Posted by: kshayes513 | July 21, 2013

Esther Inglis-Arkell on how alien biology might clash with human culture

Continuing the conversation about speculative fiction and the Other:

When I’m reading stories that have other sentient species, I love best the ones that really dig deep into how differences in biology might create vastly different cultures and perspectives than those we humans consider normal. (I don’t say “watching stories” because it’s rare that movies or TV shows can really address these questions; they are too often constrained by the external, visual nature of their storytelling, and by the need to appeal to a broad audience).

Since my own created worlds are populated mostly with humans, this is not a question I often explore in my own work. So I’m happy to share this recent article by  io9 and Kinja contributor Esther Inglis-Arkell. In it, she talks about the ways that everything, including our understanding of reality itself, might appear completely wrong to aliens whose senses are significantly different from ours.

Here’s just a small, juicy taste of all the worldbuilding food for thought she offers:

“Humans, famously, have terrible senses of smell and taste. One of the reasons we have to label what’s in food is we don’t have the ability to smell or taste it ourselves. This has gotten us in trouble when we gulp down food that is filled with contaminants and bacteria, or touch something crawling with viruses without knowing it.


  1. I’m glad that scent was the go-to point here; people who travel to exotic lands do tend to notice how the people smell different from what they’re used to “back home” – dietary differences, mostly, that are surprisingly noticeable, for a little while. I’ve always figured that actual aliens will have much more noticeable scents (and us to them)… but it may actually have a larger influence on relations that might otherwise be absent between members of the same species. I’m always pleased when an author describes the olfactory component of human-alien encounters, though few do it to any more effect than adding another dimension to the description.

  2. Interesting travel note, John, I don’t remember noticing different personal scents in my travels, but I’ve never been to anyplace especially exotic.

    In my editor hat, I often have to call out writers for using one or two dimensional sensory description; its amazing how many people forget even about sound, let alone scent and sensation. I did a blog post a while back on “What does your world smell like?”

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