Would an alien be a person?

Image copyright© Jena DellaGrottaglia-Maldonado 2011, used with the artist’s permission

In popular SF, aliens are often an all-or-nothing situation. In Firefly, Blade Runner, or Gattaca, there are no aliens at all. In Star Wars, Babylon 5, and Star Trek, aliens are everywhere – no big whoop.

Contact with aliens tends to fall into either the “inspiring” or the “invasive” categories. Inspiring: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Cocoon, Starman. Invasive: The War of the Worlds, Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Battlestar Galactica. Both inspiring AND invasive: Doctor Who.

But what about something in between? If we moved beyond the solar system, built a colony in space, and found alien life, what would really happen? What if it’s not there to invade us? It’s not there to warm our hearts or give us advanced technology. It’s just… there.

Would we extend to it the same rights – “human” rights – as we do to our fellow homo sapiens? Does it have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? Does it have the “right to keep and bear arms”? Is it protected from imprisonment and dissection? Involuntary servitude and exploitation?

Merriam-Webster defines the word person as a “human, individual” or “the personality of a human being.” Dictionary.com goes with “a human being, as distinguished from an animal or a thing.” Wikipedia says a person is “a human being, or an entity that has certain capacities or attributes associated with personhood… agency, self-awareness, a notion of the past and future, and the possession of rights and duties…”

When does alien life cease to be an animal or an other and become a person? When does it become like us? Would it need to look like us? How much? Would it need to be capable of language, intelligence (to what degree?), tool creation and manipulation, musical appreciation, creativity, or religious thought? All of the above? Some of the above? How do we decide?

If we did find intelligent life, would humanity have a large contingent of xenophobes who reject the rights of aliens – on the grounds that the extra-terrestrials are inferior, dangerous, or just too different? Would we – and how would we – change our laws, morals and beliefs to accommodate someone who is not a human being? In the U.S., most states don’t allow gay marriage. Would they allow alien/human marriage?

Would aliens be assumed to possess a soul? Would they be children of God, or fallen angels? Proof of God, or evidence against the Bible?

These are difficult questions, but they are questions I try to address in my new book, Stellarnet Rebel. SF too often takes one of the easy roads – no aliens/widespread acceptance of aliens, inspiring/invasive – rather than addressing the very complicated (and probably much more realistic) issues in between.

J.L. Hilton is the author of the Stellarnet Series published by Carina Press, including Stellarnet Rebel (January 2012) and Stellarnet Prince (November 2012). Her artwork is featured in the books Steampunk Style Jewelry and 1000 Steampunk Creations. Visit her at JLHilton.com or follow her on Google+, Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and deviantART.



  1. I think about stuff like this — does that make us weird or just writers? I remember an old book by Andrew Greeley where his angel was an alien. Thinking about that, starts me contemplating how “alien” equals “other” and how we fear “the other” and all sorts of good stuff like that. So it’s quite confounding when an alien is both other and good.

    There’s an old saying that the God we pray to shows us who we are (reflects who we are). Do the aliens we imagine do the same?

  2. I always imagined that some worlds we would discover would have alien life, but maybe not what we would imagine as intelligent alien life. Of course, what we think of as intelligent won’t mean much when we are talking about life forms we have never encountered before. But I imagine the meaning of intelligent to be “with purposeful meaning” in their actions. So that leaves a lot out there doesn’t it?

  3. What a fascinating topic. It strikes me that it would take humanity a long time to get to the point of even being able to contemplate these questions. We are so fearful of that which we do not understand. But still, what ripe ground for speculative fiction.

    Thanks for a great, thought-provoking post.

    1. You’re welcome. One of the things I was often asked by beta readers of my upcoming novel “Stellarnet Rebel” was why so many humans were mean to and fearful of the aliens in the story. One of my human characters addresses that question thus: “Space aliens are fine as science fiction. But they’re scary as shit in real life. It would be like waking up to find a centaur taking a steaming dump in your living room.”

      We still struggle to define even our fellow humans as “persons” — and here I pause to think about things like genocide, war, oppression, corporate personhood, stem cell research, abortion, gay rights, etc etc — so I don’t see how in the world we would have a cohesive “this is how we deal with aliens” policy any time soon. With all due respect, Gene Roddenberry was way too optimistic.

  4. Some of my favorite SF stories tackle this very dilemma. Barry B. Longyear’s “Alien Mine” (before director Paul Verhoven got his paws on it, thankyouverymuch) explores xenophobia and the humanity found in alien lifeforms and their cultures. C.J. Cherry has written any number of books exploring the same themes. Neither author chose the easy route of universal acceptance of alien life. The central conflict in their plots would have disappeared if they’d had.

    Science fiction is a wonderful genre to explore those truly interesting questions: “Who are we? What makes us unique in the Universe? Are we all there is to life in it? If we are, what do we do and where do we go from here? If we aren’t, what do we do and where do we go from here? No matter what we do and where we go, do we have the right to do what we want? What are the consequences?”

    Racism and xenophobia; technology and its application; the spirit of exploration balanced against avarice and exploitation; love, hate, forgiveness and redemption–all these themes are as relevant today as they were five hundred years ago and will continue to be relevant five hundred years from now. And nothing brings them into sharper focus or holds a mirror up to our civilization (or lack of it!) than alien encounters.

    One could make the argument that science fiction is our modern-day version of medieval morality play and childhood fairy tale. Perhaps. they certainly contain elements of both, being stories full warnings and wonder. I am no literary expert, however. I just know what I like. I like science fiction and the themes it tackles is just one of the reasons why.

  5. If I might add to my post above, if personhood is defined as self-awareness, then by definition, all sentient life can be considered a person or people. But how much of what we would conisder ‘people’ would be anthropmorphism and pyschological projection? Are we, as homo sapiens, capable of stepping outside our own perceptions and their limitations and understand alien life as they really *are* as opposed to how we perceive them/wish them to be? As prisoners of our own senses and whatever mechanical sensors we make, is it even possible to objectively understand and accept alien life is it is?

    More food for thought, I guess. I might be intelligent enough to ask the questions, but danged if I’m smart enough to know what the answers to them are! ^_^

  6. >SF too often takes one of the easy roads

    In films and television, I agree, but do you think the same (i.e., across the board) goes for literary SF?

    Ann Somerville’s ON WINGS, RISING tackles this subject in a touching m/m sci-fi romance. It involves a relationship between a human and an alien “Other.”

    I hope we mature a lot more as a species before any kind of first contact. I mean, many people still refer to other *human beings* as “aliens” in a derogatory manner. Goodness knows what would happen if we encountered any beings from outer space. I fear for their safety, quite frankly (assuming they don’t come armed with parasitic plagues or a vast armada to wipe us out first, heh).

    I’m not sure I can continue using the word “foreigner,” either because the word itself is so distancing. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I used it. People from another country don’t feel “foreign” or “strange” to me.

    So, yeah, three cheers for SF tales that demonstrate that we’re more alike than different, because SF stories are only about aliens on the surface. Fundamentally, the stories are really addressing something else altogether.

    1. I should have specified “popular SF” — and have made the change in my post. I assumed it was implied when I referenced stuff like BSG and Close Encounters. Yes, literary SF has probably examined every aspect one could imagine. I was thinking, when I wrote this post, of Lilly Cain and her books, Alien Revealed and Naked Truth. They do deal with the point of first contact between humans and aliens, and some of the emotional/social/political/psychological issues. Which is probably why I like them so much! 🙂

  7. I think it would depend on several of the factors raised here. First, we would judge them based on how we measure “intelligence” and “civilization.” After all their are various types of insects and animals that appear to live within their own “societies” with clear observable standards of conduct (like a hive of bees, led by a queen bee, for instance, or apes that can be taught simple sign language), but we still don’t consider them equal to humans.

    So, first, we would have to see some type of civilization that could compare to hours, even if were far behind us (like they’re still living in caves or huts, with no electricity yet), but even if their close to or far beyond us, I think the biggest factor in determining how humanity treats them will, unfortunately, be their appearance. The less “human” they look, the more we’ll be inclined to see them as less than human. So VULCANS would be easier to accept and grant rights to than WOOKIES. E.T. would probably be treated like a pet animal, @ best. And the various species from Predator, Alien, and Independence Day would just be considered beasts, despite any signs of intelligence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: