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Mark W. Tiedemann: The ‘Alien Contact’ Interview

This month, SF Signal is featuring guest posts and interviews with the authors of Alien Contact edited by Marty Halpern. Today, we’re pleased to bring you an interview with contributing author Mark W. Tiedemann! (Also, check out Mark’s Guest Post.)

SF SIGNAL: Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. What’s the appeal of alien contact stories for you?

Mark W. Tiedemann: For me it’s an opportunity to ask questions about the nature of sentience and the consequences of civilization-building. At a basic level, aliens are always just us with a twist, since imagining the truly alien is almost impossible. No matter how well we think we’ve done it, you can dig around this planet and through history and find examples of things humans are or were that trump the wildest product of our imagination. But the use of the alien is a very much a mirror, held at an unexpected angle, so we can fool ourselves briefly that what we see coming around that corner or through that door is not human.

It’s often easier to write about the human condition using the alien as a template or a platform. Some arguments we have with ourselves about who we are and what we do actually wear thin when repeated too often. We get jaded or accustomed and the nuance gets lost, and then we read a story (or see a movie) that presents the topic in the guise of human-alien contact and it’s fresh and exciting once again and reinvigorates the argument because the filters we’ve developed to keep certain ideas subdued don’t work in the presence of another species.

There’s the famous line from Terence: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”—I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me. In science fiction we can turn that around and expand our view—I am a human, I consider nothing alien inhuman. In practice, this may not turn out to be the case, but the sentiment would not be a bad place from which to approach genuine first contact.

SFS: What was the first “alien contact” story you read that made a lasting impression?

MWT: No single one—it was a long time ago—but two stayed with me from childhood. One was Forbidden Planet which I’m sure I saw as a first-run because I had dreams about it growing up (I would have been two at the time, but my parents took me to the drive-in and later indoor theaters no matter what was playing), but I saw it again at about age ten and just the idea of the Krell was mind-blowing.

About the same time I began reading voraciously and Heinlein’s Red Planet fascinated me. The idea of genuine friendship, despite obvious fundamental differences not only in ideology but biology struck me.

SFS: Setting aside outright conquest, what might be the worst outcome of a genuine meeting between our civilization and another, nonhuman nonterrestrial civilization?

MWT: The abandonment of our own culture because we become so enamored of the alien. Do I think that likely? No, not really, no more than physical conquest is, the distances are simply too great. But there will inevitably be an exchange of ideas and culture and as we’ve seen on our own planet societies that encounter what appear to be richer, more vibrant cultures will walk away from traditions to embrace the novelty of the new.

I think there is a small chance of any kind of biological disaster, but it’s possible. Some nonterrestrial smallpox that neither civilization can cope with would be horrible, but that can go both ways. Our diseases have evolved on this planet, in this environment, and with our DNA, so I rather doubt it would be “nourishing” to biosystems evolved along completely different lines, but…

But possibly worse than either of those would be to be ignored. To meet them and they in turn shut us out, refuse to communicate, and turn their backs on us. I think that would drive us into a frenzy out of frustration unlike any we have collectively ever felt before. During the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial, a great deal of historical review was produced and one of things that emerged was the fact that for many of the far western native tribes, the passage of the expedition made virtually no impact. It hadn’t even been significant enough to comment upon—these tribes had more important things to worry about than a few white men heading to Oregon. In certain circles, this information produced angered responses. It was fine to admit that Lewis & Clark had had negative impacts, but the idea that they’d had no impact at all was intolerable. To be ignored would be a profoundly destructive consequence of alien contact.

SFS: What part of this story came to you first: situation, character, setting, concept?

MWT: Concept. I was working over some ideas about communication and the inherent difficulties—probably impossibilities—of achieving genuine interaction with truly alien species. Telepathy is one of the hoary old trope SF has played with almost from the beginning, but it’s also an idea I pretty much reject as being real. Real that is in the sense of a latent natural ability or some such—it seems obvious that telepathy would confer significant advantages and would lead to evolutionary reinforcement, but instead we find it does not exist in any demonstrable fashion. For some writers, FTL is seen as a kind of fantasy element in science fiction, but for me it’s telepathy.

But it’s such a useful conceit and I thought that, whether it would work or not, in the case of alien contact and a linguistic impasse, someone would put forth this idea that using telepathy to bridge the divide. Given a technological rationale for it, we would try to use it.

Good drama comes of pushing two incompatible or competing ideas against each other, so the next logical notion was: how would the aliens feel about this? After that, everything else came logically. It’s set in my Secantis universe and is referred to in the first novel, Compass Reach.

SFS: What projects are you currently working on?

MWT: I have a few projects in the pipeline, the main one being an alternate history set in a North America where the Louisiana Purchase never happened. It takes place in 1924 French America, a place called Orleans. The United States ends at the Mississippi. It involves a private investigator, a woman named Clair St. Griffe, international intrigue, murder, and time travel.

After that I’m developing two mystery series, one set in the late 18th Century, the other contemporary.

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