Monday, September 26, 2011

Humans, Pak, Puppeteers: in one word

An exercise: describe humanity in one word.

Choose carefully. The term you pick must apply universally across nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, technology levels, and political systems. It must apply equally across thousands of years of history, today, and well into the future.  The term should also serve to predict the behavior of an individual person in any situation, independent of his or her past experiences, throughout his or her adult life.

Hmm. Humans can be cruel, selfish, and ruthless -- but we can also be altruistic, generous, and self-sacrificing. We can be curious, but we can also be oblivious to events all around us. We can be inventive or mired in tradition or anti-intellectual, slapstick or witty or humorless, adventuresome or stay-at-home. We love and hate. We can be suspicious, sympathetic, and gullible. We act both capriciously and with cold, calculating premeditation.

I'm not having a lot of luck with my own challenge.

I succumb on occasion to checking out comments about my own books, both by professional reviewers and by (via Amazon and Goodreads, for example) the general readership. Most authors do. And while it's always enjoyable to see praise, critiques provide more in the way of learning opportunities. As in: What aspects of a plot did some readers not accept? What character behaviors did some readers find implausible? What background elements might have been insufficiently described?

So: How does that exercise of authorial due diligence (or rationalization -- another human trait) have anything to do with today's challenge?

The Fleet of Worlds series of novels deals with several alien races, including the Puppeteers and the Pak Protectors first created by Larry Niven. The Puppeteers, in a word, are cowardly. The Pak, in a word, are scary-smart. If you permit the Pak a second descriptor, they are ruthlessly territorial at the clan level.

In his solo novels where Larry introduced Pak and Puppeteers, readers knew these traits because we were told of them. Certainly the traits apply. But are these traits ubiquitous and all-controlling?

Maybe not. These books directly involve very few aliens, seldom seen on their home worlds. Generally, the aliens are not point-of-view characters, so we do not see into their thoughts.

The Ringworld series features the Puppeteers Nessus and Hindmost -- whom we never see together. When human characters briefly visit the Puppeteer home world, they meet only one new Puppeteer (and he only as a hologram). Instead, we see a Puppeteer interacting with human characters or with a Kzin -- not among a Puppeteer population. We're told that both these Puppeteers are insane and not representative of their species.

Similarly, the novel Protector focuses on a single Pak Protector character, mostly seen far from home. When, in the Ringworld series, we meet a Pak Protector, she has been apart from her own kind for eons and is likely also insane.

The Fleet of Worlds series took a different tack: these novels consider alien societies, often seen on their home worlds or significant colony worlds.

The gist of a some critiques of the Fleet of Worlds series is (my paraphrase, of course): some alien is acting out of character. That is: A Puppeteer is insufficiently cowardly. A Pak is insufficiently ruthless or exhibited some bound on his intelligence 

Such critiques may be correct. But -- getting back, finally, to this post's challenge -- might some aliens manage, to some degree, not to follow, like a robot, a one-word characterization? A Pak may be very smart, and yet unable to build a super weapon on demand from bread crusts and belly-button lint. A Puppeteer may be very cowardly, but still show some empathy for the rights of other beings to exist. And a certain human character prominent in the Fleet of Worlds series may have more depth than the single word "paranoid."

In the Star Trek  universe, a Klingon who's not a half-human hybrid might still resist attacking against all odds at the slightest offense.

I submit that intelligent aliens, like humans, may have personal quirks, foibles, hobbies, philosophies, likes and dislikes, knowledge (and gaps in same), life lessons, and moods. Aliens, like humans, may be individually shaped by their upbringing, local culture, personal-relationship status (or lack thereof), economic/cultural status, employment, profession, and the specific political entity in which they live. That's true whether "shaped by" manifests as support for -- or rebellion against -- formative influences.

None of this post is intended as a rebuttal of critiques. The author always bears the responsibility of making his case. For some readers, we failed in that task.

But to those who are comfortable with the notion of aliens constrained by a single term ... I'd be interested in knowing the word you picked that equally describes: Adolf Hitler, Mother Theresa, Albert Einstein, Torquemada, Oscar Wilde, the Three Stooges, Socrates, Florence Nightingale, Marcus Aurelius, Buddha, and Paris Hilton.


Erik said...

I think the adjectives that a race invents to describe individuals are relative. All puppeteers might be very cowardly by any human standard, but I doubt they would all describe themselves as cowardly.

They probably have their own set of words. The adjectives 'puppeteer brave' and 'puppeteer cowardly' are both cowardly by human standards, but quite different by puppeteer standards. The bravest puppeteers are considered insane, but there are probably plenty of non-insane puppeteers who are 'puppeteer brave'.

We can't think of adjectives that apply to our entire species because our adjectives were invented to describe individuals within our species.

In the books, the puppeteers simply refer to themselves as cowards, and the brave ones like Nessus are insane. My guess is that this is just a convenient way to explain themselves to humans. The truth among puppeteers must be more complicated.

Puppeteers probably have a spectrum of cowardice that their people are spread over, they just don't bother mentioning this to humans because humans wouldn't find it useful.

So no, there are probably no words in human language that can describe the human race as a whole, but I'm willing to bet there are such words in the puppeteer and pak languages.

Edward M. Lerner said...

All you Pak and Puppeteers out there ... please speak up :-)

TS said...


Erik said...

That's a good one TS. It would be interesting to see what the 'society' of a race that evolved more individualistically would be like. Maybe the Kzin are a good example.

Yokota Fritz said...

I'm a long time fan of Niven's Known Space stories and love your Ringworld prelude series along with your deeper dives into non-human sociology.

It's apparent, though, that most of the aliens were invented for fun and later fleshed out. The thought of a race of super cats who are too stupid to actually win wars is a riot (and I love Niven's wicked sense of humor and irony), but when you read more involved treatments on the mindless agrression of Kzinti Heroes, you have to wonder how they managed to overthrow their Jotok masters in the first place.

Likewise, how does a 'cowardly' herd animal evolve sentience? How does human money benefit the Outsiders?

None of this affects my enjoyment of your stories -- it's Science Fiction, and if I can suspend disbelief for reactionless drives, hyperspace, transfer booths, and boosterspice, I can certainly do so for Kzinti and Puppeteers. These thoughts just tickle something in my brain momentarily, which in itself adds to the fun and challenge of yours and Nivens stories.

The more recent inventions (G'woth in particular) make more sense to me.

Edward M. Lerner said...

Hi Yokota,

Thanks for your note. I'm glad you're enjoying the prequels.

I leave to Larry whether to comment about the provenance of his aliens.

(FWIW, I have no problem believing that a species of herd animals, cowardly or otherwise, can evolve intelligence. That is: herd animals can face evolutionary pressures -- including predators -- against which intelligence favors survival. If you can't outfight or outrun those who would eat you, outwitting them seems helpful.)

The Gw'oth are mine (and the Drar mostly so). I like to believe I'd thought them through -- and doubtless readers will be happy to point out my lapses :-)

- Ed

Mike said...

In the context of this discussion and with respect to the other races in the “Known Universe”: eclectic.

As you mentioned, all the other named races have some easily recognized quantifiable characteristic that they seldom diverge from and when they do diverge, its not really a significant enough diversion to truly distinguish them from the rest of their species. Sure, Nessus is a “brave” Puppeteer, but he still displays a degree of cowardliness that seems excessive from a human perspective. Nessus’ first reaction to a stress inducing situation is almost always to curly up in a ball, even if he musters enough courage to decisively act later.

The Kazin have shown a degree of compassion on an individual level, like when Speaker ordered the Kazin on ringworld to not hunt and kill the hominids on the Earth map, but they nearly always resort to some form of primal violence when faced with some problem or difficulty.

Humans though, as you mentioned, display a nearly infinite variety of characteristics in a very wide spectrum of the population. So I say “eclectic”.

FWIW, my only real criticism of the prequel was the way the Pak were dealt with. While some Puppeteer’s have shown compassion with respect to other alien races I doubt Puppeteer society and its leadership would have had any compunction against a campaign of genocide against the Pak and certainly had the resources to carry such a campaign out. They had no problem dooming trillions of sentient individuals to annihilation when they sabotaged the ringworld.

Edward M. Lerner said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your input. You are, of course, correct that individual differences within a species tend to be (in my musical analogy) variations upon a theme.

As for labeling humans as eclectic ... that's interesting. From

"not following any one system, as of philosophy, medicine, etc., but selecting and using what are considered the best elements of all systems."

The no-one-system-alone part of the definition would mean no more than "varied." But adding the choosing-the-best-parts" part adds nuance. Does humanity pick only the best parts from among competing systems of thought? I don't see it -- too often, we pick the worst -- but I'd enjoy seeing you make the case.

The authorial intent, BTW, was not that the Puppeteers had any compassion for the Pak species. The Puppeteers never had a way to eradicate the Pak -- though Sigmund chose less death over more when he had the choice. Likewise, it was Sigmund's decision (not Baedeker's) not to kill Thssthfok in cold blood when the latter was a prisoner.

- Ed

Mike said...


Thanks for the response. My comprehension of the English language could use some work apparently. The dictionary definition for eclectic that you posted may not be the best for what I had in mind, perhaps “heterogeneous” would have been more appropriate. Human society, as portrayed in the “known universe” seems so varied when compared to the other race. You have the fiercely independent and individualistic Belters, the authoritarian flatlanders on Earth, and the various societal personalities seen in groups on We Made It, Jinx etcetera. You don’t see that so much with the other races with maybe the exception of the two factions within the Gw'oth.

Edward M. Lerner said...

Hi Mike,

Your English is far more fluent than my ... anything but English. And many people use "eclectic" in the broader sense in which you use it.

Of course, to say that the single defining characteristic of humans is that we differ from one another only proves my point: that a word doesn't sum us up. It'd be like saying all flowers are of the single color "rainbow."

In the end, that was the intent of my post: people vary, and so will aliens. Variation offers survival value.

- Ed

Beowulf said...

Hi Mr. Lerner, I've been following your blog for quite a while and have been mulling over your post on how we can characterize humans.

I think what differentiates us from other species in the Known Space universe is also what describes us: Curious.

I'm awfully busy today to provide a reasonable defense of my view, but I'll come back again this weekend and elucidate on my claim.

Edward M. Lerner said...

Hi Beowulf,

Good to hear from you.

Curious ... that's an interesting (or dare I say, curious :-) ) choice. I await your further comments.

- Ed