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Love Letter to an Alien
“Why can I never set my heart on a possible thing?”—Estraven in Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness
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Dear Alien Boy,
I hope you don’t mind if I address you this way. Your true name is impossible for me to pronounce—a miniature symphony of whistles, chimes and clicks—and I cannot even begin to render it in Roman script. Yet to call you by your Earth alias feels wrong. That I cannot physically form the sounds of your name seems emblematic of the barriers between us, created by parallel evolutionary histories that diverged almost three billion years ago. Some paths cannot be retraced, some histories mark us indelibly. We are not like water—boiling, cooling, freezing, melting, yet true to our nature in every form. We are bars of chocolate: once melted, we cannot resume our original pristine, glossy geometry but assume myriad strange shapes. The too too solid flesh can melt and morph, though it takes eons.
If we had never met in person, but only corresponded mind to mind, exchanging thoughts, perhaps we could have connected more deeply. Like the protagonists of an epistolary novel, our letters (or our pixels, electrons, subspace waves) would jump the gap between us, like signals leaping across synapses, as if we were one cloud-connected brain. Distance makes eloquence necessary. Lovers separated by unbridgeable spaces have no choice but to clothe their longing in words, to turn pure, raw feeling into description. We write to those we cannot be with; we write because we cannot be with them. We receive from the distant beloved the neutral, shared medium of words and we try to read them in his voice, to guess at his thoughts and feelings as he formed the letters or pressed the keys. We are like eager spectators shut out from the theatre, trying to recreate the performance in our minds with only the text of the play, trying to visualise the action from the scanty stage directions.
At least, that is true on this planet.
Here on Earth, a single ocean is enough to separate us from each other for months. Only a few hundred years ago, fifty miles of overgrown country lanes could keep two lovers apart through the snowstorms of winter and the mud of spring. On Zerg, you have had teleportation for half a century and telepathy for twice as long. Can Zergians really feel passion as we do? Love, after all, seems dependent on imperfect knowledge: on the unreachability of the lover, on the inscrutability of his mind. We are all aliens to each other in love, each the centre of his own universe. Every lover is an astronaut making First Contact.
You observed our little world for a long time before you came here; you studied our manners and our ways; you learned to imitate our gestures and you fashioned a disguise that made you look almost human. Every detail was perfect: from the receding coastline of hair across your forehead to the gnarly overgrown little toenail on your left foot. The genitalia were as convincing as those of any Homo sapiens male—right down to the solder line of raised skin traversing your scrotum, marking where an incipient vaginal opening fused together in the sixth week of a mammalian pregnancy. There was only one hint of alienness: a smooth round bump below one shoulder blade. “It’s a lipoma,” you lied, “harmless.” But a little shudder of pleasure ran through you as I cradled it in my hand. I had unsuspectingly breached your world’s strongest taboo: I had touched your Zergian second brain.
You lay there so still as I caressed and kissed and wriggled and squirmed up against you, your penis an overgrown enokitake mushroom, resting gently, unmoved, on a cushion of flesh. But your forehead was furrowed deeply and, as I watched, the wrinkles between your eyes turned to ridges, a miniature canyon landscape from which translucent spheres began to emerge, swirled with bands of colour, like tiny Jupiters, as if from a child’s soap bubble wand. “Touch them,” you told me. But when my finger made contact with the sticky surface tension of one floating globe, an electric shock jolted through me and I jerked my hand back in alarm.
Your fingers twitched out a tarantella, making glowing figures appear in the empty air:
You waited, then flashed the signs a second time, eyes pleading, clearly hoping for an answer in kind. “E equals mc squared?” I ventured. It was the only equation that came to mind. You seemed to stifle a sigh. Your puppy dog eyes looked at me again, as if you were waiting for a rawhide treat. Then you turned away in disappointment and sadness when my only response was blank incomprehension.
Lovely alien boy, I am afraid that in our physical universe, there is no possibility of consummating our love. You cannot satisfy my needs and your needs are beyond my comprehension. So I turn to fiction to find avatars who can stand in for us. Perhaps, if we do indeed live in a megaverse, amid its many universes there is one that contains the looming blood-tinged pink towers and icy wastes of the planet Gethen, in physical reality and not just in a novel written in the year that we humans first stepped onto the moon, the same year that I was born.
Perhaps somewhere, at this very moment, in some parallel world, we sit opposite each other at a trestle table in a freezing dining room, cracking the splintery ice that forms over our neglected water glasses as we eat. Perhaps there, I am the male stranger from a distant solar system, from a remote Planet Earth, and you the native, an oestrus-dependent hermaphrodite, transforming from smooth-crotched sexlessness to shy femininity as the twenty-six-day-old moon climbs high into the sky and you enter the state of desire, arousal, longing and fecundity that Le Guin calls kemmer. Perhaps there, some version of me and some version of you have spent the day trudging across a glacier and found shelter from the night in a tent.
In that parallel universe, beyond our little circle of comfort, the world is a colourless, featureless white-on-white, a snow globe, its silent, birdless sky veiled with falling flakes. A winter wilderness, a world of biting cold. But here, in the magic circle formed by our bodies, I am snug, at last, cocooned, like a baby swaddled in furs. We’re two weary sledgers, protected from the elements by tent walls as taut as an eardrum, as thin as skin.
In that world, we have no need for vocal speech to make ourselves understood. Your body transmits its messages, and I respond. It’s a communication clearer and more truthful than speech because each gesture is an unmediated, instantaneous expression of how we feel. Lying is impossible: there is no time for invention. And for this brief time, we are transformed. We’re exiles from our respective worlds. You for my sake and I for yours.
Alien boy, your mission here is over and our attempts to connect have failed. All that is left are the borrowed dreams of fiction, tales of what might have been, told by an idiot, signifying nothing. But I now know that there is another world out there, richer and stranger than I ever imagined. And my own world is immeasurably enriched by having intersected with it.
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