Created By: TopazanApril 12, 2013 Last Edited By: TopazanApril 23, 2013
Troped

Inscrutable Aliens

We know nothing about them and cannot communicate with them

Name Space:
Main
Page Type:
Trope
Do We Have This? Needs A Better Name.

Sometimes, it's considered a mark of good World Building in the Science Fiction genre to develop an alien culture like you would any aspect of the story. To talk about their history, culture, motivations and character.

Other times, writers find it best to leave these questions for the ages.

The aliens are simply there. Any attempts at communication are met with silence. Their origins, motives, and plans are all mysterious. Nothing is known about their society and culture. Their actions come across as bizarre, incomprehensible, and frequently terrifying.

This trope is common in invasion literature and Horror, in order to add to the "other-ness" of the aliens.

Often the aliens in question are Starfish Aliens and may speak a Starfish Language.

Examples:

Film
  • Independence Day: The aliens just show up and blow up cities, the only time they communicate with humans is when one is taken prisoner and take telepathic control of a scientist in order to demand its release.
  • The aliens in Battle Los Angeles don't make any attempt at contact before they crash in and start killing people.

Literature
  • As with many Alien Invasion trope, the trope codifier is probably War Of The Worlds.
  • The Ender series has a word for such a species: varelse. More than one of the species placed in this category were later reclassified as the understanding between them and humans improved.
  • The Ark Megaforms in Space Mowgli, though they do attempt to communicate with humans via the title character.
  • The Wanderers in the Noon Universe novels: humanity finds traces of their presence all over the galaxy but has never encountered one in person.
  • Variation in Blindsight. The alien ship does make contact but the crew quickly figure out that they're talking to a "Chinese room". They spend a lot of the novel trying to figure out whether the giant starfish-like creatures patrolling the ship are sentient or just drones of some kind as they make no attempt at communicating. The truth is far more sinister, the aliens are not sentient, self-awareness is not required to build starships, sentience is an anomaly unique to H. sapiens sapiens and will be corrected
  • John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes (AKA Out of the Deeps). A group of aliens invades the Earth's oceans. They never contact the human race in any way and the two sides engage in a war without either side ever seeing the other face-to-face.
  • Robert Heinlein's short story "Goldfish Bowl". Unknown creatures (it's not clear if they're from Earth or aliens) suck a huge pillar of seawater into a cloud and then return it to the ocean. They also send out fireballs that kidnap people. They're never seen by humans and don't communicate with humanity.
  • Stewart Cowley's Spacecraft: 2000 to 2100 A.D.. The City Ships of Alpha are huge cities that float from one pillar to another at irregular intervals. They have existed as far back as the Alpha Centaurians' history goes. All attempts by the Alpha Centaurians to communicate with their occupants have failed, and all attempts to enter the cities are prevented by a protective force field.
  • The contagion embedded in the deep space probe in The Andromeda Strain is a crystal-based organism that kills Earth creatures by reorganizing the minerals in their bodies to fit the crystalline template. It turns out, the crystals have predefined stop points, leading to the hypothesis that the organism was created by an extraterrestrial intelligence as a data storage medium.

Live-Action TV
  • Star Trek
    • In the Star Trek Enterprise episode "Silent Enemy," the Enterprise encountered a species that answered hails but did not speak, and soon turned inexplicably hostile.
    • An episode of Star Trek Voyager had them rescue an alien that was so bizarre they had to start from scratch on trying to understand it. Its biology was such that the medical computers, including the Doctor, couldn't make sense of it, and its language was beyond the universal translators capacity to decode.
    • In another episode, Voyager itself played this role. They were in orbit around an unknown planet. Unbeknownst to them at first, time passed much faster for the inhabitants of that planet, so from their point of view Voyager had been in their sky for centuries, and was a complete mystery to them.
  • Stargate Verse:
    • The Stargate SG 1 episode "Grace" had the Prometheus encounter a ship which refused to respond to hails and opened fire on them, chased them into a Negative Space Wedgie which trapped them both, and abducted all of the crew save Samantha Carter. Even after Carter manages to figure a way to get everybody out (using a hyperspace "bubble"; It Makes Sense In Context), the alien ship doesn't respond to her when she hails it to demand the return of the crew in exchange for help; it just teleports the crew back.
    • Stargate Universe had the crew aboard the Destiny chased by a Starfish Alien species (dubbed the Nakai by executive producer Joseph Mallozi) that only transmitted the word "surrender" as a constant enemy, and the crew ends up finding little (if any) information about them during the course of the series.
  • The Vorlons from Babylon Five. While they can be spoken to, it's debatable whether they can be communicated with.
    Sinclair: Yes we have files on them, very large files. There's nothing in them, of course.

Video Games
  • The Mothership Zeta expansion of Fallout 3 features the player character fighting his way through an alien space ship. We hear a variety of accounts of (horrifying) experiences with the aliens from a number of people, but the human characters can only guess at the aliens' motives for the atrocities they commit.
  • The X-Universe series has the Khaak, a species with point-to-point jumpdrive technology that invaded the Community of Planets in X2: The Threat, and was finally defeated midway through X3: Terran Conflict. No attempts to communicate with them have gotten a response, prompting speculation in-universe that they're just too mentally alien. All the Community of Planets races have learned is that they are attracted to nividium and that they seem to be Bee People rather than individuals.

Community Feedback Replies: 29
  • April 12, 2013
    StarSword
    Sometimes a trait of Starfish Aliens.

    Video Games:
    • The X-Universe series has the Khaak, a species with point-to-point jumpdrive technology that invaded the Community of Planets in X2: The Threat, and was finally defeated midway through X3: Terran Conflict. No attempts to communicate with them have gotten a response, prompting speculation in-universe that they're just too mentally alien. All the Community of Planets races have learned is that they are attracted to nividium and that they seem to be Bee People rather than individuals.
  • April 12, 2013
    Koveras
    • The Wanderers in the Noon Universe novels: humanity finds traces of their presence all over the galaxy but has never encountered one in person. Also, the Ark Megaforms in Space Mowgli, though they do attempt to communicate with humans via the title character.
  • April 12, 2013
    marcoasalazarm
    Stargate examples:

    -Stargate Universe had the crew aboard the "Destiny" chased by a Starfish Alien species that only transmitted the word "surrender" as a constant enemy, and the crew ends up finding little (if any) information about during the course of the series.

    -The episode "Grace" of Stargate SG 1 had the "Daedalus" encounter a ship which just went and attacked them, chased them into a Negative Space Wedgie and abducted all of the crew save Samantha Carter. Even after Carter manages to figure a way to get everybody out (using a hyperspace "bubble"-It Makes Sense In Context), the alien ship doesn't talks back to her when she hails it to demand the return of the crew in exchange for help (it just teleports the crew back).

    Who they were is supposed to be a Riddle For The Ages.
  • April 12, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Minor correction: That was the Prometheus, not the Daedalus. (Hint: The Daedalus-class wasn't conceived of until the end of the next season.)

    Also, I think Inscrutable Aliens is a perfectly good name for this.
  • April 12, 2013
    DracMonster
  • April 12, 2013
    Topazan
    Hm the Two Thousand One A Space Odyssey aliens were more like Precursors, and by the sound of it so were the Noon Universe aliens. I'm not sure if this trope applies to them. I kind of feel there's a different dynamic than if the aliens are physically present but the humans are unable to comprehend their motives or communicate with them.

    What do you guys think?
  • April 13, 2013
    Bigeye
    We already have starfish aliens & blue and orange morality. Those two tropes describe this pretty well
  • April 13, 2013
    Arivne
    Literature
    • John Wyndham's The Kraken Wakes (AKA Out of the Deeps). A group of aliens invades the Earth's oceans. They never contact the human race in any way and the two sides engage in a war without either side ever seeing the other face-to-face.
    • Robert Heinlein's short story "Goldfish Bowl". Unknown creatures (it's not clear if they're from Earth or aliens) suck a huge pillar of seawater into a cloud and then return it to the ocean. They also send out fireballs that kidnap people. They're never seen by humans and don't communicate with humanity.
    • Stewart Cowley's Spacecraft: 2000 to 2100 A.D.. The City Ships of Alpha are huge cities that float from one pillar to another at irregular intervals. They have existed as far back as the Alpha Centaurians' history goes. All attempts by the Alpha Centaurians to communicate with their occupants have failed, and all attempts to enter the cities are prevented by a protective force field.
  • April 13, 2013
    Koveras
    @Topazan: But the Wanderers are still active in the time frame of the Noon Universe novels. The humans know they exist, but cannot establish contact. Beetle In The Anthill even describes what appears to be a possible contact initiated by the Wanderers via proxy humans but gone very wrong.
  • April 13, 2013
    zarpaulus
    Film
    • Independence Day: The aliens just show up and blow up cities, the only time they communicate with humans is when one is taken prisoner and take telepathic control of a scientist in order to demand its release.
    • The aliens in Battle Los Angeles don't make any attempt at contact before they crash in and start killing people.

    Literature
    • Variation in Blindsight the alien ship does make contact but the crew quickly figure out that they're talking to a "Chinese room". They spend a lot of the novel trying to figure out whether the giant starfish-like creatures patrolling the ship are sentient or just drones of some kind as they make no attempt at communicating. The truth is far more sinister, the aliens are not sentient, self-awareness is not required to build starships, sentience is an anomaly unique to H. sapiens sapiens and will be corrected
  • April 13, 2013
    Topazan
    @Bigeye- This is about humanity's ignorance of the alien species. Starfish Alien may overlap but this trope could apply to Humanoid Aliens just as easily. Blue And Orange Morality is almost mutually exclusive, since it implies we know enough about their moral system to realize it's different from any we're familiar with. With Inscrutible Aliens, we don't.

    @Koveras- Ok, added.
  • April 13, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Agree.
  • April 13, 2013
    StarSword
    Also, did a draft cleaning (namespaces, italics [show titles and ship names go in italics, episode titles go in double quotes], and formatting).
  • April 13, 2013
    Topazan
    Thanks, but if ship names go in italics, you forgot "Enterprise". :P

    Anyone know how to remove tags?

  • April 13, 2013
    StarSword
    ^Dang.

    Only moderators are allowed to remove tags. Put a request in Ask The Tropers.

  • April 13, 2013
    Topazan
    Really? That's kind of inconvenient. I guess I'll just leave them as is, since it's not that big of a deal.
  • April 13, 2013
    StarSword
    Possible page quote:

    "About Khaak culture absolutely nothing is known. From their behaviour it is difficult to determine a recognisable analogue, prompting some Argon exobiologists to comment on the 'fundamental impenetrability' of the modes of thought of extraterrestrials."
  • April 14, 2013
    Topazan
    Hm, we can use that if nothing pithier comes along.
  • April 14, 2013
    Tallens
    • An episode of Star Trek Voyager had them rescue an alien that was so bizarre they had to start from scratch on trying to understand it. Its biology was such that the medical computers, including the Doctor, couldn't make sense of it, and its language was beyond the universal translators capacity to decode.
  • April 15, 2013
    TomWalpertac2
  • April 15, 2013
    Tallens
    Would the Vorlons count? They're ancient, maysterious and powerful and, as Sinclair put it, "Yes we have files on them, very large files. There's nothing in them, of course." And while they can be spoken to, it's debatable whether they can be communicated with.
  • April 15, 2013
    StarSword
    ^They certainly count at first, but since I've only seen the first season I can't tell you if that changes.
  • April 16, 2013
    oneuglybunny
    Film
    • The contagion embedded in the deep space probe in The Andromeda Strain is a crystal-based organism that kills Earth creatures by reorganizing the minerals in their bodies to fit the crystalline template. It turns out, the crystals have predefined stop points, making the organism a kind of living flash drive.
  • April 16, 2013
    Topazan
    The Vorlons sound like they count, I'm not so sure the Star Trek Tamarians count. As I recall, even though they had trouble understanding each others' languages at first, the will was there on both sides, and they made pretty good progress.

    I only saw the movie of The Andromeda Strain and quite awhile ago at that. Was it ever confirmed that the virus was intelligent, or the product of intelligence?
  • April 16, 2013
    oneuglybunny
    Reply to Topazan: according to the book by Michael Crichton, recording data on inert media that must travel interstellar distances subjects it any number of hazards that can corrupt the data irretrievably. Engineering an organism with the data in its matrix gives the data a way to be restored when the organism heals itself. Thus, an organism given a sustained environment (like a petri dish with amino fluid) could replicate the data almost endlessly across millions of generations with almost no loss of data integrity. The indication that the crystalline organism was engineered came when growth colonies produced identical patterns that grew to a certain point, then stopped. Imagine finding a CD-ROM disc, and had no idea what it was. However, upon examination, indentations in its subsurface occur at precise intervals; hence, a pattern that can be decoded somehow. Same principle.
  • April 16, 2013
    zarpaulus
    ^ And as usual with Michael Crichton, that sounds perfectly reasonable at first but you see the cracks in the logic later on. In this case the simple principle of copy degradation.
  • April 17, 2013
    Topazan
    ^^ Ok, added.

    This is possibly the fastest any ykttw of mine has gotten examples. Any suggestions on the description, related tropes, etc?
  • April 17, 2013
    oneuglybunny
    Title is fine, description and parameters are tight ... add one hat, Chief.
  • April 23, 2013
    Topazan
    Ok, last call before launch.

Three days must pass before this YKTTW is Launchworthy or Discardable