Writing help?

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#1
So what I'm writing is about a group of humanoid aliens who discover Voyager 2, a probe with a record containing information about Earth. This is supposed the be their first exposure to it, so they didn't know English before. They have their own language and everything, but the dialogue is in English for obvious reasons. I'm very early on into my first draft, and they have figured out how to actually play the record, but my problem is, how are they supposed to understand the English messages? They eventually will get to Earth, and they will communicate through a translation device, but that device scans your brain to see what sounds are associated with what concepts and basically downloads the language. The problem is, the record is a recording, so they can't do that. There are also pictures encoded in binary pixel values within the sound file, which they can view and see what Earth is like, but that's really not enough, because the speech on the Voyager 2 record (A real thing, look it up) is actually quite moving and would make for a powerful scene if the aliens understood it. Ideas?
 

TheDustyZebra

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#2
There are greetings in 55 languages recorded on that record, so they can at least figure out that they all essentially say "hello" and some of the other things that are common to the greetings.

Oh, and welcome to Chrons! :) (Hello!)
 

sknox

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#3
My first thought: have them misunderstand. It would be natural enough to do, and would set up tension for the reader. Maybe they interpret the songs as history because in their culture really serious stuff is put into poetic form. Or they view the math as art. It's up to you, really.

Much will depend on whether your aliens are going to invade and conquer, visit dispassionately, colonize, bestow wonders and blessings, or what.
 

CTRandall

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#6
Is the "how it works" part of the translation process essential to your story? Is it enough to accept they're advanced enough to figure it out? (In a slightly more compelling style, of course!)
 

Biskit

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#7
I have to admit, this scenario always bugs me. The technology/encoding is thirty years old and something we might struggle to make sense of ourselves now, without throwing in questions of whether the way the aliens process sound and sight is sufficiently compatible for it to be meaningful. As @sknox suggests, why not have them make a mess of the interpretation/translation. The first thought that springs to mind is that if they were anything like humans, there will be a least three experts with wildly differing views on what it means.

I'm old enough to remember vinyl records and tape recorders, been around for the advent of optical disks, and now solid-state and mp3, and I find myself wondering what you would get if you handed one of those gold-plated records to a bunch of post-graduate students (who might at least be familiar with CD/DVD) and ask them to figure out what it is and what it means without being able to look up prehistoric recording technology. Maybe I'm just a cynical old *****, but I wouldn't be hopeful.
 

Lumens

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#8
without being able to look up prehistoric recording technology.
This is the thing. If they don't know it is a recording, even if they have a microscope and look at the grooves, would they be able to work out that there is a 1-to-1 correlation between the peaks and thoughs (played at a certain speed even) and sound? What if they play it backwards? There might be an element of luck to it.
 

Paul Meccano

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#9
So what I'm writing is about a group of humanoid aliens who discover Voyager 2, a probe with a record containing information about Earth. This is supposed the be their first exposure to it, so they didn't know English before. They have their own language and everything, but the dialogue is in English for obvious reasons. I'm very early on into my first draft, and they have figured out how to actually play the record, but my problem is, how are they supposed to understand the English messages? They eventually will get to Earth, and they will communicate through a translation device, but that device scans your brain to see what sounds are associated with what concepts and basically downloads the language. The problem is, the record is a recording, so they can't do that. There are also pictures encoded in binary pixel values within the sound file, which they can view and see what Earth is like, but that's really not enough, because the speech on the Voyager 2 record (A real thing, look it up) is actually quite moving and would make for a powerful scene if the aliens understood it. Ideas?

"Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang
This is the book that inspired the film Arrival. ( if you haven't seen the film it's about translation of an alien language.)

Anyway the bottom line is that given enough time, just like the enigma code, people or aliens could decipher a language. It could take a while.

Is there a reason they need to fully decipher it? if aliens want to kill everyone, take over the world, or make peace and give flowers it wouldn't matter as much as finding out where it came from, which is doable. Once they know where it comes from they know where to go to find out more. They can pick up loads more info the closer they get to earth with the 100 odd years of transmissions floating out in space.

as far as deciphering language from a gold vinyl collection...they'd have better luck learning an Alice Cooper song.
 

Cory Swanson

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#10
Think of all the luck involved in it landing on a terrestrial planet with intelligent aliens on it. If, in a billion years or so, it even comes close enough to another object to interact with it, chances are it falls into a lifeless gassy planet or a star. Or even a lifeless terrestrial planet.

If, by astronomical odds, it ends up near enough to a terrestrial planet, I see three things being far more likely than it safely landing on the surface. One, it comes in steep and burns up in the atmosphere. Two, it comes in shallow enough to not disintegrate, but lands hard and is completely destroyed.

Three, and the one that I think would be the only true way to have it come into the possession of another civilization, is it would somehow fall into orbit around that planet. That way, it might be seen, identified as foreign, and picked up safely in one piece by a spacecraft or something.

Also, it would be billions or maybe trillions of years before any of those scenarios would ever occur. Humans will be long dead. If the Earth maintains life (the sun will burn out in 4.6 billion years, by the way) it will not at all look anything like it does today. Our location in the universe is likely moot by that point anyway.

It's a pretty thought, though. The SETI people probably have a much better chance of reaching someone out there by pumping radio signals at the speed of light in every direction than anything coming of the Voyager probe ever.

"Pray there's intelligent life somewhere up in outer space, because there's bugger all down here on Earth." -Eric Idle
 

Paul Meccano

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#11
Think of all the luck involved in it landing on a terrestrial planet with intelligent aliens on it. If, in a billion years or so, it even comes close enough to another object to interact with it, chances are it falls into a lifeless gassy planet or a star. Or even a lifeless terrestrial planet.

If, by astronomical odds, it ends up near enough to a terrestrial planet, I see three things being far more likely than it safely landing on the surface. One, it comes in steep and burns up in the atmosphere. Two, it comes in shallow enough to not disintegrate, but lands hard and is completely destroyed.

Three, and the one that I think would be the only true way to have it come into the possession of another civilization, is it would somehow fall into orbit around that planet. That way, it might be seen, identified as foreign, and picked up safely in one piece by a spacecraft or something.

Also, it would be billions or maybe trillions of years before any of those scenarios would ever occur. Humans will be long dead. If the Earth maintains life (the sun will burn out in 4.6 billion years, by the way) it will not at all look anything like it does today. Our location in the universe is likely moot by that point anyway.

It's a pretty thought, though. The SETI people probably have a much better chance of reaching someone out there by pumping radio signals at the speed of light in every direction than anything coming of the Voyager probe ever.

"Pray there's intelligent life somewhere up in outer space, because there's bugger all down here on Earth." -Eric Idle
Can they not simply retrieve it from space, being the space faring intelligent beings that seem far more intelligent than ourselves?
It seems like this post fell into a gaseous object.
 

Ihe

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#12
Depending on the aliens' way of communication, they might prioritize unusual elements of the message, instead of visuals or sounds (for example, the texture of the metals of the probe, if they're tactile-sensitive. Or maybe they communicate through EM fields and can only perceive the random electrical pulses the probe emits). Imagine they communicated through a highly complex pheromone system, or through color changes in their bodies, or certain energy emissions, or some sort of telepathy. They probably wouldn't have sensory organs capable of appreciating the things we can perceive (imagine they didn't have sensory organs to see or hear). The sky's the limit. Don't make it easy for them. You can play around with the limitations of a species. This is ripe for conflict, which is the nucleus of any story.

You have probably gone over this in your own research and theorizing, but I will give my two cents anyway because I love these sort of things: To have fun with this the right way, I'd think about the aliens' evolutionary pathways (if their organic evolution works similarly to Earth's, that is). Any organism is a product of its environment. In a planet with a very light atmosphere, for example, where sound waves aren't carried efficiently, they might not have developed sensory organs to hear. Or maybe they have a hyper dense atmosphere (or are aquatic creatures) where sound carries and is amplified naturally, enough to be annoying/threatening (maybe us sending them a song could be interpreted as an act of war :eek:). And this is only from a physical standpoint, and assuming their sensory thresholds are similar to ours (imagine they had sight, but could also see the invisible spectrum or have X-rays like Superman, or extra-sensitive hearing organs that could detect a pin drop from a mile away, or tactile organs capable of perceiving the rumbling of their planetary core beneath their feet. Flip this and imagine low-sensitivity tactile organs that can only detect pressures above a ton/per cm2 if they have really tough hides or are much larger than we are or their gravity is more intense). If you also add very different cultural differences derived from their biology, environment, economy, history, etc then you can really make this very complex. Just like in the movie Arrival, their very thought process could be incompatible with ours, as could their perception of time or space or logic.

With all this said, one must also take into account the generally "accepted requirements" to be a technologically-savvy species (like being a versatile predator type in a scarcity situation where evolving is a must to survive, or like how certain senses are usually more useful than others depending on environment and the task at hand). For example, having a long-range detection sense like sight or hearing is a must to avoid danger, scout ahead, communicate with one another if they have organs capable of emitting sound or color, etc, and these aren't the only long-range senses out there, assuming their evolutionary process is similar to ours, starting with predator-prey situations or the perceived importance of passing on "good" information to offspring (genetic-like or otherwise, depending on reproductive creativity, etc). For manual handling and modifying the physical world around them, agile appendages with a tactile sense could be indispensable, but maybe they emphasize heat transfers rather than pressure, or only detect vibrations (or maybe they don't need any of that because they can effect change around them through non-contact means like TK or highly localized changes in atmospheric density!!). The possibilities are endless.

It's a nice idea you've got on your hands, and one that I've played with in the past, as you can see from all my ramblings. It's interesting to picture an entire advanced alien civilization trying to decipher us just saying "hello". It can become a very complex issue. Keep in mind that we, as "advanced humans" (jury's still out on that one), still have not deciphered some primitive and not so primitive messages/codes/languages done by other humans that used the same senses we use now, with more or less the same brains. Now imagine a silicon-based blind life form having evolved in the depths of a cold, thick slime sea where soundwaves are detected through tactile organs and seasonal-cyclic chemical concentration variations in the environment modulate their thought processes. Imagine they feed on heat from seafloor vents (with a corresponding economy based on heat-transfer modules and where direct contact between each other is seen as a criminal offense/immoral act because you'd be "stealing" another creature's highly valued heat), where Earth metals are highly toxic to them, and where they communicate with one another through Morse-like electrical pulses. And their thoughts are formulated through pressure variations inside their own external brains to boot. You've got all that? Now picture them receiving the remains of our half-working probe, which has maybe almost melted its circuits in their highly corrosive slime sea, just to be silly and add another layer of difficulty. Watch them go, making assumptions, theorizing, poking the probe. Or maybe they'll have a hard time even noticing the probe because each creature can span miles in size and their sense thresholds are very high. Who knows?

Anyway, back to you. My main suggestion is: don't spoonfeed the aliens. Conflict is everything in a story. I'd venture that them investigating the message (with their alien political, economical, cultural, militaristic, or philosophical implications) could potentially be way more interesting than them travelling to Earth and meeting humans. Make it hard for them to even understand the very nature of a human recorded message (maybe they record messages in crystallized chemical lumps that they must ingest and spit out to "read". Maybe they have no actual notion of "writing" or separate physical symbols because they "read" everything at once, like in Arrival). Gosh I could go on and on, but you get the gist of it. Good luck!
 

ralphkern

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#13
Voyager 2 is roughly heading toward Sirius. Even so, it would take 300000 years to get there. Siruis is one of our closer neighbours.

Humanity would, hopefully, have evolved significantly in that time.

To my mind, they roughly got around that in say, Star Trek V where a Klingon ship encountered Voyager in the 23rd Century (when Voyager would have barely left Sol). It would make sense for an antagonistic power to have a stealth capable ship prowling around in Earth's back yard.

That would have to be the thrust. An alien expedition conducting research prior to first contact.
 
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#14
@Paul Meccano Their intent is kind of split. The Antagonist and MC are kind of on equal footing, they don't really know what to do after deciphering it, but once they find Earth, they both take different sides. At this point, Earth is a sparsely populated wasteland that has been torn apart by war. These aliens, who, through the record, saw Earth as this wonderful civilization that may not be advanced technologically, but they are significantly culturally more advanced and are the only thing that can be described as planetary unity, see a vastly different world, and they realize the true downfall of human nature: Anger. Jealously. Greed. War. The Antagonist sees Earth like this and realizes its best to just conquer them and call it a day, while the MC wants to help them out with their advanced technology. The MC eventually meets a group of nomads struggling to survive in this wasteland, and he falls in love with one of them, though going to the points @Ihe made, this could be something to play around with and have them lack some human emotions. They can feel love, but none of them have ever felt it. The MC could also have some moments of intimacy with his love interest where she teaches him human culture. The aliens can speak, in their own language of course, and it is in English for obvious reasons, with an explanation at the beginning. To answer @CTRandall it's really not the deciphering part that's important, it's more to build up their expectations and crush said expectations when they make contact. To what I know, Voyager 2 has left our solar system, so it is found in the "dead space" between their two solar systems, in 2477. It hasn't gone that far, and the aliens were already studying the Earth system, but the probe is their first confirmation where they actually decide to go.
 

Paul Meccano

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#15
@Paul Meccano Their intent is kind of split. The Antagonist and MC are kind of on equal footing, they don't really know what to do after deciphering it, but once they find Earth, they both take different sides. At this point, Earth is a sparsely populated wasteland that has been torn apart by war. These aliens, who, through the record, saw Earth as this wonderful civilization that may not be advanced technologically, but they are significantly culturally more advanced and are the only thing that can be described as planetary unity, see a vastly different world, and they realize the true downfall of human nature: Anger. Jealously. Greed. War. The Antagonist sees Earth like this and realizes its best to just conquer them and call it a day, while the MC wants to help them out with their advanced technology. The MC eventually meets a group of nomads struggling to survive in this wasteland, and he falls in love with one of them, though going to the points @Ihe made, this could be something to play around with and have them lack some human emotions. They can feel love, but none of them have ever felt it. The MC could also have some moments of intimacy with his love interest where she teaches him human culture. The aliens can speak, in their own language of course, and it is in English for obvious reasons, with an explanation at the beginning. To answer @CTRandall it's really not the deciphering part that's important, it's more to build up their expectations and crush said expectations when they make contact. To what I know, Voyager 2 has left our solar system, so it is found in the "dead space" between their two solar systems, in 2477. It hasn't gone that far, and the aliens were already studying the Earth system, but the probe is their first confirmation where they actually decide to go.
Okay all good then.

The reality for me, in this thread, is that ,We, as humans make sh*t say what we want it to, regardless of our intentions. Thought is our biggest problem along with our need for life to be more than just "in the moment." Maybe those aliens can't help but be drawn out of their moment into something more desirable too (Whether they understand the message from earth truly or not). All it takes is one moment of perceived bliss.

Love the premise, and the possibilities. Don't question, just write. THEN GO THROUGH THE EDITING HELL. Because it'll be worth it. (y)
 

Ihe

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#16
I think your original premise is nice, but there are some plot points you've mentioned that would lose me as a reader. Here they are:
The MC eventually meets a group of nomads struggling to survive in this wasteland, and he falls in love with one of them
Just how different are the aliens to the humans? Are they human-sized, oxygen-breathing bipeds with similar relationship/power/romantic dynamics to us? I think that that could be quite a stretch if we're talking about aliens. I will say that as a reader, my suspension of disbelief would crumble with conveniently humanoid aliens, and specially with inter-species romance, and that's where I would put the book down, personally. Too many biological, cultural, and mental similarities would be needed for this to happen.
They can feel love, but none of them have ever felt it.
This feels very cliche, and doesn't make sense from an evolutionary or even cultural standpoint (even if said culture/relationship dynamics are extremely alien). Love is likely not a universal thing (and if the aliens are capable of feeling it, they certainly would have by now, over the course of millenia of societal dynamics among them), and neither are emotions in general. They are a human-specific part of evolution's genetic expression, useful for human interactions and survival in groups. That is very specific to us and our environment. "Teaching aliens to love" is a cringe-worthy plot device to personalize the alien-human relationships, and it devalues the "alienness" you will hopefully have built up in the first half of the book, which would be a disservice to your efforts. The focus of the story is the aliens, not the humans. Don't try to humanize the story. Don't make it about us and how great we are/can be. That would be counterproductive to the narrative.
The MC could also have some moments of intimacy with his love interest where she teaches him human culture.
I understand you want to personalize the alien-human relationship, but it seems that in that endeavor you will end up humanizing the aliens (from what you've written, I surmise you will end up teaching the aliens how "wonderful" or delightfully complex it is to be human, which defeats the purpose of having aliens in the story to begin with and which also does not make sense biologically/inter-culturally).

I think you have a potentially very nice, intricate story that could go a number of ways, but, to me, it seems you'll be following the linear path of least resistance: the foreigner who learns the wonders of mingling with the natives and falls in love. What I'm saying is all just an opinion, but I would suggest veering away from such a predictable plot. You must first decide your genre and audience demographic of course (this kind of story would likely be OK for the YA genre or younger I suspect), and what the main point of your story is. This feels like a first-contact/exploration story to me, not a romantic one. It would definitely not be good plotting if you treat your narrative as "first-contact" the first half of the book, to then turn it into cross-species romance in the second part. I'd recommend not dispersing the focus of the story.

This is just my opinion as a reader. Take what suggestions work for you, if any, and discard the rest. Good luck!(y)
 

sknox

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#19
Well, if the dog poop shows signs of having been designed by an intelligent being, I might dig through it. A bit.
 

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