1. BoddaGetta
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    BoddaGetta Active Member

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    Alien Communication

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by BoddaGetta, Aug 25, 2014.

    I am writing a sci-fi that is set in a universe with a large variety of species from all sorts of worlds. When brainstorming, it occurred to me that although many animals on Earth communicate with sound, there are many more that "talk" with methods foreign to us, like pheromones, gesticulations, bioluminescence, etc...Wouldn't it make sense that sapient beings from other planets might only communicate with color-changing chromatophores in the skin, or in a pitch that doesn't even register to us?

    Implementing this without it getting in the way of the narrative and dialogue has been challenging, but I've really enjoyed it. Of course it being a sci-fi, technology makes translation easier. It still adds a touch of alien to any random species my human MC comes across, making them seem more than a human with a green face and wrinkle-brow.

    Do any of you do this with your writing? This isn't just applicable to aliens, it can be fantastical creatures or even real animals, like Fire Bringer or some of the Redwall series. What ways do you show this in your writing?
     
  2. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    What's important to remember about sound communication is that you can do it over broadcast. The aliens in Independence Day were at a severe disadvantage because they couldn't communicate quickly over microphone. There's no way to communicate a gesture or a smell over the radio, so early on in a race's technological development these would probably have been adapted into sound queues.

    Even after technology to transmit bioluminescence had been invented, the sound queues would probably still be used, so that the aliens could communicate with one another while maintaining focus on whatever they were trying to concentrate on. If I had to fix a pylon in the vacuum of space, I'd like to be able to receive instruction while watching what I was doing with my hands.
     
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  3. BoddaGetta
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    BoddaGetta Active Member

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    But you can encrypt messages with just text to transmit over long distances as well. I would think text would be even easier than sound to transmit across space using "quantum entanglement" or whatever other speculative science you choose. If you have very limited, hard technology, then messages would take forever to cross space anyway, and using the least amount of space to compress the information in to transmit it would be best, so written messages make sense. Unless I am misunderstanding or undereducated on the transfer of information over long distance, which is probably the case :dry:. Always something to research when writing.

    I get around that in my novel by most species having implants ingrained into the culture and technology. Humans can understand the creatures using chromatophores to communicate by having brain implants that have a text overlay appear within eyesight. Of course I show how limited humans are in communicating with that species when they don't have the implants, and vice versa.

    Although I do see how pheromone communication would be severely limited over long distances. I wouldn't think they would use it as their only source of communication. We use gestures, and scents we are often unaware of emitting to communicate with each other in addition to voice. In the same way I would expect a species that uses colors to talk would also utter a noise every so often, or gestures.
     
  4. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Actually, in my novel Relic Tech, an alien species called the Umbelgarri use chromatphores like squid and low frequency sounds, similar to elephants as their form of communication. I've read a novel about a year ago (The Guardian of Night by Tony Daniel) where smell/odors was the main form of communication.

    While it wasn't a major issue in my novel, humanity trying to decipher/understand plays a significant aspect in The Guardian of Night's storyline.
     
  5. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    I don't think a species that uses color to talk gets out of the gate for interstellar travel. We couldn't have got to the moon using text messages.

    It's more then radio communication though. If I'm on a battlefield engaged in scrappy melee and I want to tell my buddy Tom that it's a good day to die, I can shout it to him (with dramatic effect). Then I don't have to take my eyes off the people who want to kill me and Tom is aware of my feelings re: today/dieing. What are the dayglo creatures going to do? Glow really hard and hope that Tom can turn to see? Well Tom just got his head cut off trying to see me. So there, you killed Tom.

    As for pheromonal communication, the only way I could see that working is if you had a series of vials that you could untap sporadically. Imagine having a huge row with you boyfriend because he never smells "I love you" over the phone. But it turns out you were out of that vial and he had been smelling it the whole time.
     
    Last edited: Aug 25, 2014
  6. yagr
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    yagr Contributing Member

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    I disagree. I think that there would be no limitations, just different solutions. The idea of sending pictures electronically (television) was a remarkable breakthrough that we had many thousands of years of technological breakthroughs from which to build upon. I've no doubt that given sufficient time, challenges to the issues raised by such foreign communication methods could be resolved as well.

    Off the top of my head, I'd consider exploring both electronic methods of transmitting pheromones long distances and perhaps even something like fiber optics for land based communications. I'm an old geek - went to university for math and physics. If I were back in school right now, I'd be heading over to the physics lab right now to strike up a conversation with a bunch of other over-educated geeks about the possibility and before my coffee was finished we'd have a working theory or two that, even if unworkable, would satisfy the imagination of 99.99% of readers without a physics background.
     
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  7. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    I disagree. I don't think this form of communication ever even evolves. There's no way to have a group conversation based on smell, and no way to talk over distances greater then a few feet. How do you comunicate with your fellows if you are working in a sewer? Or a foundry? Or anywhere else the smell is overpowering?

    Keep in mind that there are species on earth that communicate with smell. They are called trees and there is a reason we evolved ears as soon as we could. As cool as the idea is, there are actually very good reasons we have evolved to have the senses that we have, and a species that uses other systems might be able to live in tiny communities, but space travel is a near impossibility.
     
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  8. yagr
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    yagr Contributing Member

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    Fair enough. Just to be clear, I in no way am trying to argue the point with you - this is all speculation and your opinion is as valid as mine. I do however, find the idea interesting and so I'm going to keep talking for fun, not to 'win'. Evolution is a tricky beast. Typically, evolution goes through jumps periodically - and my mind has difficulty grasping periods of time in the billions of years. Who knows what a trillion years of evolution could do?

    Again, I'm speaking completely off the top of my head, without any real thought going into this... Did you ever see the Star Trek (TNG) episode when Geordi's visor was patched into the ships communication screen and the Captain asked him how he could see with all the assorted colors etc. interfering? Geordi explained that it was similar to how one can carry on a conversation with one person while in a loud party. You simply ignore or block out the other sounds, mostly unconsciously. Likewise, I would assume that in a smelly sewer or other smelly place, you would do so similarly.

    I can imagine a conversation on another planet as we speak, debating how beings could communicate through sounds. "What if you were in a noisy place where the other sounds were overpowering," I could imagine them asking as a possible objection. Too, there is nothing to say that their visual cortex is the same as humans either. They may 'see' odors in much the same way that we can 'see' heat using infrared technology. Theirs could have simply been built into their evolutionary model to assist in communicating over distances in excess of a few feet.

    Again, to conceptualize 'eyes' before eyes existed would have been nearly impossible. Likewise, I think conceptualizing a solution to this dilemma prior to having one present itself is equally daunting. Doesn't mean it couldn't happen. On the other hand, I could be completely full of it. :)
     
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  9. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    This race wouldn't be able to wear clothes, or have fur. Imagine smelling the argument you had with your wife to your boss because your clothes still reeked of the conversation. This is a problem, because a need for shelter from the elements was a huge driving factor in our evolution.
     
  10. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    See Ben Bova's Jupiter. That's exactly how his Leviathans communicate.
     
  11. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    But the leviathans are incapable, for a huge number of reasons, of gaining interstellar travel. The fact that they can't communicate over radio is just one simple reason.
     
  12. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Animals on earth, much of their communication is via smell. How does a dog sense a female in heat?

    Just off the top of my head, communication over distance...there could be chemical receptive sensors on one end, send an electronic signal that would release such chemicals on the other end.

    We found a way to translate sound to radio waves and convert back to sound. The same with color/vision. No reason another race couldn't do the same. We find ways to work where there is too much loud noise to communicate with speech, such as a loud factory. No reason a race couldn't figure out a way to do it in a foundry. Just because there are many other smells there, that doesn't mean their sensory organs couldn't detect the pertinent ones related to communication. In this I think humans are skewed, as we are mainly visual creatures, and our sense of smell is not nearly as sensitive.
     
  13. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    Yes, that would be the hilarious scenario I outlined above.

    It's worth pointing out that while all animals, even humans, emit pheromones, they are used to communicate one thing, and one thing only. Arousal is it, we don't even have a smell for fear (they Mythbustered that). This single avenue is the only thing that evolution has developed on Earth because it is a dead end.
     
  14. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    How is this relevant? There's no reason why a race that communicates in this fashion couldn't be spacefaring. They could use viewscreens for communication (audio? What is audio?), and the outer skins of their spacecraft could flash color patterns for short range communications. In space, someone CAN see you scream.

    What we have here, is failure to imaginate.
     
  15. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    A race without any audio doesn't stand a chance of propagating itself, much less building a spacecraft.

    As for visual communication, the whole point of hearing someone is that you don't have to look away from what you are doing.

    And even if we were playing Star Wars and all the ships were super close together, so you could see the panels (instead of appearing as little pinpricks of light out your window), you still have to remain in line of sight with them. The second you spaceship turns the window a few degrees away you're out of contact.

    Imagination will take you great places, you can imagine a race without opposable thumbs, with no way of gripping anything. But if you want me to play along you can't say they've managed to build a spaceship by gripping things in their teeth.
     
  16. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Because what happens/happened on Earth is the only thing that can happen or evolve in the universe. Okay, run with that, because it's a hilarious statement.
     
  17. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    I didn't say that. But I will say that evolution happens for a goddamn good reason, and if the only creature that communicates by smell is also the one we build houses out of, it might be a clue that smell communication doesn't go very far. We have seen that it is an option, and yet only use it for one thing. In the culmination of a billion years of evolution between us and trees, and if we lost the ability there was probably a cause.

    At no point in this entire conversation have I ever said that smell and color communication could not evolve, or even thrive in their environments. What I am saying is that they don't get into space using those attributes. Even living in a community that doesn't eat it's young is asking a little much.
     
  18. BoddaGetta
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    BoddaGetta Active Member

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    Isn't light faster than audio, and therefore a more efficient means of communicating across space? Like I stated before, wouldn't sound files be larger in size than text, making transfer even more a burden? Therefore, I would assume a species that uses visual communication can easily do it in space.

    If you take references from nature or use a bit of creativity, you can get around the fact that you have to look at a task while communicating. My species that uses color/bioluminescence communication also has swiveling eyes [a combination of chameleon and mantis shrimp] with rows of photoreceptors we don't have in our own limited 3 color primary vision. The eyes move interdependently. They also use limited audio communication, kind of like how we primarily communicate with spoken language, but can also use just visual methods to "speak" with each other.

    I never said I was a xenobiologist doing a speculative essay, I'm just using what I've observed in nature to spur my creativity and have a bit of a concrete basis for the science in my story's universe. I'm having fun writing and researching for my fictional setting, which is what counts.

    From what I've learned, dogs smell much more than arousal, and communicate a lot with scent. They use it as a business card. Bees and many other colonial insects use pheromones quite a bit [most individuals are not sexual at all, save for drones and the queen], and build things more structurally sound and temperature/airflow stable than we could ever mimic. Imagine what they could accomplish with higher intelligence?
     
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  19. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    In the case of space travel the answer is no. Radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, and thus move at the speed of light. They also don't need a direct line of sight, cause the little guys bounce everywhere.

    And take it from me, one picture is smaller then a sound file. But I would assume one picture would equal one word, and when you start adding those pictures together they quickly overtake the audio file. Plus you can downsample an audio file much smaller then a video file.

    In any case it's false equivalence, because radio doesn't transmit a file, the sound coming into the radio is converted into radio waves via an electromagnet. The simplicity of the invention is why it was invented so early in the electric revolution. Image transfer order's of magnitude more complex, and it's not until 60 years after the radio that we can transfer color. Basically your species would have dicked around with this system for over half a century before it became useful in any way to them.



    The eye swivel is interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that chameleon have been shown to rely visually on only one eye at a time. Their brains can't handle the visual split. Your species also couldn't have a sense of depth perception unless their eyes were completely lined up. Not great for the whole "concentrate on something" problem.

    As far as the mantis shrimp, I'm sorry but their 16 different receptors are present because their brains can't process mixed color. They actually have poorer color perception then we do.

    If I was a member of your species I would start on expanding those tiny noises into a whole language, in the same way we've invented ASL, just to make all the space stuff tons easier.

    Just did research on dogs anal glands, which are very interesting, and found out the are pheromonal. I thought they were different. Sorry about that, you are right.

    On the other hand the dogs method of spreading their communication around is to shit on things, so I'm not sure how much you want to use that in your story.
     
  20. BoddaGetta
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    BoddaGetta Active Member

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    Mantis shrimp don't see MORE variation between the visible spectrum, it's the fact they can see in other spectrums like UV and can also see circularly polarized light makes their eyes complex to the point that we still don't exactly understand it. Even your article states that. Is it not the point of science fiction to take that speculation and compound upon it. If they were vertebrates that had a larger brain, perhaps their eyes could "work" better. And who said I was sticking to a bilaterally symmetrical animal?

    It seems that to astronauts, relying on sound alone can lead to misunderstandings. I was not aware of the incident in the 80s this article mentions.
    http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-layout/nonlinguisticcommunication.htm

    We are ignorant of the universe as a species still. To say that audio is the only perfect way to talk and be able to multitask is limiting to science itself. Not to mention language isn't objective, it is subjective. What if the species has a sensory organ we cannot understand that can detect magnetic waves? What if its body evolved to make it able to create a personalized magnetic field? Like I mentioned before, science still doesn't quite understand the fuction [or lack thereof] of a mantis shrimp, a species that in some form or fashion has been around since before dinosaurs. Until the 1980s we didn't know life had absolutely no need for light at the beginning of the food chain.

    Aliens don't exist [that we know of]. If I wanted to limit it on Earthly science based on concrete facts and never break real science as we know it, I wouldn't be interested in writing science fiction. We don't have to go hard as a diamond on the facts here, as long as the facts are consistent within the universe I have made.

    Like many stated before, they may communicate in ways we just don't understand or even grasp. This is a huge issue in my story, and brings up roadblocks and miscommunication between species, breaking the utopia unity feel that normally occurs in science fictions that have [at least to me, Star Trek etc. But even Star Trek expounded on this from time to time].

    The interesting thing about pheromone communication is that you have no privacy. You could say the sapient beings only use it for announcement or performance, which would increase the gravity of any pheromone emission.

    See? You can expound upon many social scenarios. If I wanted to justify and explain exactly how they communicated from the moment you encounter the alien, it would break the narrative flow and be too explanatory. It would be silly as well if a POV character recognized everything about alien biology and linguistics [unless they were a linguist themselves, and even then they wouldn't know the biological aspect]. That is jarring to come across even in general fiction that happens in our universe.

    Dogs don't spread pheromones by just defecation or urination. Also, ants and bees have a much more complicated system than dogs as far as communication. Like I said before, I'm not limiting a species to just one method of communication. I live nowhere near Denver and we are communicating nonverbally. Bees use dancing and body movement in addition to scent. Dogs use a mix of body language, sound, and smell. We are a visual species that communicates verbally, though we did talk before writing.

    Pictures or symbols for communication depend on the culture. You can get a lot of information from one painting. Also, one symbol from English only conveys one sound, but one symbol in Chinese conveys a whole word. If we limit aliens to human parameters in communication, then we would need to follow with biology. Then they wouldn't be too other-worldly, which isn't as fun since we see those so much in science fiction.

    I love the genre of science fiction, but it seems lately people are so wrapped up in creating a perfect scientific setting that the rest of the story suffers, and it loses its speculative, imaginative, and wistful aspects; more so with concrete narrative aspects like consistent characterization, or a plot that immerses the reader in the universe like they are experiencing it through the characters, not reading an encyclopedia article. Not that encyclopedias are uninteresting, I can get lost wikipedia link-hopping for hours. But fictional tales give the reader more than information.
     
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  21. Jack Asher
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    Jack Asher Wildly experimental Contributor

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    Wow, you are just all over the road there, aren't you. I've read it twice and keep trying to find a salient point to debate but...so far as I can see that really boils down to "I'll write what I want".

    Then I reread your original post and realized this was a vanity thread. You're not interested in what we think of your ideas, you just want a place to tell everyone about this great thing you thought up.

    SO: Good job @BoddaGetta. I look forward to seeing what you have written.
     
  22. BoddaGetta
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    BoddaGetta Active Member

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    I do not know what phrase in my previous posts brought out your aggression, it was not my intention in the least. I know my recent post was long-winded, unorganized, and rambling, but it's no reason to accuse me of vanity. My purpose in creating the thread was to put out my ideas for alien communication for critique and see what other people used in their works, and how it made plot and characterization more interesting.

    Lastly, are you implying writing what you want for yourself is a bad thing?
     
  23. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I love the idea of exploring color-changing chromatophores in the skin, or in a pitch that doesn't even register to us. Chewy and R2D2 on Star Wars had alternate vocalizations.

    I think machine translations (using computer programs) are going be the solution to communicating with other species. Whether that's with a neural implant or a device like Google Glass, both are equally predictable options for a future story.
     
  24. ToeKneeBlack
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    I plan to add aliens from another universe to my series. At first nobody can understand them, causing the authorities to hunt them down when they're caught in the act of stealing technology, but it turns out they're building a translation device.

    As for their method of communication, I haven't decided yet, though I'm looking to nature for inspiration. Infrasound, ultrasound, skin patterns, scents, bio luminescence and body language are all possibilities.
     
  25. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    We communicate digitally, it doesn't limit us to audio.

    I'd wonder if a technological vocabulary could develop in a species that communicated with pheromones or skin cells though.

    But on the other hand, if it's sci fi, I think one could wow the audience with the concept of these non-verbal communicators. After all, since we are the only technological species we know, it's not impossible to imagine that there are many possibilities alien life might develop to communicate. Sci fi literature is full of such imagined things.
     

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