Saturday, April 16, 2016

One Thousand Words for "Alien Truce" and "In Other Words"

             If there’s anything teenagers understand, it’s being misunderstood.  Two of the stories in One Thousand Words for War, Nori Odoi’s “Alien Truce” and Lisa Timpf’s “In Other Words” appear on their surfaces to be simple, well-crafted tales of alien-human misunderstanding.  Lurking herein, though, is some very sophisticated thematic material, particularly as pertains to the process by which ideas become words, and vice versa.

Historically, science fiction narratives have taken for granted that many human characteristics would be true of technologically advanced aliens as well.  They’ve been portrayed as bipedal, for one thing, because that makes it easier for an actor in a rubber suit to portray them.  More subtle is the assumption that alien communication would function as it does for most terrestrial species—through the use of ambient pressure changes in the atmosphere which are sensed by vibrating membranes in the receptor organs of the recipient.  Or, if you prefer: by making noises.  There’s no logical reason this would need to be the case; at least as much meaning could be conveyed by, for instance, pulses of light, or exchanges of pheromones, or by means that human beings wouldn’t even recognize as sensory.  Innovative sci-fi authors might throw telepathy at the reader, but it’s rarely well-explored; there’s seldom a credible biological explanation aside from some kind of question-begging concept of a “hive mind”, and generally the characters and reader experience telepathic communication in the form of words spoken directly into the brain--except in italics—which is weird, given that the brain should have no need for the spoken representation of the idea when the idea itself is directly accessible.

In portraying a difficult and complex negotiation between humans and aliens, Odoi springs two surprises.  Neither is without precedent in science fiction, but each is innovative and unusual where modern YA is concerned.  The first is her separation of consciousness from the communicative act; she suggests a trance state that involves what amounts to a dream shared by both discussants.  Odoi’s background in poetry proves important here as she conveys to a reader an exchange of pure thought, ideas in their essence rather than reduced to their signifiers.  Secondly, Odoi presents an organism that evolves in symbiosis with another species, a critter which apparently exists solely to facilitate this form of communication.  Odoi’s version is considerably cuddlier that Douglas Adams’ famous “Babel Fish,” which bodes well for plush toy sales when the movie version comes out.

While Odoi fiddles briefly with the familiar trope of a “universal translator,” Timpf’s “In Other Words” places the concept at the center of the story.  Unlike Odoi’s aliens, who are so different from humans that they are initially unrecognizable as a sentient species, Timpf’s are similar enough to humans that the two species are able to project their own flaws and foibles on one another.  This makes for a situation ripe for misunderstanding—especially if some of the players involved don’t wish for understanding to be achieved.

Where Odoi dwells in the mystical aspects of sharing ideas, Timpf is more concerned with the mechanical details by which meaning is constructed.  A veteran of writing of all sorts—fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—Timpf uses the failure of a translating computer to illustrate sophisticated ideas about how we seek to understand one another.   In doing so, she demonstrates that where the sharing of words may fail, the sharing of experiences may still succeed.  Early reviews of the anthology have ranked Timpf’s story very high among the stories herein, and it’s easy to see why—she has a rare ability to make complex concepts comprehensible, and enjoyable, for young readers.

           Both Nori Odoi and Lisa Timpf provide fun, imaginative reads that open the door to discussions of language, comprehension, and meaning.  Their work may involve aliens, but it's anything but alienating.

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