Fiction: A weird conversation – UPDATED
(c) mmSeason 2008
No apologies for this: good ol’ mid-twentieth-century science fiction of the sort that filled and enhanced my pre-adult leisure time. I forgot to do some revisions before blogging this the first time, but here’s the latest version.
“I can’t get my head around your flatness,” she said. “I’m apologetic and I hope I’m not rude but I haven’t yet got used to this bilateralism. I persist in expecting your other side to be round there.”
“I look like I’ve got a bit missing?”
The two eyes I could see sank into the flesh until they were almost buried, then emerged again. “Yes. I hope I’m not rude.”
“Saying I’m ugly would be uncalled-for, but I think saying I look strange is OK. You look strange to me too, after all.”
“Oh! But Human are so adaptable and then I expected you have got used to my shape now.”
“Adaptable? Well, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the way you look. Of course it’s no surprise we look alien to each other, is it? It would be downright odd if we didn’t.”
“I hope I’m not rude but I enjoy your dissimilarity.”
“So do I!… Listen – you needn’t keep saying you hope you’re not rude. I know by now that you don’t mean to offend.”
“I pronounce it when I speak an article that would irk us if I uttered it.”
I worked this out, or thought I had. “If you ever sound impolite, I’ll remember you don’t intend to. Please trust me to do that. In fact the only thing you’ve said yet that bothers me is ‘I hope I’m not rude’!”
Those blue-grey toggles drew into the flesh again. I wondered how my puzzled frown came over to her. Could she distinguish it from my annoyed frown? Had they even done any studies on our body language?
Her eyes appeared again. “Which exclamation would it be gracious for me to verbalise when I decide to say an uncouth thing because I know it will not be in your face to you?”
I couldn’t think of any suitable phrase. “Given how little we understand of each other’s ways, you’re just as likely to ‘be rude’ saying something you wouldn’t imagine could be, as when you think you are being.” (How the hell would the machine make sense of that garbled sentence?) “So why say anything special? Let’s not waste time being cautious. I’m bound to upset you sooner or later, anyway.”
For the first time I felt those little cupboard-door handles actually had the capacity to look at me.
She added: “Let’s agree also to be explicit when we feel anger or gobsmackedness. If I outrage without being premeditated, and you tell you are rubbed up the wrong way, then I will distinguish that it is a lippy saying.”
“Very wise! We’re here to learn how each other thinks.”
“For example,” she continued, “I feel slightly livid that you advocated a fresh way of conversing without saying you hoped you were not rude.”
“Oh no, I’m sorry – I should – ”
“We have agreed to prevent these preambles and so I do not want you to operate them. I tell you my annoyance not for you to copy my mode but for you to know something about it.”
“Of course. And when, one day, I am in conversation with another Alien who isn’t used to human ways, I’ll remember to use your etiquette.”
“What is etiquette?”
Funny that it didn’t translate. “All these social rules about how to avoid giving offence. The very thing we’re talking about.”
“Etiquette! A new word for me!”
“Do you mind me asking why you just had stripes of colour running up your chin?” (I hesitated, but chin was the closest approximation.)
More colours, in narrower stripes, flowed unnervingly all over the top half of her, very fast, like projected lights, bending and blending erratically.
“I smiled! It signifies feeling glad… Now I laugh, which signifies feeling very glad… Do Human not smile or laugh?”
“Of course we do! But not in colour.” I’d heard of cuttlefish changing colours and patterns – but to see it on someone I was having a conversation with! “We smile with our mouths – like this – and when we laugh it makes noise – ” I couldn’t laugh to order – “like, um, a bit like coughing.”
“Now I’m knowledgeable about that!” she said with yet more stripes changing the whole look of her. “You and I act very important exertion, Will. The language has been shed light on and now this is the next dictionary and we write it!”
“Yes! Body language and etiquette!” Then I laughed. Me, a pioneer of lexicography!
Her eye-buds withdrew suddenly and rapidly three or four times, emerging again slowly. “How?” She was now a uniform grey, like the first picture of her I’d seen.
“How did I incense you?”
“You didn’t at all!”
“But you said – oh! we must enrich the machine’s lexicon. I perceived you articulate you were very fuming.”
“All I said was, ‘Body language and etiquette’.”
“And then you – I heard more words then.”
“No, I – oh, I laughed… This? ‘Ha-ha-ha’?” (I tell you, I can’t do a pretend-laugh.)
“Yes, that is very angry words!”
“No, no, it was a laugh! Hell, what does it sound like to you?”
She said, “‘You are – ’” then her eyes shrank away – “‘You are a deeply foul or discourteous, visceral living being.’ I do not say that, I… cite it.” Her skin was approximately navy.
“So my laugh sounds like I’m upset with you? Ha!” And I laughed loudly at that. “Oh no! I’m laughing again!”
Her grey had deepened to a gunmetal shade, but I saw it lighten and then the bewildering sequence of bright shades swept up her top half as before.
“You’re laughing again! Thank goodness!”
“We must perk up the lexicon!” she said.
“We must immediately!” I only just managed not to laugh any more.
The weirdest conversation I’ve ever had.