Let’s start with some context
This is a topic that I wish would trend. Not because I want credit for coining the term. Not because I think it’s a major contribution to philosophy or anything like that. I do think that it’s a concept worth thinking about and discussing, but as far as I know, it’s not brought up all that often. Sometimes when I use the term alien absurdism I get chuckles or weird looks. Maybe they think I’m trying to be witty or cute. I just honestly think it’s an apt term that gets right down to the heart of my…thesis?
This blog post is in many ways an extension of an article that I wrote for Tor back in August of last year (the original title specifically mentioned alien absurdism but was changed by the editor). To be fair, that article was largely about Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, which is an excellent example in written SF form of what I’m talking about. The original article had substantial cuts which I frankly thank the editor for. Self-editing is one of my weaknesses and I was still writing like an MFA student turning in an assignment paper. But I fear that some nuggets might have been lost along the way. I might have also failed to fully express myself the first time around.
So, let’s give it another shot.
What is alien absurdism?
When I say alien absurdism, I’m deliberately invoking a word associated with a school of philosophy and a branch of literature and literary theory. Luckily, both apply to my argument.
On one hand, absurdism seem like a response to the literature of the past. It’s an attempt to contrast with realism and old writing conventions and illustrate the (absurdism?) of a form which ironically imitates reality while employing all manner of artifice. It doesn’t attempt to be didactic and eludes any attempt at reductionism (you can try if you want, but it’s a lot of work!). It mocks, ridicules, and sometimes goes to such bizarre lengths in its deconstructions that it crosses over into the surreal. There it meets with the philosophers on a dark plain overlooking the cliff of nihilism where we timidly ask ourselves if anything has meaning. It’s an eerie answer to the age-old questions about life, the universe, and everything. Well, what if there is none? What if, as Macbeth said, life is just a ‘tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing?’ Whoa. That’s too heavy a thing to lay on people on a Monday, John! For God’s sake, we have an entire week ahead of us.
But then, what’s alien absurdism? My (sadly sincere) belief that attempting to understand that which is truly alien is inherently absurd. As fruitless as trying to divine the ephemeral nature of the cosmos. I think that all too often, we assume that an alien ‘mind’ is something that can ultimately be understood. Perhaps because we all adhere to the principles of materialism and reductionism and very rarely deviate from that mode of reasoning (and only then with training and effort). And our experience thus far is that anything can be ‘gotten’ as long as you have the will and the means. It’s a conceit that I’m growing increasingly skeptical about. And, I humbly suggest, with good reason.
The Ps and Qs of aliens
One of the reasons why I’ve been putting this off as long as I have is because it’s a very difficult topic to write about. It can quickly dip into that wallowing pit of existentialism and this is all highly speculative.
The main crux of my thesis is that it’s hard to envision that which is truly alien. Even the word alien might carry implicit biases and limitations of thought. And, vocabulary. Alien can be a noun or an adjective. How do we define alien? Alien can be an experience removed from the mundane. It can be an encounter with the ‘exotic.’ Does something alien cease to be alien when it becomes familiar to us? Historically, alien was a matter of origin. Other lands were alien to us. Our eyes looked up and outward, and what we imagined as alien was expanded to include other worlds. But recent scientific discoveries suggest that our barren Solar System might actually be teeming with life. Life that we first failed to imagine because of our Earth-bound chauvinism. We may one day discover that life on Earth was seeded in some primitive from another body like Mars. So then, maybe alien life could be categorized as life that’s far-removed from our own. Beyond our system perhaps. Maybe life that’s not even based on Carbon. Maybe we wouldn’t even recognize it if we saw it, because it would just be too alien. It might not even be kooky and weird, but as dull-looking as a pile of rocks. And all of the processes that we’ve trained ourselves to look for as signs of life wouldn’t apply, so we (our automated long range interstellar probes I mean) would just pass it by.
Now if the school of alien absurdism ever takes off, you might have a split in the community between hard and soft absurdists. For the time being, I’d belong with the soft absurdists. I am at heart a realist. I used to be a firm believer that science and rational thought would illuminate the unknown and liberate our species from ignorance. Ha! I used to be so naïve.
What I’ve learned in my years is that humans are…tricky. Logic and common sense do not always persuade, and there are many different ways of thinking. Sometimes data is inapplicable when you’re talking about real lived experiences. Sometimes hard facts do nothing to help us understand the moral dimension. And with science branching out into very specialized fields, it might take more than test kits and space probes to identity and understand alien life let alone intelligent alien life.
Right around here, I would bring up Lem’s Solaris, because I think it is one of the best illustrations of alien absurdism in literary form. In it, scientists rely on their instruments to understand the behavior of a giant living ocean which seems to possess some kind of intelligence. It seems to have the willingness to communicate, but the exhaustive efforts are ultimately futile because the planet/ocean/species/being Solaris is a puzzle never meant to be solved by humans.
I haven’t even delved into the feasibility of space travel to other star systems. If we ever do get our collective act together, it would be a feat orders of magnitude beyond any endeavor of previous ages. With the universe being as vast and old as it is, humanity might go extinct before we ever encounter an alien civilization. That’s a real bummer because I’m a huge Star Trek fan. But even as a kid, the whole idea of a federation of planets and alien empires seemed to work much better as social allegory than an accurate depiction of actual space exploration.
I think that humanity has a long way to go before we can even understand ourselves, each other, and our own place on the planet. I don’t think that we’re good enough stewards of our own planet to risk endangering life on other worlds. And, perhaps luckily, that’s nothing that we need to concern ourselves with for the time being.
There is still a great deal that we can learn even here on Earth and our own stellar neighborhood. I do believe that the nature of reality and observable laws lend themselves to discovery. I happen to think that life on other worlds as on this one can leave behind telltale signs and indications of its presence; chemical and gas traces, physical remains to be analyzed, etc. The hard part will be what we do with this information once we start to encounter intelligences that are not our own. It’s a thought that fills me with awe and wonder, and I feel humbled by it.
Honorable mentions for stories about encountering the alien:
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
Stalker is an Andrei Tarkovsky film based on the Russian SF novel Roadside Picnic
There are many other examples I'm sure in this rich niche genre.
I thought about mentioning that Star Trek TNG episode "Darmok," but once the initial communications and cultural barrier broke down, Tamarians and humans seem to get get along rather well without any deep existential alien-ness hindering them. Maybe this could fall under soft alien absurdism.
Jonathan E. Hernandez is a science fiction writer and visual artist who decided to pursue a career better suited to his muses after an honorable discharge from the military. His first novel, ONE DAY AS A LION, debuts March 2, 2021 with Aethon Books. A Nuyorican originally from the Bronx, he now lives in Astoria, New York with his partner Anita and a cat named Jonesy.