How the Other Half Lives, Part 2: Experiencing the World
Copyright David Belt 2014
Last week, I began a series into the infinite expanse of Xenofiction, stories told from the perspective of something other than human, covering some the dos and don’ts of creative literature. In Part 1, we gave witness to the miracle of birth and the variety of options for non-human procreation. Now that our inhuman babies have been born, how will they experience the world?
Humans have five natural senses used to interpret the world around them: Sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. It is with implacable continuity that otherwise brilliant writers, the world over, by insistence or by oversight, write non-human characters that experience the world in the exact same way as humans. Please, I beseech you: Let non-humans be non-human!
In my research, purposed at crafting a non-human species, I have explored each of the five common senses and asked: How will this species use that sense? Then, I went one step farther and asked this newly form creature: Do you have any other senses, not common to humans?
Sight: All creatures must see the world around them, though not necessarily with two forward looking eyes. The primary purpose for two forward looking eyes is for depth perception to judge distance to a target. Ecologically speaking, it does follow that predators rise to the top of their specific food chains and thus become the dominant species. So, two forward looking eyes are practical in many cases of sentient life. I, myself, am using creatures with two forward looking eyes for this very reason.
But it doesn’t have to be that simple. How do those eyes relate to human? Do they see the same color spectrum? Do they see anything other than refracted light? I have created a species that can see the auras that surround all living things.
Hearing: Hearing varies widely from species to species on earth, so it reasons that a non-human species would have very different hearing. The range of frequency and volume may be greater or worse than human, or may not exist at all. An important aspect to keep in mind about sound is that it causes vibrations. A non-human species may perceive those vibrations with something other than what we consider ears.
Bats use their hearing for navigation via a sonar-like ability called echolocation. This ability is carried to an extreme in Star Carrier: Deep Space by William H Keith as his Slan see exclusively by echolocation.
Smell: The Fox and the Hound by Daniel P. Mannix is an excellent example of xenofiction using a creature’s sense of smell as the nearly blind hound relies primarily on his sense of smell to experience the world.
Taste: This may be the most varied of all the senses, as not even members of the same species will have the exact same tastes. Additionally, there are species that use taste for purposes other than sampling food. Several varieties of lizards taste the air as a means of exploring their surroundings. As I have created a lizard-like species, I have adopted this particular option.
Touch: The sense of touch is universally found in every life form, many of which compensate for shortcomings in other senses by way of specializes forms of touch. As I said before, sound wave cause vibrations in the air, a species may be otherwise deaf, but able to interpret sound in some way by feeling such vibrations.
Clifford Simok’s Spheres in Project Pope use their unique touch for both hearing and communication.
Natural plants experience the world entirely through their sense of touch, so it only follows that sentient plant would rely heavily on their own sense of touch. It is alluded that J. R. R. Tolken’s Ents of Fanghorn from The Lord of the Rings possess a special sense of touch which includes a form of sensory navigation, as they can feel what direction they are travelling in.
Extra Sensory Perception: As writers cross the chasm of “what if,” a broad spectrum of unique senses that do not exist in humans emerges. Many of these senses include forms of psychic abilities, electromagnetic detection, and the variable uses of antennae.
Whatever your flavor, let your unique creations, look, touch and taste unique. The end product will be more enjoyable for your readers and more challenging for your writing as these characters explore the world around them with their own unique senses.
Join me again next week as I put on my anthropology hat and explore non-human cultures.