Using non-humans to show human failings is a mainstay of Science Fiction but is there a limit to how alien a viewpoint can be and still be used to show that a human character is devoid of an aspect, or aspects, of basic humanity?

  • This depends. Are humans physically abhorrent to the aliens (humans smell weird, taste terrible, and I have no idea how they operate with only two legs)? Or are they ideologically abhorrent (You're motivated by individual needs, pick mates for arbitary reasons like love, and invented Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Clearly you are history's greatest monsters)? – hszmv Aug 9 at 20:02
  • @hszmv Neither, the aliens find humans to be a young, impulsive race, prone to paranoia in matters of species survival but otherwise we're pretty similar. They don't want humans to realise how similar, the insight would give humanity another edge in a fight they think is coming, that isn't, and maybe start it. – Ash Aug 12 at 10:58
  • So one of the few "good" things about Star Trek: Enterprise was that it showed Vulcans having a lot of fear about humans because humans and vulcans had similar experiences (namely a nuclear war in their past). However the Vulcans had it in an ancient past and had only just managed to fully recover. Humans had one in the recent past at this point, and had managed to swiftly pull their society together and get to a level where they were almost equal to the Vulcans... and the Vulcans were worried about the pace. Humans advancing swiftly is something of a trope in and of itself worth exploring. – hszmv 2 days ago
  • Also, appearance wise, are the aliens humanoid or are they more bizarre? – hszmv 2 days ago
  • @hszmv Humanish the same way ginderbread men are humanish, arms, legs, trunk, head. – Ash 2 days ago

You'd be amazed just how much freedom you have in this. Look at the Uncanny Valley, and you'll see what I mean.

EDIT for clarity. The uncanny valley is a chart meant to show the correlation between how human-like something is (visually), and how cute/creepy we experience it to be. Studies have shown that there's a sudden dip just before the subject appears 'real', called the uncanny valley.

So, for example:

Uncanny Valley, Cute VS Creepy

Uncanny Valley Graph

(above is a graph if the Uncanny Valley)

So what am I trying to say with this? Make them human enough, and you can bypass a lot of little problems. Show things we, as humans, can relate to. Like caring for our young, even if it's stroking an egg and singing it songs. Or maybe finding shelter, or providing shelter for someone less fortunate. Or collecting leafs and twigs and making things out of it. Or getting freaked out when a someone they care about is hurt (whether emotionally or physically).

Think about it. Let's say you have your MC, Slorpnarg (sorry, just kinda riffing on the name). Anyway, this creature has six hands and twelve eyes and looks like jello that was left in the fridge too long decided to build a space craft and fly off to a galaxy far, far away.

How do you make Slorpnarg seem human? Give him just enough human-like motivations, something we can relate to. Maybe he's all alone, and he's looking for others just like him--humans are social creatures, we can relate to this.

Maybe he's out there looking for the love of his life. The romance saps among us will melt (I'm guilty of it myself). And Wall-E did a WONDERFUL job of humanizing a fricking tin can.

Wall-E and Eve

(above is a picture of the two main characters of Pixar's Wall-E)

They aren't human, and they don't pretend to be. They can barely speak, having only a few lines throughout the film. But you see them. Their body language, their desires, their motivations, their dedication to one another. You see the whole picture of two unique little robots you can't help but root for. Or are you saying you didn't shed a tear towards the end? (if you've seen it, you know EXACTLY what I mean)

So make them alien, make them different. But make their motivations seem human enough that we can relate, and readers will still fall in love with them.

EDIT:

Once you've shown how human the alien is, this automatically compares and contrasts with humans. Just look at Avatar for how bestial and war-like humans feel, compared to the Navi. All you need, is a few aliens the reader/audience can sympathise with, and put someone like Russia's Putin or North Korea's Kim Jung Un, or others like that.

  • I don't understand your answer. What is the "uncanny valley"? – user32282 Aug 5 at 20:22
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    @Fayth85: And FYI, Wall-E and EVE look nothing we would identify as human (1) They are fairly anatomically correct. Limbs in the right places, same amount of limbs (with the exception of EVE having no legs) (2) Wall-E's eye movement serves no purpose other than to convey human eye/eyebrow movement (3) The same applies to EVE's eyes. (4) I was focusing on the animation of the characters, not just what they look like in a still frame. – Flater Aug 6 at 14:08
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    @Fayth85: You're mixing the existence of an intellectual construct with the correctness of the intellectual construct. Music is a sign of intelligence. Even music I don't like. I don't need to like the aliens' music to be able to understand that they like their music. – Flater Aug 6 at 14:22
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    @Ash: So to you Wall-E was the story of a robot doing what it was programmed to do? We can argue degrees of anthropomorphization but even the fact that you call him Wall-E and not just "a robot" proves the point that you've given him an identity. I highly contest your assertion that you (1) don't recognize any anthropomorphization whatsoever and (2) don't even understand it when it is talked about. Without anthropomorphization, plots of movies like Wall-E, the Lion King, Bambi, ... make no sense whatsoever, and you'd be perpetually wondering "why the animals can speak". – Flater Aug 6 at 14:33
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    @Ash But...did you understand the plot, regardless of liking it? Being able to parse the plot, regardless of your suspension of disbelief, is already a form of anthropomorphization. Understanding that Wall-E must be happy since he is dancing is anthropomorphization. Even if you don't think that robots would dance if they're happy. On the other end of the spectrum, entertaining the idea that you're as blind to anthropomorphization as you claim to be, did you consider that attempting to do something you're completely blind to is an impossible task and that this renders the question pointless? – Flater Aug 6 at 14:38

What your questions makes me think of is not aliens, but the character Benji in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Benji is mentally retarded, and the first quarter of the novel is told from his viewpoint.

I found it quite difficult to understand what it is that he sees, because he doesn't understand it and therefore is unable to name it. At the same time I found his ignorant view of events extremely exciting to read.

So there you have an example of a viewpoint character whose views of average humans are totally alien and almost incomprehensible, and yet that novel is one of the most acclaimed ever written.

You're writing science fiction, so there's no built-in limit to any creative element you want to include. I think you have two good options for developing this idea:

First, read as many well-executed examples of this concept as you can find (here's a huge list of the "Humans Are the Real Monsters" trope in action). A few quick alien-specific suggestions include the Ender's game series, the film District 9, and much of The Twilight Zone (which uses both humans and monsters/aliens to illustrate our inhumanity). Figure out what works for you and why as you go between examples, and keep track of those elements so you can incorporate them into your own work.

Second, write as much as you can. If you like how things are reading, get feedback from a trusted third party. It sounds like you're wanting to include something relatively abstract, so you're going to need to test your alien viewpoint on people who didn't conceive of it. Good luck!

  • Also, careful with anything that sounds black and white. That's pretty hard to sell, and can feel pretty anvilicious. Unless you're presenting something humans actually find desirable as undesirable (e.g. "turns out leaves of grass are sentient!"), you kind of need to present characters that are opposed to the "human value" you're attacking - e.g. Ender himself is rather compassionate, District 9 has personal growth for the Wikus, Avatar contrasts the "military" guys with the science guys and has growth for Jake etc. Don't make the villain into an idiot strawman. – Luaan Aug 6 at 10:25
  • I would also suggest the "Human's are Special" trope which is basically a list of non-humans suggesting that humans have some unique edge. I would also recommend that you look at what makes humans unique among animals... we're real odd balls even if you discount the whole intelligence thing... – hszmv Aug 6 at 19:11

In my opinion the only thing your aliens need to have is emotions. As long as they can feel pain and love, they are "human enough".

I once read a very short story about a sugar cube who died in a cup of coffee and the big twist was to discover that the main character was not a human but a sugar cube all along.

If we feel for the aliens, they can be has alien as you want.

PS: I am not a native English speaker, sorry for any mistakes I may have made.

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