Entry updated 14 March 2022. Tagged: Theme.
Many aspects of communication in sf are dealt with under separate entries in this volume. The most familiar form of communication is through language, for a discussion of which see Linguistics. For the perennially popular theme of opening communications with unfamiliar aliens, see First Contact; for initially discovering their existence, see SETI. Direct mental communication is discussed under Telepathy and ESP. For communication in the sense of travel, see Matter Transmission, Spaceships and related entries, and Transportation. For communications networks see Computers, Cyberpunk, Information Theory, Internet and Media Landscape.
Once the implications of Relativity were absorbed by Genre SF it was realized that most Space Operas and any story involving a Galactic Empire faced the problem that messages from one star system to another might take many lifetimes to deliver. The issues raised here are discussed under Faster Than Light (see also Hyperspace), and two of the best known sf devices invented by writers to cope with it are discussed under Ansible and Dirac Communicator. Communication within our solar system has been dealt with in many stories, mostly earlier, notably those collected in Venus Equilateral (stories October 1942-November 1945 Astounding; coll of linked stories 1947; exp 1975 UK 2vols; vt The Complete Venus Equilateral 1976) by George O Smith. Still earlier, there is a curious anticipation of the communications-satellite principle in Kenneth Folingsby's Meda: A Tale of the Future, with shadow-messages projected on to the Moon to be read by observers in faraway regions of Earth (and, as it turns out, other planets).
Messages can be sent forwards in time using time capsules. Sending them backwards in time is trickier, but the apparent prohibition against sending such messages implied by Relativity may be sidestepped by using the (theoretical) elementary particle called the Tachyon, which can travel only faster than light. Sending messages to the past in this way (see also Time Travel and Time Radio) is central to Timescape (1980) by Gregory Benford. Indeed, messages from the future to the past are not uncommon in sf, a recent example, with bewilderingly rococo detail, being provided by Dan Simmons's Hyperion books, Hyperion (1989) and The Fall of Hyperion (1990), in which a titanic struggle across the ages by different but ultimate AIs involves such sometimes contradictory time messages as the lethal Shrike (a God of Pain), mysterious Time Tombs, and Moneta, the goddess of backwards memory who lives backwards in time, along with what appears to be reversed predestination where the future determines the past. All such stories worryingly violate the Principle of Causality which states, to put it simply, that causes precede effects.
Aside from the areas of communications which are dealt with in greater detail elsewhere in this volume, there remains that of nonlinguistic communication, though the distinction is merely semantic, in that many writers would take linguistics to include, for example, mathematical symbology and sign language (see Mathematics). In many nonfiction works – an early example, for the lay reader, being We Are Not Alone (1964) by Walter Sullivan – there is discussion of the possibility of using universal mathematical symbols to communicate with aliens, and this idea is by no means restricted to sf: it was used, for example, as the basis for the symbols inscribed on the first space capsule whose course would take it outside the solar system. The best of all stories about talking to aliens via mathematics may be Neverness (1988) by David Zindell, in which the Solid State Entity, a godlike consciousness formed by an ordering of space and matter comprehending thousands of star systems, is talked to – at length and very convincingly, even movingly – in this manner.
There was not much emphasis on communication problems in early sf. Most nonlinguistic communication stories are post-World War Two, by which time there had already been much discussion of Information Theory, especially in the context of Cybernetics. Any message consists of coded information: whether in the form of words, mathematical symbols, signs, modulated electromagnetic waves, intermittent laser beams or even the chemical pheromones used for communication by animals. A number of sf communication stories, then, have been in effect code-cracking stories. In James Blish's VOR (February 1949 Thrilling Wonder as "The Weakness of RVOG" with Damon Knight; exp 1958) an alien communicates by changing the colours of a patch on his head (VOR stands for violet, orange, red; RVOG in the original title added green). Jack Vance's "The Gift of Gab" (September 1955 Astounding) turns on whether a squid-like alien creature is intelligent; his intelligence is proven when he learns to use a semaphore language – invented for the purpose – by waving his tentacles. Vance's stories persistently invent new communication systems, usually linked with the nature of alien cultures. Messages in various of his stories are passed by masks, music, smells, colours or signs. (A number of stories of this general type are discussed under Anthropology.) Suzette Haden Elgin is another writer whose stories blend cultural anthropology with communication problems; she has a PhD in linguistics. Naomi Mitchison wrote a notable book in this area, Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), centred on a research worker whose job it is to understand and if possible communicate with alien species; Mitchison's aliens are more vivid and convincing than usual, perhaps because of her background in Biology. Communication with aliens is, of course, a popular theme in sf, and many books, such as Conscience Interplanetary (1972) by Joseph Green, have dealt with it at a less demanding level.
Fred Hoyle several times tackled the problem of decoding alien messages, most interestingly in The Black Cloud (1957) but also in A for Andromeda (1962), written with John Elliot. The latter story tells of the cracking of a binary code picked up on a radio telescope and its interpretation as instructions for building an artificial person. One of the purest stories of this kind is James E Gunn's The Listeners (1972), which concentrates on the motivation behind attempts to pick up messages from the stars, and brings in many questions of human communication as well. Decoding alien communication also occurs in Michael P Kube-McDowell's debut novel Emprise (1985), a First-Contact story, in Carl Sagan's bestselling Contact (1985) and in Jack McDevitt's The Hercules Text (1986). Sagan's book has some good detail on the physics of communication and contains the entertaining notion that hidden within the number pi, with its endless succession of apparently random numbers after the decimal point, is a message from the original geometers of the Universe. This outdoes Kurt Vonnegut Jr who, in The Sirens of Titan (1959), reports the discovery that many great human events and artefacts are in fact coded messages from the alien Tralfamadorians. Stonehenge, when viewed from above and decoded, means "Replacement part being rushed with all possible speed".
Much closer to home, a popular theme has been attempts to communicate with species Under the Sea on our own planet, notably in The Day of the Dolphin (1967; trans 1969) by Robert Merle and Clickwhistle (1973) by William Jon Watkins. Both of these owe much to the well-known work carried out by the scientist John Cunningham Lilly (1915-2001), author of The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence (1968). Ian Watson adopts a rather different method of cetacean communication in The Jonah Kit (1975) – indeed, most of Watson's books dramatize methods of transcending the limitations of spoken human communication.
There are plenty of communication problems in our own society, even without aliens. D G Compton makes one of the best uses of a familiar idea in Synthajoy (1968), a well written and serious story about what happens when a machine is built which records emotional experiences and can be plugged into other minds. And, of course, there are many stories, both in the mainstream and in sf – too many to list here – about the effect of Drugs in assisting (or militating against) genuine human communication.
Some of the most interesting sf communication stories are those which stress the ambiguity that may be involved in interspecies communication. Three particularly enigmatic novels on this theme are Rogue Moon (1960) by Algis Budrys, Solaris (1961; trans 1970; new trans 2011 ebook) by Stanisław Lem and Whipping Star (January-April 1970 If; 1970) by Frank Herbert. The Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) also comes into this group. In Rogue Moon a labyrinthine artefact, apparently meaningful, is found on the Moon's surface. However, those who walk through it, some penetrating further than others, have all died. These slaughters may in one sense be acts of communication also; they are given a number of human analogies by Budrys, who seems to see all communication as fraught with difficulty. (Alien-artefact stories are further discussed under Discovery and Macrostructures.) Lem's Solaris tells of the living planet of Solaris; humans in an orbital laboratory hope to communicate with the (hypothetical) planetary intelligence; when communication arrives it takes the form of replicating figures from the scientists' subconscious minds. All efforts at communication are thwarted by the anthropomorphism of the observers, and the novel asks the pessimistic question: will it ever be possible to transcend our human-centred view of the Universe, or is communication with the alien a contradiction in terms? Herbert's Whipping Star is frivolous by comparison, but its ingenious array of semantic confusions – as humans attempt to communicate with entities whose corporeal form, it turns out, is as Stars – poses some sharp questions. Kubrick ducked the question altogether in what has become the most famous sequence in sf Cinema; when the mysterious alien intelligence of 2001 does communicate, the audience is given only an enigmatic and incomprehensible collage of lights, fragmentary landscapes, an unexpected eighteenth-century room and a foetus. We are given to understand that communication is achieved, but we receive only the static that surrounds it. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is another film which ends on a comparable note, the communication here being between humans and the occupants of a UFO by means of lights and musical notes; the climax is a kaleidoscope of colour and sound. [PN]
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