Underestimating Aliens

Over the years, I’ve noticed that people are completely confused by my

Flossie, Mephitis, and Harlequin

fondness for guinea pigs.  Many years ago – I was still in grad school and had just gotten my first cat – one fellow went so far as to inform me that I now had a “real” pet, that creatures who lived in tanks couldn’t make the same impact on one’s life.  He even went so far as to say – not just imply – that guinea pigs were sort of disposable, that I wouldn’t know real grief for a pet until my cat (then nine months old) died.

Yeah…  Tactless.  However, the fact is that this fellow said what I feel a lot of people think about guinea pigs.  When people learn I keep guinea pigs, there is usually one of two reactions: complete disinterest or gleefully informing me that people in South America eat guinea pigs.  (To which I usually reply that chihuahuas were bred to be eaten, that dogs are commonly eaten in China, and that horses are still eaten in many countries).

So today I’m going to step up in defense of one of my favorite “other bloods” – and maybe pause to offer a question or two about monocultures in SF/F.

First a few basic facts.  A guinea pig is not a hamster or a gerbil.  It is moderately large – nearly the size of a dwarf rabbit.  It is a social creature, delighting both in the companionship of its own kind and of humans.  In fact, guinea pigs are so social that they have been known to die of grief when a treasured companion dies.  No.  I’m not romanticizing.  You can find this supported in various guinea pig books.

Given that a well-cared for guinea pig’s life-span is between five and eight years long, they actually live as long as many of the larger breeds of dogs and longer than many outdoor cats.  Unlike dogs, guinea pigs often stay quite robust right up to the end.  I’ve loved many an oldster into her scrawny years, delighting in how eagerly she’ll still down her treats and invite patting.

This essentially robust constitution is a good thing, because guinea pigs do have one bad point as pets – they cannot take a large number of common drugs (including many antibiotics).  This means that if they do get ill, treatment is difficult.  It also means that the fact that they were used as experimental animals for so long that “guinea pig” has become synonymous with such is something of a tragedy.  Testing treatments for humans on something with a biology so unlike that of a human seems somewhat counterproductive.

Guinea pigs have quite varied personalities as well.  They have favorite foods.  One may love carrot while her roommate says “Oh, too boring!  I want kale.”  They can even get into fads.  Right now, our guinea pigs love carrot in thin strips (like you’d make with a carrot peeler), but wrinkle up their noses at the same carrot cut into sticks.   They’re very smart.  Not only can they be taught tricks, but some of them learn to teach their humans tricks.  I can’t resist a story or two.

Some years ago, I resided with a guinea pig named Harlequin.  Harly figured out that if she banged her water bottle, a human would come over to make sure it wasn’t empty.  It took us a while to figure it out, but we gradually realized that she had designed her own “summon human” spell.  She’d bang the bottle, then come over to the side of her tank and look up with an expectant smile (yes, guinea pigs do smile) for the human to come over.  Then she’d stand up in anticipation of a treat.  In later years, she refined this so that our mornings would begin with the alarm going off, followed seconds later by the sound of Harlequin banging her bottle.  We were awake, now we could come give her a treat.  When she died, our mornings felt really empty.

Haley – not be confused with Harlequin; she was named for the comet because she was black with a flame colored patch on her butt – was a very odd guinea pig.  Unlike most guinea pigs, who learn very quickly that good things come from above and stand up to grab them, she was slow to learn to beg.  She also never whistled for attention.

Then spring came and we started taking the guinea pigs outside for their daily constitutional in a hutch Jim built for them.  Early one morning I came inside and was greeted by a faint, tentative, but definitive whistle.  I was astonished to see the source was Haley.  She was waiting for me whistling softly and I realized that at last she’d found something she loved enough to ask for.  Not food.  Not petting.  A trip outside to run and romp.

Two other guinea pigs, Bianca and Lilybett, decided that they did not like being picked up.  However, that didn’t mean they didn’t want to go places or be held.  They simply wanted control over their transportation.  They taught us to hold our hands flat and then, rather in the fashion of a parakeet getting onto a human’s finger, they would walk onto our hands then (when they got too big to sit just on the hand) continue up the arm.  We insist on providing “seatbelts” in the form of a hand across the back, but their gentle fussing let us know they don’t consider this at all necessary.

Guinea pigs, by the way, have quite wide vocabularies.  In addition to a high whistle, they have a variety of softer whistles and squeaks.  They also make soft chuckling sounds when they’re interested or exploring.  When alarmed or threatened, they chatter their teeth quite fiercely.  Added to body language – again varied and quite eloquent – they are easier to understand than many a cat.

Monoculture is one of my bugbears as a writer of SF/F and I think that my feeling has been shaped by the guinea pigs I have known.  If these interesting aliens – or “other bloods” – can have such a wide variety of interests, then why are so many alien cultures (in which I’ll include the elves and fey folk and monsters of fantasy) identical through a massive world – or even a star-spanning interstellar empire?

What do you think?


11 Responses to “Underestimating Aliens”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    What, no kind words for pigeons or chickens? I’ve seen intelligence in both of them. My mom’s old australorp chickens used to help her weed the garden by catching all the bugs her garden fork unearthed, and they had different clucks for the different bugs they found. That’s a big difference from the chicken as meat and eggs in the supermarket. And we won’t even get into pig intelligence.

    As for SF, doesn’t it depend on scale? For those dealing with people en masse, the stereotypes do come out (the British are a nation of shopkeepers. Californians are like granola: fruits, nuts, and flakes. Wisconsinites are football-loving cheeseheads). If one is dealing with individuals, it’s worth making them individuals (David Beckham, Richard Feynman, or Joseph McCarthy). Depends on the needs of the story, doesn’t it?

    • janelindskold Says:

      Well, my dear, I was writing about guinea pigs, not chickens!

      However, I will say that the people I have known who kept chickens on the small scale really liked them. My dad, who was not a pet person, seemed fond of his.

      Hmm… I’m going to challenge you on the stereotypes. See below!

  2. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    I am of the opinion that space people (I just can’t bring myself to say “aliens”; it sounds so immediately exclusionary — as though we’re deciding ahead of time that they are so unlike us that we should refer to them as such. I realize that “space people” is also likely inaccurate — sort of like the groceries at the store deciding we should be called “car people”, but as of yet I’ve not figured out a better one. Yeah, okay, extraterrestrials will do in a pinch, but it seems so impersonal. Okay, okay, back to the point!)… now where was I… oh, yeah… that space people of course are just as different from each other as we are from one another, and ideally are depicted as such. I LOVE S.L. Viehl’s space people. An amazing variety, with individual quirks in individuals… just like guinea pigs. 🙂
    Whom, incidentally, are adorable and one reason we don’t have any is that 1) I really don’t like fussing with food, even for myself. (My-husband-the-dietitian is resigned to that:-), and 2) we have dogs who LOVE squeaky toys, most of which are just about the size of a guinea pig. I don’t want any tragic accidents! The little guys deserve better than that. And they are SO cute!

  3. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    Aarrrgh, I should’ve written “who” instead of “whom”. I am so embarrassed! Arrrrggggghhhhh!

  4. Paul Says:

    Sometimes even the old movies get it right. The 1953 “This Island, Earth” (actually based on the Astounding magazine series of three stories) had humanoid aliens (albeit with white hair and high foreheads) and the audience only got to “meet” three of them — but they were indeed three different personalities. I certainly learned more than I ever knew about guinea pigs from this blog. The closest we’ve ever come to such pets was a pair of gerbils, and, yes, I know, they aren’t really like guinea pigs. (But maybe they are different types of beings from the same alien planet….?)

  5. Nicholas Wells Says:

    It is interesting to think about. So many SF shows and movies provide raced with a singe religion, a single culture, and a single way of life.

    Why? Are humans the only race that’s heavily diverse? Oh you’ll get personality traits yes, but everyone worships this god or that spirit or whatever. It’s something I’ve recently started thinking about in my own work. Why would any race be so defined?

    It may be laziness. Not wanting to take the time or effort to plot out the differences. Or maybe it’s been done that way for so long no one knows any different.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    Above, Heteromeles spoke of “scale” as a justification for simplifying alien cultures, then gave stereotypes as an example of how humans tend to do this.

    I’m not saying that humans don’t do this… However, if you look at that list, you’ll see they’re all the sort of thing that is imposed on a culture/group from the Outside. Usually, the culture itself protests this as inaccurate or overly simplistic.

    So I fear I’m with Nicolas. Doing such when creating cultures is lazy writing… As Paul and Julie noted, both film and books CAN make the effort and (at least for me) this makes for richer books.

    Whew! On the other hand, I have friends who don’t like some authors I do because they want the simplified view, so I guess there’s room for both.

    • heteromeles Says:

      Not sure I’d say that saying the stereotypes come out is precisely a justification. Simply put, if there’s a planet/species/culture/city/etc out there that’s known for its whatever (rigid mores, decadent excesses, ancient culture, ad nauseum), that’s a pretty flagrant stereotype, but it only becomes lazy if the hero actually goes there and finds out that yes, everyone in that place is rigid, decadent, or whatever.

      Not to be mean, but I’ll give another example I’ve chided Jane about, in totally ignoring stereotypes. Back a few hundred years ago, the stereotype of martial excellence was that the Japanese were best with their swords, the Koreans excelled with their bows, and the Chinese were best at spear fighting. I pointed out to Jane that none of the Thirteen Orphans used a spear. Is this a sign of avoiding stereotypes, insufficient research, or the needs of a modern fantasy novel (since spears are hard to carry around in public these days)? I’ll leave it for you to decide. The answer doesn’t matter, but the point is that sometimes a bit of stereotyping can add a lot of color.

      • janelindskold Says:

        Ah… But would those stereotypes have applied in the version of China from which the 13 Orphans originally came?

        I don’t think so, since there is neither a Japan nor a Korea.

        Where I did assign weapons, I was going more for a mythological link. The Monkey uses a staff because of that was the Monkey King’s traditional weapon. Tigers are the ultimate personal warriors. The Rooster’s Talons were linked to the animal. Etc.

        Not all the Orphans chose to create a weapon as a magical item, either. Consider the Rat…

  7. janelindskold Says:

    Oh… An addition to my reply to Heteromeles above…

    See page 42 in the hard cover edition of _Five Odd Honors_ before you say no member of the Orphans uses a spear. Loyal Wind begins his duel with Thundering Heaven using a giau-chiz, clearly defined in the text as “the horseman’s long spear.”


  8. Sandra Gibson Says:

    Hello, long time reader, first time poster.

    I just wanted to say thank you so much for giving pigs the props they so richly deserve. I am down to one pig, having the pleasure of being owned by 5 others. They’re such fascinating creatures! My current one is actually 6 with cancer, but she’s still such a little princess. She’s used to her routine and dare I divert from it she won’t let me hear the end of it. Wheeking and burbling away until I make things right. It’ll be a very quiet home once Isabella goes (and if she needs the help to make her way i’ll be there to do it), but hopefully she’s around, bossing me around for a long time yet!

    Thank you!

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