Walking on the moon via public domain imagesFor my birthday this year I ordered a critique of a short story I wrote from Jeff Vandermeer. He managed to convince me that it’s actually a lot bigger story than I’ve written. This is my roundabout way of saying that I’ve been thinking about worldbuilding lately. Seeing as how much I love science fiction and how many alien stories I’ve been reading lately my thoughts have been turning toward sentient aliens more and more. So rather than brood on the matter all alone I thought I’d hash it out here.

Here’s the thing; our closest relative are the chimpanzee and the bonobo. Their DNA differs from ours by some 2%. In that 2% is the difference between flinging your poo for fun and walking on the moon. And not only that but ever since I’ve started doing my Anti-Caturday series I’ve learned that all brains don’t even work in the same way. Mammalian brains mainly use the cerebral cortex for the higher functions like puzzle solving whereas birds tend to use the hyperstriatum ventrale. Dedspite furious googling I can not find a similar “seat-of-the-intelligence” information anywhere for cephalopods. Which, together with everything else I learned about octopus intelligence and neurobiology would suggest that we simply don’t know. And indeed there is apparently a huge debate still going on among biologists about whether or not cephalopods are actually intelligent. And what is intelligence anyway?

Octopus Dance by Morten Brekkevold (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunkwill42/)

Octopus Dance by Morten Brekkevold (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunkwill42/)

In terms of science fiction world building the differences between humans, chimps, birds and cephalopods in intelligence are not only huge but highly significant. I mean these are all creatures that live and have developed on the same planet from the same far-distant ancestors as we did. That’s huge. It opens up incredible possibilities for alien species. Even if their body chemistry is similar to ours (which it is likely to be since we are made up of the most common elements in the Universe), evolution by necessity states that their intelligence will be highly different from ours not least because of the way that brains function. Evolution also defines what is the stock

All of this is basically a long-winded way of saying that our environments shape us. It is not enough simply to establish a sentient alien species then. It is necessary to set up pretty much a complete ecology to be thorough and believable. The plot device that gets used a lot is a cataclysm of some sort that wiped out most of the life on the planet. Hellhole and Speaker for the Dead come to mind from my recent reading list. Dune did this rather brilliantly where the ecology of the planet was rather well thought out.

The thing about intelligence is that it’s not really that necessary. So unless the aliens are living in high-tech cities where the number of critters is conceivably limited. In any sort of wilderness you come across so many different creatures. And somehow they all need to make sense within the context of their habitat. And that goes for the intelligent aliens too.

And I’m starting to feel like I’m making this harder than it should be. What do you think?