Whenever we try to imagine science-fictional aliens, many times we find ourselves looking at life forms on our own planet. They’re so numerous and so varied and so very different from us, especially as we get away from mammals and the general run of large or largeish land critters and into the kinds of life that exist in environments we can’t ourselves survive in: depths of the ocean, volcanic calderas, drops of water or tiny cracks in rocks or…
But many times we circle back to the more comprehensible, and the more accessible. We find ourselves looking closely at the animals we live with, and trying to understand how they’re like us and how they differ.
I often call my horses Space Aliens in horse suits. On one hand the horse is a familiar phenomenon in human history; on the other, he’s not so familiar to most humans these days, as we’ve moved on to mechanical transport and the horse has retreated to the edges of our technological world. He’s still important in less affluent areas, or areas where the terrain is so rough that a horse or a mule or a donkey makes much more sense than a mechanical vehicle. But mostly now he’s a combination of sports equipment and companion animal.
The sports-equipment demographic tends to treat him as a more or less interchangeable means of achieving the recreational goal: jumping fences for example, or running races, or exploring trails. But there’s a great deal of overlap with the companion-animal demographic, because a horse is a sentient individual, and humans have a tropism toward wanting to communicate with the things around them. They’ll name their cars or computers and act as if the machines can interact in sentient fashion. Which a horse can, you know, actually do.
A horse really will interact, whether you’re paying attention or not. If you’re plowing around obliviously, he may put up with you, or he may buck you off and head back to his real life of eating grass and hanging out with his buddies. If you do actually try to understand what he’s thinking, he’ll be that much more willing to do what you ask, and you find yourself starting to ask him what he wants.
Then you’ve got a partnership going, and a sort of alien-human, first-contact, mutual-benefit arrangement. He works or plays with you, and in return you feed, care for, and protect him against threats and predators. It’s a good deal for him.
When it comes time to think about writing aliens, the horse in the boarding barn or on the property becomes a useful and productive study. Here’s a large mammal designed originally for steppe and tundra, with a very simple, one-way digestive system that processes grass and similar forage, built to retain heat in a chilly climate, and to evade predators by outrunning them. Its young gestate for almost a year, but once they hit the ground, are up and running in as little as a few minutes–then survive on mother’s milk for a few weeks to a few months, but fairly quickly shift to eating the same forage as adults.
Socially they’re a herd animal. They’re meant to live in family groups, generally led by matriarchs and defended by one dominant male and possibly one or more lesser, favored males, with young or unattached males running separately in bachelor bands. The herd is a hierarchy, with members constantly moving up and down the order of access to food or water, defense from predators and from each other, and making of decisions as to where the herd goes and when.
Take that off the steppe and out of the herd, and you still have an animal that needs to be part of a group, whether it be a horse herd or a bonded human or humans. Some horses do end up preferring a form of solitude–their own stall, their own paddock–but they’re still more comfortable having other horses within sight and sound. It reads as safer. It’s also more natural to their view of the world.
Domesticated herds tend to be formed by human whim and necessity. They still manage to settle into some form of hierarchy, with a leader or leaders and a bunch of followers. Bring in two strong leaders and you may get mayhem, or one might decide to let the other be number one. It’s all up to the individual personalities.
Humans who pay attention, and who try to work within horse parameters (allowing for relative size and strength and mutual safety), become accepted as part of the herd. Especially if it’s a herd of very intelligent horses without abuse issues, it’s quite casually accepted that humans will interact more or less sensibly, though they’re tiny and frail and have a large number of disabilities when it comes to the full range of communication. Still, they’re usually connected with food and care in some way, so it’s worth making the effort.
For the human who learns to put herself in the horse’s place, to think like a horse and, as much as she can, to act like one, it’s very much like being that science-fictional character who lives among the aliens. They don’t have the same psychology as humans, or the same priorities. But they can meet somewhere in between.
Whether real aliens will be that comprehensible, there’s no way to know. Probably not. We might not even recognize them as sentients, or be able to find any common ground for interaction. But we can practice as much as we can, and open our minds as much as possible, and learn to accept the fact that our particular way of thinking is not the one or the only.
It’s a start. It has real and immediate rewards, too, when the alien is the large herbivore on the other side of the pasture fence.