Books Which Involve Collision Between Conceptual Schemes

I have in mind science fiction novels which involve encounters with aliens, but anything else fitting this post’s title’s description would be great as well. I can imagine that situations like the one I’m looking for could take place between humans as well.

Here’s what I have in mind.

It’s trivial to think up ways that an alien being might think so differently than humans that something obvious to humans seems strange and difficult to fathom to the alien. (Cites? I got nothin’. And now that I try to come up with an example, this doesn’t seem so trivial after all; it would be difficult to have such a “gap” in the alien’s thinking which wouldn’t just make it look stupid or irrational… Well anyway, on to the next paragraph.)

What’s not trivial–not at all easy, anyway for me–is to think up ways that humans might think so differently from some alien species that something obvious to the alien species seems strange and difficult to fathom to the human.

To be clear: It’s easy to say the alien can think in ways we can’t. But it is (and, logically, has to be) very difficul to say what or how the alien can think in ways we can’t. It may even be impossible to literally say what the alien can do that we can’t–since its supposed to be something conceptually alien to the human mindset anyway–but I can imagine that it might be possible, at least, to convincingly show the alien thought process as it issues forth in action. Problem is, there are many more unconvincing ways to show this.

Anyway, I’m looking for examples of books or stories which try to tackle this difficulty. Whether they do it well or badly, I’m looking for examples of tales in which the reader is at least supposed to be convinced he’s seen something of how a truly alien mind might work–such that something that seems utterly strange and unfathomable has nonetheless come to seem to the reader to be something that just might make sense–if you’re an alien.

Thanks for any leads!


The Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus. Romans can’t fathom why Jews would rather fight to the death against impossible odds than submit to Roman rule.

Most other answers will be a variation on this one.

In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy Pilgrim are able to perceive time in a non-linear fashion. They can see the past, present and future simultaneously, as if looking at a distant landscape. They can’t change the past or the future, but they aren’t limited to living each moment in succession, the way humans are.

I can’t think of anything that literally fits your requirements, but there are several works in which very alien-thinking aliens appear, with at least some suggestion of why. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode with the alien captain whose language is entirely based on metaphor, for instance. Picard knows what he’s saying – the words are translated – but the thought prcess and meaning are harder to fathom.

Another work with similarly odd alien language 9which was worked out in some detail with help from a linguist, but which we don’t actually see much of) is in Harry Harrson’s West of Eden and its sequels. The intelligent dinosaurs have language that operates on a completely different set of principles that human language, and one human ends up being killed because she can’t grasp even the basis of the language. Herf brother, who’s younf enough to not be set in his linguistic ways, grows up able to speak both dinosaur and human, which is apparently not a trivial achievement. There’s an appendix in the book explaining the language.
Some works discuss alien intelligences so different from ours that we cannot really understand them, although they’re not clear on how those minds work. That’s the entire basis of Stanislas Lem’s Solaris and of Terry Carr’s short story “The Dance of the Changer and the Three” (circa 1969).
If you’re looking for other alien characteristics, look up Hal Clement’s work. His aliens almost always have very human thought patterns, which is direct opposition to your query (and which always bothered me a bit. Clement’s aliens are always significantly different from humans, living at much higher or lower temperatures, or in different atmospheres, or higher pressures, or lower light levels, or something significant. He hadles these differences with considerable insight and scientific accuracy, but you’d think they’d impose huge psychological differences as well. Perhaps in the interest of focussing on stories and interactions, Clement minimizes such differences). But you can see some startklingly different features of aliens that are REAL differences that you could easily see leading to different way of thinking, even id Clement doesn’t actually depict different psychologies. And this seems to satisfy the second part of your request.
In one story, Clement tells about a nearly airles world with creatures that “see” by having pinhole-camera-type smell detectors. They have globelike structures with pinholes, and molecular sensors spread, retina-like, on the inside opposite the hole. The mean free path of molecules is high, so any outgassed molecules travel in straight lines and paint a smell “picture” on that retina, so the creatures literally “smell” images. It’s the most completely and accurately described alien sense I’ve ever encountered, and it would work. Unfortunately, none of the creatures who have this are intelligent, society-building beings.

Another story tells of a human crew who find an alien spacecraft. It’s one long abandoned, but they can glean from it that their technology and their entire approach to technology is vastly different from ours. they don’t use tools for forcing, as we do. No wrenches tightening nuts onto bolts, for instance. They use interlocking ovals, and catalysts for bonding and releasing, and electrorestrictive forces for making radius of curvature changes in metal faces. We never meet any of these aliens – only their works. But he has convincingly described a different approach to technology that would undoubtedly reflect a different psychology.

Come to think of it – Harrson’s intelligent dinosaurs have a very different approach to technology as well. They have no fire and no written language. They have practically no material culture using metals, wood, or stone. Instead, they create useful items like “cloaks”, “microscopes” and the like by performing genetic engineering on other animals. their cloaks are living sheet-like creatiures. They microscopes are distorted frogs, whose own eye lenses have been reconfigured as objectives, eyepieces, and condensers. Exactly how they perform this genetic manipulation without a material culture in’t explained.

I was looking up Mark Geston earlier today (although not the book I’ve linked to - that would be just too coincidental!
Or maybe some C. J. Cherryh; either this one, or one of her many others where she goes so far as to invent entire languages for her alien species…
Or humans conditioned to think like aliens, maybe: Wil McCarthy

Hopefully this is the sort of thing you’re looking for!

Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott is a great example of this concept. It is about A. Square, who lives in a two-dimensional world. He meets a sphere, from a three-dimensional world. A. Square starts considering what life would be like in Pointland, Lineland, and then Shapeland … then even goes on to speculate about other dimensions.

I just want to point out that there are many sequels and imitators of this book. One of the best is Dewdney’s The Planiverse, which tries to depict what life really would be like in a planar universe, populated by biological creatures, rather than geometrical figures.

The insights and creations are clever, but, like Hal Clement’s aliens, they have a very human psycxhology. You don’t really have to make any sort of mental or philosophical breakthrough to put yourself in their mindset. Nor in Abbott’s Flatland. I don’t think these works, good as they are, really fit the OP’s bill.

While it may not be 100% what you’re looking for, the Sector General novels by James White do a pretty good job of xenobiology/xenopsychology. It’s about an intergalactic hospital that specializes in treating new lifeforms. Pretty daunting task, if you ask me.

You could also go with an extreme of human perception; take one of the five senses and compound on it much like the “smelly” aliens mentioned a few posts up. You could also take a philosophy or view and use that as an extreme. I, personally, always thought it’d be neat to read about a society for whom science explains everything; there is no such thing as random, for example, but rather all the factors that contribute to what would be to us a random result are all easily discernible to their scientific minds.

I don’t know if this helps you much, but in Piers Anthony’s Xanth book Heaven Cent, a conflict between Naga (snake-people) and dragons is explained by different perspectives on the game we know as rock-paper-scissors. In the book, the fantasy characters call the game “earth-water-fire.” The dragon, being fire-oriented, sees fire as evaporating water, whereas the naga see water as extinguishing fire (and similar reversals for the other two pairings).

That sounds in concept like the type of conflict you’re looking for, although obviously neither of these demonstrates a genuinely non-human mode of thinking.

I think you could take just about anything **Jack Vance ** wrote and find examples of this concept. Vance pays more attention to cultural and societal development in his sci fi than hard science and blasters. Vance likes to make up words then explain them in footnotes that can sometimes go on for a half page describing some minute detail of cultural significance.

"Planet of Adventure" , deals with an earthling traveling to a far planet that has four species living there but also somehow has humans as a sub-species. The Chasch, a race that communicates to their human servants using a derived system of tones, that translate to pages of information. Their language is too complex to have a direct translation.

**“Moon Moth” ** has a race that communicates by singing and playing musical instruments. The protagonist has a tough time ordering his slaves around because even they can’t understand him when he does not sing and play a instrument.

"The Last Castle" has a race of Meks that communicates telepathically and there are no individuals. The human have returned to earth and have enslaved sub-humans, or so they think, doing all of their menial labor. They think these sub-species are happy and can’t possibly want more out of life and are floored when that turns out to be a false assumption.

Would Odeen, Dua, and Tritt in Asimov’s The Gods Themselves fit the bill? It’s not easy to explain these aliens succinctly, so I have added a quick-read Wiki link. They differ from humans in having amorphous physical forms, having three “genders” necessary for precreation, and having the trait of absorbing energy directly from sunlight. Additionally, when three individuals “get busy”, they actually become a distinct and singular individual. When relations end, the three separate back into their original forms, with no memory of ever being the individual they collective were during mating.

One way to have a very alien mind would be to have a civilization where the individual is not as defined as in humans. I can imagine a cold, calculating technological hive mind race, similar to an insect colony, where the whole is more important than any one part, and whose concept risk assessment would be much different than ours.

Another likely way, as hinted at by many other posters, is a race who navigates through their world with senses with which we can’t relate. How do we communicate with a civilization who uses chemicals to talk to each other? Or a blind, advanced echolocating civilization? The way they approach things would most likely be very strange and hard for us to understand.

I rather think that much of Olaf Stapelton’s Star Maker would fit this requirement.

C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra deal with aliens that cannot comprehend the concept of evil.

Larry Niven’s Kzinti (race of anthropomorphic felines) are bitter enemies of humans, with whom they war constantly. Niven said that he was trying to write a creature with an intellect as great as a human’s - maybe greater - but fundamentally different. A (human) character in one of his books says that the Kzinti aren’t as dangerous as they might have been, because they always, always attack before they’re truly ready. The Kzinti, for their part, value surprise and ferocity over almost all other considerations.

The Race (aka Lizards) of Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series are reptilian creatures who are incredibly conservative and slowly developing compared to humans. They scout the earth by probe and are shocked to see who quickly humans have developed thousands of years later when they actually get around to conquering it. It’s speculated that the brisk pace of human development is tied to the fact that we’re constantly in estrus.

Probably her Foreigner series would be a more appropriate recommendation.

Humans have been stranded on the planet of the alien Atevi, who seem human-like, but whose instincts and culture are, ultimately, not intuitively comprehensible to humans. Or vice-versa. Some disastrous misunderstandings in their past caused them to limit all contact to the bare minimum, through the office of the Paidhi – a human trained in linguistics and xenology to deal with the Atevi without complete and utter disaster for both sides.

Ateva have instincts toward status and association with each other which humans cannot grasp, while humans have odd instincts for love and affection which atevi cannot grasp. Atevi also have an instinctive or cultural preference for numbers and maths that are “fortunate” or “unfortunate”, which seems rather silly to humans but can lead to assassinations or rebellions among atevi.

The main character is the Paidhi, who is supposed to be trained not to fall into the human assumptions about the atevi worldview, but often has difficulty in avoiding doing so.

Blindsight by Peter Watts features aliens that are not conscious, despite being highly intelligent. They don’t have abstract concepts much less communicate them, and interpeted humanity’s entertainment and such transmissions as a viral attack, since they wasted processing time and had no “meaningful” data.

There are also vampires, an extinct offshoot of humanity resurrected Jurassic Park style. They are smarter than humans yet not as self aware, and appeared to have been evolving away from human style consciousness when they died out ( a glitch in the visual cortex; hard right angles like a cross or a window with panes gives them seizures; civilization doomed them, with all it’s right angles; they take anti-epilepsy drugs in the novel ). In fact, in the novel it appears that conscious thought is a defect, like an appendix, and that humans are alone in the universe in having it to our degree.

How about James Clavell’s Shogun? Based on an actual historical event it has a late 16th C English sailor castaway in feudal Japan who become a samurai and advisor to the future Shogun. It is a typical Clavell doorstop, page turner but it does explore the different world views of the Englishman and the Japanese.

For an extraterrestrial mindset sufficiently alien as to be mysterious, I like to recommend Donaldson’s Gap series and its Amnion characters. Warning, Donaldson is enamored with grotesqueries, so some of the books may test your endurance, but the Amnion are effectively creepifying because their objectives and methods are difficult to grasp and identify with.

For a human story, just last week I finished Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt. It’s an alternative history positing a world in which the Black Death wiped out 99% of the population of medieval Europe instead of half. This clears Europe to be dominated by the expansion of Islam, while North America, never discovered by European explorers, is first found by China. It’s a “clash of civilizations” book, taking place over hundreds of years, with Muslims and Chinese the dominant cultures, and India and North American Indians as second-tier players. Very interesting stuff; lots of conflict generated by differing points of view.