First Impressions Count

The serious problems in making a first impression.  Published by New English Library 1979.  Cover illustration by Tim White.

The serious problems in making a first impression. Published by New English Library 1979. Cover illustration by Tim White.

First contact with an alien race will most likely pose problems.  As Princess Irulan said in a different context at the start of David Lynch’s 1984 movie Dune, “A beginning is a very delicate time”, and a great deal could go seriously wrong if a first encounter goes astray.

Science fiction has explored various instances where communication failure could lead to mishaps, usually depicting humans doing their best to understand mysterious, sometimes incomprehensible, messages from intelligent aliens.  In the 2016 film Arrival, the extraterrestrials seem to make surprisingly little effort themselves to make their language of complex circular symbols understood by humans, though it later transpires that the process of learning the language is critical in itself.

A significant point made in the movie is that the language one uses may dictate how one thinks.  If one’s language is based on ideas of conflict, as in, say, the procedures for a game, then one can unintentionally look aggressive from the start.  On the other hand, the method of communication may be so different to any normal human interaction that any such underlying message is a relatively minor issue.  The displays of lights and sounds used to speak to the UFOs in the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind leave wide open the potential for giving the wrong impression.

But one would hope that any alien, having made the effort to cross the light years to visit us, and provided they have not arrived with the aim of subjugating us for some reason, would do their very best to speak sensibly to us.  In the classic 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, the peaceful nature of the visitor is emphasised by his use of perfect English, despite being shot at by a soldier almost as soon as he steps outside his spacecraft (and the use of that endlessly puzzling phrase “Klaatu barada nikto”).  He has a vital message to deliver, and language isn’t going to get in the way.

If first contact occurred the other way around, though, the story might be different.  Human beings travelling out into the cosmos and tracking down other races would expect to have to do the work to communicate properly, which might still be futile where the other party is overwhelmingly alien to anything we can comprehend from previous experience.  The planet-wide being in Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel Solaris is effectively beyond contact in any meaningful way, but does not take kindly to being probed by humans in a space station orbiting its world, and so responds in its own way.

Alien reaction to human intervention might be drastic, unexpected and unpleasant.  In Terry Greenhough’s 1976 novel The Wandering Worlds, an Earth vessel seeks out new opportunities for its corporate masters who have bought exclusive exploration and extraction rights in the star system concerned.  The expedition leader observes that the primary aim is undoubtedly “mineral wealth, a new metal, precious stones, a planet plundered”, but sometimes there might be mutually beneficial contact with an alien species: “a peaceful meeting, a bartering of knowledge, culture, viewpoints.”

But, on this occasion, it appears that “somewhere in the system lurked vicious aliens who shouldn’t be there” and strange attacks of mental energy leave the crew incapacitated.  Starting off as “hostile proddings in his head”, ever more brutal and lethal psychological force is unleashed.  Contact with the aliens seems impossible, yet the truth about them turns out stranger than he could imagine.

The old adage has it that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  But when there may be no way of knowing how aliens would think, if indeed they think even remotely as we do, it becomes fairly pointless to try to plan ahead too carefully.  The best advice might be to “just be yourself” but, knowing how some people on this planet behave, that could be a high risk option.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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