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Are humans/humanoids needed?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Flight, Feb 4, 2021.

  1. Flight

    Flight Dreamer

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    All fantasy worlds I have encountered have one thing in common: They are filled with humans or creatures that look and behave more or less like humans or at the very least they are familiar animals that act like human. What is your opinion, is humanity necessary for a story? Does the story become too alien if there is no-one like the reader in it? Or is it just lack of imagination that every story is only a mirror of our own?
     
  2. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Archmage

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    I think that as a human we can't write anything but stories which contain humanity of some kind. As a species, we're very bad at coming up with new things, which includes writing from the perspective of an imortal being for instance. Even if you try and you do a good job, you will still apply your lens of humanity to it. Humanity is also necesary for the reader to relate to the characters in the story, to their motivations and actions. If you can't do that then it will seem like just a random collection of events which the author ordered to be convenient for his plot.

    That said, you don't need humans. Whatership Down is a fine story and it features rabbits. There's The Bromeliad Trilogy by Terry Pratchett which features some small gnomes. And large parts of the Silmarillion doesn't feature humans. And while that hasn't sold as well as the lord of the rings, I wouldn't mind selling a million copies of something. But the actions of the characters in those stories make sense to us, which gives them some form of humanity.
     
    S.T. Ockenner likes this.
  3. Eduardo Letavia

    Eduardo Letavia Troubadour

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    Your's is quite a hard question, but I think the answer is that, for a human writer, the human factor is unavoidable. And it's not just the story you write, it's also the medium you're using to tell it: books, pictures, screens and so on have all in common that are adapted for the human capabilities for communication. With this, I just want to highlight the many levels in which any piece of art is linked, many times in subtle ways, to its creator and all the circumstances around both of them: biological, social, cultural, technical, temporal... So, when you're trying to create an alien civilization, the only reference you have is the human reality which, by the way, is already incredibly rich and diverse.

    On the other hand, if we dare to follow a more scientifical approach, given how nature loves to repeat itself in a fractal way of sorts, I wouldn't be one bit surprised if the first alien civilization we meet in the future would look rather similar to us. Not exactly anthropoid, but recognizably close. And this would be because we are living in the same universe, under the same physical restrictions, which make the more efficient solutions for survival emerge time and again. For instance, and very broadly speaking, think about cars: you might have different brands in the market, but all of them must face the same problems on the road, and thats why, beyond cosmetic differences, use the same design solutions to reduce drag and improve their mileage.
     
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  4. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

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    One of my favorite series is Guardians of Ga'Hoole, an MG fantasy series in which all the characters are owls (though there's also magpies, bears, wolves, snakes...I guess mice don't get to be sapient). They talk, have writing and legends, and have concepts like kings and knights and wars, but they don't have things like money or look down on other species (except for the bad guys, The Owl Nazis). It IS set in a world in which humans USED to exist, though, but that's only offhand mentioned a few times and doesn't otherwise affect the world there's some ruins of castles but there's no "two legs" in their mythologies, so humans might as well not exist. Animals have things like families, friends, emotions like fear and curiosity, so writing about them doing things like that isn't necessarily anthropomorphizing them, but it is for them to have words/language.

    You COULD write a story that is about animals that only have animal-level thoughts (I'm hungry. I'm scared. Winter is coming so I must travel south.) and it would be inherently experimental, as you would have to be really putting yourself into the proverbial shoes of these "lower intelligence" characters. I don't know if you could do it for an entire novel, but definitely for a short story. If you look at things like any dinosaur special on the BBC/Discovery Channel, there's dinosaurs that do have character arcs, but it tends to be multiple of these "characters" through the 1 hour special, and we need the narrator to really understand what is going on (This velociraptor lives in the desert. Her old pack all died from some catastrophe, so now she has to find a new one. This is how that unfolds. Also here's how she died fighting a protoceratops and it made that one fossil). You could do the same thing with dragons (I mean they had a whole special about them in this way) or any other fantasy creature of animal-y intelligence.

    These stories are ultimately things that we can relate to in some way. In the most broad groupings of conflict (man vs society, man vs man, man vs nature) these can also apply to non-human creatures. A dragon surviving a natural disaster would be the same kind of story as a human surviving a natural disaster, but the dragon doesn't have the weather channel to give them a head's up. Maybe their wing gets broken so they need to find new ways to hunt, like how a human stuck on a deserted island has to figure out ways to get food that isn't going to Safeway. The dragon could mourn the loss of their mate or offspring, they could miss interacting with other members of their pack (flock? herd?), these are all things we can empathize with.

    Now if you are talking about sapient things, like elves, dwarves, intelligent dragons, you COULD write a story in which they truly act and think in ways that are totally alien to our own experiences....but it would be difficult. We only have our own experiences to live through. The only other intelligence we have communicated with is honeybees, and it's not like they have a "culture" like parrots, orcas and the great apes* do. By telling a story to other humans, you have to "filter" it and shape it to fit human storytelling conventions. You have to put words into a linear order, you have to form a complete thought before making a new one. It's possible other intelligence don't think this way and communicating that will be challenging (see: Story of Your Life and, to a lesser extent, Arrival). You could probably write a story that is, truly, of an alien intelligence and an alien way of thinking...but it would be hard. It would be hard for people to read it, too. It might need to be done in a way that isn't even a traditional story; a species that uses smells/pheromones to communicate things along with words would need to have that represented in some way for a human reader, such as colors or sounds, so your project would be a more multimedia thing. So it's possible! And I'd love to see someone do it!

    *The signing done w/Koko and other apes isn't really true language use due to some serious scientific flaws with these "experiments" so they don't count
     
  5. Snowpoint

    Snowpoint Sage

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    At some level, anything with a personality IS human. Otherwise your human readers wouldn't recognize it.

    If the whole place is personified animals, you can just ignore humans.

    If you have a bunch of fantasy races, but no humans, it would be fun to find Cave-men and the characters just think they are weird animals.
     
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  6. Flight

    Flight Dreamer

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    I agree that the medium we transfer stories with and the capability of human brain to understand somewhat restricts fully alien stories. It's quite hard to imagine even the sensory input of some earthly species, like bees have 5 eyes and can see extra colors. But I also totally agree with Chasejxyz, that it is possible to try to tell stories out of this world and would like to see it done. Even if the thoughts and actions of alien nature are interpreted for human audience it would still expand our scope of what is possible and what is normal.
     
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  7. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Inkling

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    Please define what you mean by humanity. Do you mean us as bipedal mammals or do you mean the way we see the world, the way we act, our ethics, our society and our languages? Take our concept of compassion as an example. Does it exist in the animal world? Would it exist in some alien society? I think that if you're going to write along these lines then you need to think very carefully about what concepts exist, why this alien society has these concepts and not others that we might recognise, and how you then explain this to your readers. It's quite a big world building challenge, though some SF authors have attempted bits of it. Iain M Banks and Alan Dean Foster have skirted the issues in some of their books.
     
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  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Science fiction does this and has done for many decades. Less common with fantasy.

    But it's a loaded question; to wit "Or is it just lack of imagination that every story is only a mirror of our own?"
    Every story? Surely not. I don't see how one can say every story (ever? in the whole world?) lacks imagination, since stories practically by definition are imaginative. Do stories mirror our experience? I don't see how they could not.

    So I would ask the OP if they might rephrase the question. I'm just trying to get at what's really at issue here. More fantasy stories that have no humans? I doubt anyone here would object. Are you wondering if such a story would be marketable? Or are you looking for recommendations of such stories to read?
     
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  9. S.T. Ockenner

    S.T. Ockenner Auror

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    I think they mean as in, you know, Homo Sapiens Sapiens.
     
  10. Flight

    Flight Dreamer

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    In this instance I mean by humanity that the characters in a story are humans or they are something that looks very similar to humans (vertebrate, with 2 legs, 2 arms and a head filled with brains and sensory organs) and/or behave in a human like way (one could think the owls of Ga'Hoole are kind of like a human mind inside an owl body).

    I apologize if I overlooked in my question some stories that are exceptions to that. I still think that vast majority of stories are, one way or another, only mirroring human life on Earth. Which is a great tool and part of why fantasy/SF is popular, as you can examine some parts of being human without the burden of earthly historical or cultural loads.

    What I am wondering is why are there not many stories without humanity out there? What if the whole world has a life that is not carbon based or all living creatures just float around the atmosphere of a gas giant? If it is hard to create such a story, why don't the storytellers like to challenge themselves?

    If there are good stories without any humans in them I'm gladly taking recommendations!

    By the way, a pixar movie "The Good Dinosaur" is very much like that.
     
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  11. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    C.J Cherryh does a good job with Downbelow Station. This one is typical of SF in that while there are humans, there are also non-humans and the non-human viewpoint is well represented. The same author has another race covered in the Chanur books. Silverburg lets us peek at a profoundly alien race in Downward to the Earth. Another good treatment can be found in Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep. A classic is Bradbury's handling of Martians. The list goes on.
     
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  12. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Archmage

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    An interesting question is when do you consider there to be no more humanity? There are floating aliens in the web comic Schlock mercenary, which are basically floating, highly intelligent balloons. They are distinctly different from humans in form. And they use different speech patterns and customs and all that. However, when it comes to motivations and behavior, then they still act in ways which are recognizable to humans. They still love others, form friendships, want things and so on. This gives them a form of humanity.

    And that is generally needed to tell a story. We need to ascribe meaning to what creatures do. Even the nature documentaries do this. Part of how they make the story interesting is to give names to the creatures, give them a personality in terms we can understand and give purpose and cause and effect to their actions. All these are very human things to do. And it's what actually makes it a story. Following an animal around which only lives in the present and doesn't actually think but only acts on instinct is probably not all that interesting.
     
  13. S.T. Ockenner

    S.T. Ockenner Auror

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    No it does not. Humans are not the only intelligent species.
     
  14. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Archmage

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  15. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

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    Honestly, I think that if sentient, technologically advanced life hypothetically exists on other planets, likely they will have different needs/desires/motivations due to how their society advanced when compared to human advancement, but they would likely still feel the same range of emotions (or not) as humans do. That being said, they would have had to develop similar compassion and empathy for their fellows; whether that would take in outsiders is a different question, otherwise throughout their history, they wouldn't have cared about things like war, famine and disease in other places or even in their own lands, and that would have lead to their eventual extinction.Self-preservation is I believe one of the basest forms of sentience, but is that only a human construct? or is it one of the fundamental principals of the universe?

    I think that like self-preservation, sympathy and compassion are universal concepts, not something can that strictly be attributed to "humans" "earthlings" "terrans" or whatever. I would also think this applies to words like "Jealousy" or "Hatred" or "ambivalence" or "Intolerance" which are only "human" because we are using our words to put a label to those feelings/attitudes.
     
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  16. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Inkling

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    I'm not sure that things like self-preservation, sympathy and compassion are universal concepts. Take for example a species which Arthur C Clarke mentions in passing in the book Childhoods End. These creatures live on a far away world which has very high gravity, so high in fact that the creatures are basically flat (they have no height at all). As Clarke has one of his characters comment, would such creatures have any concept of a third dimension? If they could climb (or slide) over or under one another then maybe. But if they couldn't? How would that affect their social relationships and their view of the world and the universe?
     
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  17. S.T. Ockenner

    S.T. Ockenner Auror

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    My belief exactly. Our emotions and motives are not because we're humans, but because we're beings, not beasts.
     
  18. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

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    Of course they would understand a third dimension. Just because they themselves are flat, doesn't mean that something around them (rocks or low mountains) wouldn't have depth. If they are intelligent creatures, they would understand this simply by looking around, or if they can't see, feeling the way the elevation changes. While I haven't read that book specifically, who's to say they don't have an emotional connection to each other? Just because one can sit on top of another, or beneath another doesn't mean that isn't a form of intimacy in itself. Humans do it all the time. Snuggling together for warmth, for company, laying/leaning on one another at the back of a classroom just for companionship. Touch is probably one of the most intimate things Humans can experience. Why wouldn't the same be true of some 2D aliens on a distant world?

    Just a question, having not read that book: Were those 2D alien technologically advanced, or just some critter Clarke used for window dressing to describe a planet such as the one in the book?
     
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  19. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

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    How many times have we read stories about dogs or cats (or other animals) sensing that something is wrong with a person and acts in a compassionate way, or puts their own life in danger to save one of their companions or a person? How many dogs have died running into a burning house to save people? MANY. How many cats and dogs "work" in hospitals tending to terminal patients. They know exactly what is happening, and how it affects them, and they do it anyway. Just because something is a "beast" doesn't mean it doesn't have some measure of compassion or sympathy.
     
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  20. S.T. Ockenner

    S.T. Ockenner Auror

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    While you're right, I meant as in complex beliefs and motives and relationships, not just the pure, unadulterated emotion of beasts. I agree that beasts can feel love and compassion and the like. Also, dogs have recently been confirmed to be people, so they are beings, not beasts. They technically should have the ability to have their own place in society and participate in our government, but they can't speak to us through language so we give them no rights at all.
     
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