There is a moment in X-Com where the chief engineer wonders aloud: If the aliens wanted to wipe us out, there isn’t much we could do to stop them, so, given they haven’t done this what is it they want?
Playing X-Com through for the first time this question is central. What is the war I am fighting actually about? What do they want that they can’t just take? What is it that the aliens desire. This is one of the problems of aliens, or things that are alien, is that they could be so fundamentally different that their desires and ours could be utterly and incomprehensibly different. Not opposed, but different. But also possibly opposed.
These questions caused me to recall a conversation I had recently regarding the nature of sexual desire and sexuality. I was asking my interlocutor about the experience of having a desire for sex but not wanting that desire. This was during a period where my body was thinking about sex but I wanted to be thinking about my thesis. There is the common desire for sex and the experience of sexual attraction. But an alien, or a human who has a different experience of sexuality, might not have any idea what it even means to be sexually attracted to something. As rational, thinking creatures, we can also think about the nature of our desire, though there seems to be a disconnect between this process and the process of desiring. We can’t decide to stop desiring certain things, such as to eat, to have sex etc though we can decide about desiring certain other things, particular clothing, living a certain lifestyle, getting married etc. This seems to indicate that there are embodied desires, which are inherited biologically and cultural desires, which we learn.
Biological desires can be experienced as an imposition on our expectations and cultural desires. So, I might not want to eat but my body will make me desire eating regardless. As per the above conversation I might not want to have sexual desire but I’ll get horny anyway. The aliens of X-Com and the humans of the world will probably have widely different biological and cultural desires. An alien species that breeds through some kind of asexual reproduction will probably not have to evolve sexual desire in order to promote reproduction. It may experience a different kind of desire, or it may not even have desires (or, it could be that sexual reproduction is a necessary evolutionary function for any DNA coded carbon based lifeform).
Likewise, cultural desires can equally be experienced as an imposition (What if I don’t want to want to get married, What if I don’t want to want new curtains!) that would likely be dramatically different between species (and of course, cultures). What is really interesting to me though is the possibility of any remainder if we took away these two categories. Is there a set of desires that any sufficiently sentient being has and will have in common?
Aliens might not desire unchecked fornication as a biological imperative, they might not desire a new car to satisfy a cultural expectation for object acquisition (reverse biological and cultural as required), but is there something they will desire because and for no other reason than they are sentient. Which is to ask, is there something that any two sentient creatures commonly desire necessarily as a product of sentience alone?
The alien that comes to Earth to plunder resources, steal cars or engage in anonymous orgies, is not so alien at all. Their desires and commensurable and intelligible. But what of the alien that we can only say “What does it want? We don’t even know if it knows what wanting is!”. I expect that in X-Com a desire and a purpose will be explored eventually. The narrative demands it and for me this makes the alien prospect a lot less frightening [See also Hoyle’s The Black Cloud. Where a gaseous lifeform is revealed, disappointingly in my opinion, to have desires not dissimilar to our own]. If the alien has intelligible desires, then there is a means by which we can commonly reason (You need our resources? Well, cease the butt probes or we’ll blow up our own planet and you won’t have our resources!). What would be more interesting is the revelation that we don’t even have that in common. To paraphrase the Mothman what would be more frightening would be a creature that regards us in the same way as we regard a cockroach [“You’re more advanced than a cockroach, have you ever tried explaining yourself to one of them?”]. The terrifying thing is not the difference in power, which is comprehensible, but the idea that there is an order of magnitude of difference which makes comprehensibility impossible, wherein you are just confronted with a void. What I would find frightening is not being able to know what it is the alien wants. Without knowing desire, there is no negotiation, no justification, no understanding.