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On Alien Nation
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1991 and 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Remember the TV series Alien Nation? I was a big fan of it. I
honestly thought it a better SF series than Star Trek: The Next
Generation, and I found the Tenctonese
aliens it portrayed endlessly fascinating.
Of course, many reject the Tenctonese as being unbelievable
because of that bit of business about them being burned by salt
water. That does seem highly unlikely, given what we think we
know of the fundamental principles of organic evolution.
But those who reject the Tenctonese based on that are missing a
key interpretation, I think. Remember the character of Uncle
Moodri? It was established early on that he could walk into the
ocean without the salt water burning him at all. And it was
established in the Alien Nation movie that Tenctonese could
undergo limited bodily metamorphoses.
I believe the reaction to seawater was a conditioned
psychological response, triggering destructive body changes,
imprinted on the Tenctonese by the Overseers. That Moodri, who
had freed himself of all the mental and physical shackles of
slavery, was no longer affected by sea water, seems to support
I've heard other SF writers slag the Tenctonese as being the
least convincing aliens in SF in years just humans with
spots on their heads.
Well, yes, the Tenctonese seemed to be different in subtle ways,
rather than gross ways. But that, I suspect, is what we'll find
in real aliens. The basic range of emotions, after all, is
nothing more than the appreciation of standard physiological
responses taken from the perspective of being able to remember
the past and anticipate the future. Pleasure and pain (or
attraction and avoidance) are basic to almost all lifeforms on
Earth, and indeed, in their most fundamental form (such as
phototropism in plants turning toward the sun) seem to be one
of the prerequisites for life existing at all on any complex
Well, happiness is just the generalized state of anticipating or
remembering pleasure, and sadness is the generalized state of
anticipating or remembering pain.
Given that, I suspect just about every lifeform will have notions
of happiness and sadness, and I further suspect that the causes
for those feelings will be pretty much the same throughout the
galaxy: a big meal will make creatures all over the galaxy
happy; loss of a valued thing will make them sad; being
frustrated in their pursuit of happiness will make them angry.
That's a lot of common ground to start with. Now, yes, there
will be differences, but the differences will likely be subtle
such as those the Tenctonese ably demonstrate. Too bad we
never got to know them better.
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