once again raging.
So a science fiction romance writer has to do what C. J. Cherryh has done and postulate the basic facts about that image of all the galaxies like grains of sand.
Science deals with the physics, math, and chemistry -- with Higgs Bosons and other nifty particles that the Hadron Collider is documenting. Fiction deals with the ultimate truth behind that scientific reality, with reasons and motives. Romance combines to create that which lives, which propagates.
Classic biology identifies 5 basic functions that define "life" as opposed to matter in general.
If you want to turn your ad-block off, you can find a good primer on basic biology here:
But that is derived from life on this little planet. Science Fiction has long postulated a wide variety of kinds of sentients with "life" distinguished by other factors.
To create a "romance" that modern readers will believe well enough to enjoy, you need your alien member of the couple to be configured somewhat like humans -- even if other species in the novel are very different.
Such a species would, like humanity, have imagined, postulated, encountered, or otherwise discovered or perceived (maybe prophesied) a Cosmology and Cosmogony. They would have their own notions of how things work.
You, as the writer, need a notion of how your Aliens approach describing the cosmos, and what moral principles they might derive from that description. To begin writing your saga, you do not need to create the entirety of the Alien's history and religion. You need only one, fixed, vividly delineated difference between your Aliens and your human readership.
That one starting point will lead to all the rest, and sometimes it is best if you do not consciously know all the details but discover them with the reader as you go.
You can find examples of Alien ways of looking at reality all over the literature of science.
Take, for example, the question of "What Is Life?"
Even the question is ambiguous. Does it refer to growing up, getting married, having kids, defaulting on a mortgage, getting divorced, etc? We say "that's life" with a sigh and a shrug when stuff goes wrong.
Or the question could refer to the simple facts of biology as delineated in the five basic functions of living organisms.
If you can find a philosophical point where the two meanings of that Question coincide, you can generate an entire set of nested themes (like that pearl mentioned above) rooted in that single concept.
For example, today, in the midst of the political fracas in the USA, one pivotal issue (other than The Economy and War) is Abortion.
How could you explain to your visiting Alien the simple biological process of voluntary reproduction becoming a political football? How could you explain the adamant pursuit of "the origin of life" -- either out in the galaxy, seeded onto our primeval Earth by meteors, or arising uniquely on this planet? And from the other direct, the biologist's pursuit of the moment "life" "begins."
This year, biologists discovered a "flash of light" emitted at the moment of conception when human sperm meets human egg cell.
It is the result of a chemical reaction, nothing mystical.
But immediately, the political dimensions are apparent since the argument against abortion is that a fetus is a human life, and killing it is murder under the law. However, the law in the USA is settled at the adult woman's right to choose whether to gestate that fetus -- or not.
So some humans regard the discovery of a chemical reaction at conception as proof that a human "life" (in both senses, marriage-kids-divorce, and 5-basic-functions) begins at joining of sperm to egg cell. The two-celled organism is a human being with all the legal rights and protections due a human being. Others are offended that anyone could use SCIENCE, the main opponent of ignorant superstitious nonsense, to take away the basic human right to control one's own reproductive processes.
Note how REPRODUCTION is one of the 5 signature traits of "life" -- and nowhere in the biological (scientific) definition of "life" is there anything about voluntary control of any of these 5 traits. In fact, there's nothing "voluntary" about "life."
What would your Alien think of this argument?
Would he/she consider all reproduction voluntary? Would your alien's very biology require the alien to will themselves to become pregnant?
The concept of "Free Will" is actually somewhat "mystical." Free Will is a property of the Soul, usually considered to be the key to spiritual growth. Choose, of your own free will, to do good rather than evil, and you will experience "life" in a more fulfilling and satisfying way -- a very mystical concept.
Today there is some scientific investigation into the idea that we actually do not have any Free Will.
Free Will may be imaginary? Or we, as a society, could come to believe that and structure our various cultures around that idea, then meet up with Aliens who are convinced they have Free Will.
Here's an article about the illusion of Free Will published in May 2016.
“Our minds may be rewriting history,” Adam Bear, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology at Yale University and lead author of the study, said in a statement. The implication here is that when it comes to very short time scales, even before we think we’ve made a conscious choice, our mind has already subconsciously decided for us, and free will is more of an illusion than we think.
Yes, and our favorite Alien, Spock, may be the result of deliberate genetic mingling because it was the logical thing to do -- if Logic rules, then obviously Will is not "Free" - right?
Would studies like this reveal "hard science" facts that would have to be accepted by any Alien life anywhere in all the galaxies?
The Higgs Boson is a "fact" of that sort, as is the curvature of space, and the variability of "time" (whatever time might be).
But mere facts do not always impinge meaningfully upon intelligent minds, and 'sentience' is an illusive thing we will not nail down until we've met up with several space-faring species.
So, then, "What Is Life?"
Is the question a mystical one? Or a scientific one?
Is there an "either/or" structure to that dichotomy? Is "life" either one thing, OR the other? Is the Universe "Zero-Sum" -- either this or that -- binary?
Or are there shades of gray?
Consider that your visiting Alien Hunk may look at our political tangle over abortion and find his eyes (one assumes he has some) crossing. In May, 2016, a judge ruled on the stored embryos (which already emitted their spark) of a divorced couple, bringing the Law into the personal reproductive decisions of individuals.
If you want to craft a theme involving Law and Religion (which publishing wisdom says you must never mix), looking at court cases such as this from an Alien angle could provide dynamite ideas. Make that an interstellar court run by some consortium in which Earth does not hold membership.
Consider that your visiting Alien Hunk may look at our political tangle over abortion and find his eyes (one assumes he has some) crossing.
The Alien Hunk may look at our religious take on the importance of that SPARK at the joining of sperm and egg cells (which also happens with animal conception), and conclude that the entire human species is stark raving nuts.
"Everyone knows," he will tell you, "that the entire universe is infected with life, with living cells, sluicing through space in many spore forms. The origin of human life is the origin of life itself, trillions of years ago in the farthest galaxy."
If you think about it that way, he might declare, you will see there is nothing special about human life.
Now, will he accept the idea that the distinctive trait of people (human and otherwise) is that they have and exercise Free Will? That Free Will is a property of Soul?
Or perhaps there are "people" who do not have Souls?
I discussed THE FLICKER MEN by Ted Kosmatka in Septemper 2015 blog entry:
He postulated alternate universes and humans here on Earth who had Souls -- others that did not. Wonderful writing, great concepts, good characters, strong Relationships, and a must-read for Science Fiction Romance writers. You can pay homage to this great entry into science fiction by creating a Romance where not all your Aliens have a Soul, and what difference that makes (if any).