[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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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 this.

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 level.

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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