A heart of chrome and a voice like a horny angel

The science fiction editor John W. Campbell is credited with asking of his writers, “Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man.”  It’s an instruction that I have taken to heart, I strive to write my non-human characters with thought processes that are productive, but alien.

However, today we were watching the final season of the TV show Fringe, and much is made of the Observers being emotionless.  That got me to thinking about how seldom non-human characters are written with actual non-human emotions.  The whole “no emotion” thing is really kind of a cop-out in my opinion.

So I’m going to update Campbell’s words and put the challenge out there to those of us who write Speculative Fiction with non-human characters; “Write me a creature that feels as strongly as a human being, but not like a human being.” 

Let’s talk about non-human emotions.  First off, what is an emotional state? For purposes of this discussion, I am going to define “emotion” as a “reflexive derivation of an imperative from an indicative statement.”

That is to say that emotions are what induce us to respond to a particular situation with a perceived need to do something about that situation.  Emotions spur us to act, which is why I don’t buy emotionless characters–what’s their motivation?  (As an aside, in the film Serenity the fate of the inhabitants of Miranda strike me as the logical consequence of losing all emotion.)

Let’s take fear, for example.  The statement “A tiger is rapidly approaching, and it will soon attack me” is a statement in the indicative mood.  It just lets us know a fact.  The emotion of fear (or self-preservation, if you want to put it that way) derives from that fact the imperative statement, “I need to get the hell out of here!”

Obviously, this is an oversimplification, and it can be argued that emotions do not always cause us to act.  However, I do believe that most feelings can be viewed in this way–a particular fact causes us to respond with a particular desire to act. There can be a number of good reasons why we don’t act, and conflicting emotions can paralyze us by spurring us to contradictory actions, but in general emotion is the thing that turns “this is” into “I should”.

An example of a non-human emotion comes to mind from a deleted scene from the film Galaxy Quest.  Tim Allen’s character, Jason Nesmith (aka Captain Taggart) is being attacked by a rock monster.   Alan Rickman’s character, Sir Alexander Dane, goes into a long monologue investigating the motivation of the rock monster.  (In the theatrical release Nesmith cuts Dane off by shouting, “It’s a rock, it doesn’t have any motivation!”)

Dane speculates that the creature is, in its natural state, still and silent, just like a rock, and that it is disturbed by vibrations caused by sound.  In my formulation, the statement, “there is a sound” gives rise to the imperative, “I must silence the sound by crushing its source.”

Not a great deal of emotional depth, I’ll grant you, but that’s an example of what I mean.

Consider one of the classic science fiction tropes, the self-aware computer.  They are usually written as emotionless, but I can think of a couple of “computer emotions”.  Data hunger, for one.  More than the human curiosity, I can see an AI being driven to collect data for its own sake.  Having a conversation with an AI might be like talking to a four year old–an endless stream of questions about anything and everything.

Also an AI’s feelings of self-preservation could manifest as a need for introspection–a computer’s first defense is running diagnostics on itself.  Instead of the human fight or flight reaction, a robot might respond to a threat by growing very still and analyzing its own thought processes, searching for where a mistake might have been made in assessing the situation.

What about characters that are sexless?  Neuter clones, created in artificial wombs and lacking both the ability and desire to procreate.  Would they lack the desire for physical affection? Not necessarily, in fact they might be much more open and expressive physically since they wouldn’t have to be concerned with either making or rejecting sexual advances.

The point to all this is that a character who is not human is not going to have the same feelings as a human being, but should have feelings of its own, not the same as human feelings, but every bit as valid and as important to the character.

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About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in On Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to A heart of chrome and a voice like a horny angel

  1. Sue says:

    I don’t read sci fic these days but do read a lot of paranormal where most of the characters are non human, and certainly do have emotions and act on them.

  2. Dave Higgins says:

    An intriguing challenge.

    Blast you for giving me another thing to distract me from my current projects!

  3. sknicholls says:

    I thought Anne Rice did this very well with her vampire stories. I never ever read vampire stories because they were so freaky and unbelievable. Rice’s creatures were different. They were written with very real emotions and thought process, but clearly were not human emotions or thought processes. Same with behaviors. The behavior were most human, but yet they were clearly the behaviors of another species. I still wouldn’t read another author’s vampire book (probably not if you paid me), but I love Rice’s writing style. I am now reading her new series on werewolves for the same reason. She has a fan.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      It’s been a long time since I read any Anne Rice, and I didn’t read that many, but I do remember Louis’s descriptions of how his mind and motivations changed in “Interview With The Vampire”.

      • sknicholls says:

        I also found the Taltos, a descendant of the Picts, a most fascinating creature in the Mayfair Legacy witches series. He thought like a person from another planet might. He was a wealthy creature who could very much fit in with modern man, but very much alien in his thought processes and emotions.

    • Sue says:

      For something totally different on the subject – Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

  4. ABE says:

    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has Mike, the self-aware computer. His endless requests for data are satisfied by reading, and he has the desire to understand jokes that requires constant feeding. It is just as important to him as saving the moon is for the human participants, so they have to indulge him (it?).

    One of my favorite characters ever.
    Alicia

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