I love aliens in science-fiction. The more alien, the better.
But the problem is: the more alien, the more difficult they are to handle well. One of the biggest problems with human-alien clashes is the communications barrier, and along with it, the information exchange problem.
After we manage to establish communication with aliens, via language, gestures, smoke signals, symbols scratched in the dirt with our toenails (or claws, or tentacles, respectively), we will want to exchange knowledge. It’s what we do. It’s in our nature as intelligent species that have studied the universe and themselves for eons before this point of interspecies contact. We have huge databases chock full with stuff we’d love to share, and we have hungry scientists and anthropologists and hobbyists who ache to pick the brains of our alien brothers (some more literally than others).
So what do we do? We try to swap knowledge with the aliens. They give us star charts and scientific papers, and we give them Justin Bieber lyrics and Game of Thrones memes. Okay, fine, we give them our recorded history and the bit of biology that studies rain forest tadpoles. Because it’s their new delicacy obsession, or something. Don’t ask. They’re alien.
But how do we swap information? We can’t just copy our data onto a flash drive, insert it into their fancy claw-held computers, and with a bit of tweaking by the geeks-on-site, we have instant information barter. Things don’t work like that. The way we encode data WILL VARY immensely from the way they do it. No question about it. Hell, the way we encode data on one type of device varies from other devices here on Earth, in one generation.
We have different operating systems on different device types, and different software for different file formats. Not to mention different programming languages, and different human languages in which the texts are written. You think aliens will be monocultures who can interpret .doc formats on first try? *cartoon laughter*
The only chance we have is if they are so far advanced, and have so much computing power, that they can deduce our data recording and encryption patterns from the vast context of our observable culture. Which is a feat of gargantuan proportions, if you ask me.
At any rate, interspecies information exchange ain’t easy at all. Every time I encounter it in science-fiction (particularly in movies, but sometimes also in novels), I cringe expectantly. Most writers completely neglect the tremendous difficulty of interpreting foreign data.
It doesn’t take much to maintain believability. You don’t have to go out on a limb and dedicate massive wordcount to the overcoming of this barrier. But you can at least mention it took a lot of effort to overcome. Maybe throw in some cultural misunderstandings along the way, a minor conflict that took delicacy to sort out, a joke or two. You might get added storyworld depth from this as well. 😉
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This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2014.
In 2012, my I post was — Impactful Fiction