Part of the ASU Interplanetary Community in a Box project
A fictional story that illustrates the first meal between an extraterrestrial civilization and humans. The story is set on a world with two suns and a table for conversation between species.
They were nervous. This was their first interplanetary dinner, the first time they would gather with their newly discovered neighbors. Rumor had it that humans ate directly with their bodies, breaking apart other organisms to nourish their own. What an odd approach.
Their own system, of course, was simpler. Nutrients came in through the skin, an organ that never required the body split itself in two, or three, or millions if the researcher’s insights were right and the humans were, actually, packages of millions of little beings all moving about together as one. This didn’t mean they didn’t “dine together,” as the humans called it. They did spend their mornings sitting in the light of their twin suns, bodies stretched out with an accompanying ebb and flow of communication while all nourished from the freely given energy fluctuating through the air.
They wondered how this “dinner” would go. Initially, the humans had proposed they gather and feast at a time after the suns dipped below the far horizon. It had taken an awkward pause between translators, and an invitation to the human diplomat to join in the middle-day feast, before all had agreed that the most appropriate time would be when the suns were high, when the long, slow feasting required for ingesting light could match the long, slow feasting of ingesting once-living things. The diplomat had mentioned, as she penned her missive to her superiors, that her great-great grandparents, agriculturalists, had similarly feasted in the daylight hours rather than evening.
When both groups finally sat at table — itself an awkward proposition, given that light did not simply rest on an x-y plane, it obdurately insisted on exuberant motion rather than remaining obediently contained, as the human food generally was — the conversation bounced from topic to topic. Participants tried on kinship and governance structures, and found both led to a surprising moment of simultaneous silence all along the meadowy stretch, just in time to catch a human wonder out loud, “What does it taste like, light?”
They knew how to communicate about these sorts of questions. They had spent hours, decades, centuries cataloging the different varieties of light. Their connoisseur groves could rhapsodize about the way summer’s morning light blazed through the air, the soft tones of an autumn sunset caressing the skin, and the haunting kisses of starlight. They turned to their dining companions, excited for a topic that drew on their expertise, and stretched out a limb so they were in contact. As a group, they sang out their treasured song of shared sensation, layer on layer of memories weaving together into a gustatory tapestry.
After they finished, the diplomat breathed out slowly, and looked down into the cup of dew-wine in her hand. “We struggle,” she began, “with sensation. We only have words.” She paused for a wind’s breath, then looked at those near and far and raised her glass. Holding it to the light for a moment, she swirled the liquid inside, brought it back to nose height, and sniffed. As her eyes closed, she brought the glass lower and took a slow sip, air softly whistling through her teeth. “Citrus,” she announced. “Honey. Sun. Home.”
As the light faded, the group shared pictures that depicted the topics referenced in dinner conversation. The humans, bereft of any biological mode for directly communicating sensation instead cast images on share-screens. These devices were new, the diplomat whispered, developed to respond to touch and thought as long as the life-form was carbon-based, sentient, and willing to spend some awkward moments linked with a sensor that wrapped around a limb for the time it took to play the desired memory out. The share-screens appeared to let one privately see, choose, and erase before making their thoughts public, they noted, something foreign to their own experience.
This moment of exposure of intimate internal thought, they reflected, was certainly a start at communal sensation. They wondered, as the inter-species crowd said formal goodbyes, whether the meal had built bridges. Certainly, two species had sat together. Two species had shared memories. But the imposition of a table to sit around? Was it necessary to the goal of bridging the gap? It seemed, they noted, that the true purpose of the table was to act as a link for their human guests across which memories and conversation could flow in the absence of a way to truly communicate the ineffable. The food, they decided, was just the excuse.
A note from the author:
The early months of a year are the perfect time for spinning stories about first encounters and feasting. I, like many, carry on my body the lived memory of recently finished Thanksgiving encounters and end-of-year parties. As a scholar split between the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the School of Arts, Media and Engineering at Arizona State University, my research investigates how science acts in society through embodied experiences of taste and smell. It is no surprise that I find culinary communication at this time of year annoyingly dry in its focus on loss (weight, that is), rather than on making connections. Despite this lack, hopeful reports of Mars missions and bittersweet celebrations of rover landings have me wondering what it might be like to sit down at the first interplanetary diplomatic dinner. Playing along with the Community in a Box theme, I keep asking myself what tools would I need to plan a menu for a species entirely different from my own?
Humans have done this before, many times over: Perhaps it was your ancestor who stood on the eastern shores of the North American continents and saw the sails approaching, harbingers of creatures both similar and different. Perhaps it was your ancestor who peered through a microscope to see the teeming millions and realized that the body was multiple. Perhaps it will be you, or your kids, or your neighbors, who will be slungshot out into the deep dark unknown of the universe to encounter those who eat in ways radically differently than us. History indicates that such an encounter will occur not across species, but rather within species, between the humans in the box hurtling through space. Cue dread. Cue excitement.
At the heart of this are a series of questions. How would we dine with one who eats light? How would we comfortably sit at table with one whose digestive system is spread outside of the body, rather than contained within? How would we eat alongside one who experiences time differently, who lives millennia rather than mere decades? How would we survive eating alongside one who would, given the chance, eat you?
Questions like these suggest that maybe the necessary tools to pack in the box for that first dinner will be significantly more complex than the gestures, naming, smiles and eye pokes employed by small children. Questions like these call for tools that facilitate radical empathy, translators that not only overcome the barriers of unshared language, but also transduce ineffable experience into something that can, if not be shared, at least be grasped. These tools look a lot like stories, questions, and speculation.
That is why I’ve invited these questions to haunt my own speculative menu. I’ve started by opening my mind to the possibility of the non-humans around me at dinner, a dinner I patterned in a form following the rhythms of my own heritage as a child of multiple European immigrant streams even as the content diverged to include a sensorial stream that aims to cross boundaries. We are, at best, awkward messmates, but there is a possibility of togetherness in shared input that crosses the known sensorium.
Menu for a dinner with aliens
Amuse-bouche — Light
5:45 to 6:30 pm, January 30th
Creosote, after rain
Airplane flight path
Tempe Beach Park
Third Course— Touch
15 minutes in an August monsoon rain
Dessert — Taste
Mesquite seed steamed pudding served with bitter orange marmalade and cream
Author’s Suggested Readings
- Eduardo Kohn (2013) How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human, University of California Press.
- Donna Haraway (2007) When Species Meet, University of Minnesota Press.
- Sara Ahmed (2010) “Orientations Matter.” In New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics., edited by Diana H. Coole and Samantha Frost, 234–58. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.