I remember exchanging short stories with somebody some years ago when I was in a writing group, and the story I was given was an almost exact replica of “They’re Made Out of Meat,” as it was done entirely in dialogue and obfuscated the subject of the story. That is not to say that the writer plagiarized Terry Bisson’s work, but, rather, I think the concept and execution of this tale is so interesting that one would have to stumble across its premise at some point, especially if they were writing a lot of stories, which many of us are or have done in the past.
At the time, I had not read “They’re Made Out of Meat,” so, of course, I thought it was a neat way to tell a story, and it really is, because Bisson’s “They’re Made Out of Meat” is a terrifically wonderful work of fiction about aliens investigating mankind and finding the existence of such a creature to be strange and confounding.
Terry Bisson, during an interview on The Truth Podcast, discussed the inception of the short story.
“I was thinking about an interview I had read or heard that Allen Ginsberg (poet) was doing with some journalist and he was talking about poetry and the guy was saying that it was like they were two poets talking or something like that and Ginsberg says, ‘No, we’re just meat talking to meat.’ And somehow that got stuck in my head” (Mitchell).
In response to why the story has been interpreted so many times, Bisson said that he was not really sure but he took a few guesses.
“It’s funny, it’s short, and it makes you think. It gets used a lot in psychology … people who are scientists and educators who are dealing with psychology like to use it because it kinds of jolts people into realizing what an amazing thing that is. How can consciousness emerge a pile of meat that looks like a pound of hamburger?” (Mitchell)
“They’re Made Out of Meat” first appeared in Omni magazine in 1991.
The Story (spoilers)
The story is about two aliens on a scientific journey to locate life in the universe. They stumble upon Earth and discuss the sentient creatures they find there. One of the two aliens has discovered and possibly dissected an Earthling and tries to give the other alien all the relevant details of its discovery.
If you have ever tried to explain a new boardgame to somebody, then you probably know how difficult it is to describe a hitherto unknown entity. The first alien tries to explain that the “meat” it has discovered actually thinks, while the second alien is left baffled. Of course, the first alien has only discovered humankind but is confused by our existence, because humans talk with “meat flaps” and even our brains–what makes us think–is entirely comprised of meat. We can infer at this point that the aliens have a completely different anatomical structure. The most appropriate interpretation of this, in my opinion, are two orbs floating in space; and, of course, two orbs would probably have a hard time relating to bags of meat.
“You’re not understanding, are you? You’re refusing to deal with what I’m telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat.”
“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”
“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal.” (Terry Bisson)
And the story carries on this way, with the audience (us) eavesdropping on the two aliens’ conversation, and us learning more about the strange creatures they have discovered—the ones that are a lot like us.
I think the most important theme in this story for me is alienness. And what I mean by that is the “meat” represents a foreign idea that has been discovered by…well… other aliens (in a similar fashion to us as humans discovering complex microorganisms). I think this should inform us of something crucial as far as the lesson of the story: even though we feel a normalcy (and superiority) as humans, extraterrestrials would look at us in a much different light because ultimately we are an insignificant, alien organism that can’t possibly match the aliens’ own intellect.
In one section, the aliens discuss communication and the technological capabilities of the “meat,” which should be a fairly typical scientific inquiry, and yet the aliens are mystified by how we go about talking to each other.
“They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?”
“Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat.”
“I thought you just told me they used radio.”
“They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat.”
“Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?”
In other words, the very common use of a radio for listening and projecting audio is so underdeveloped (as I would assume the aliens use some form of telecommunication) that it is both idiotic and barbaric. What this tells me is that as much as we as humans want to feel important and crucial to the universe, we are in fact a single, stupid microcosm in a vast universe of intelligence.
Bisson, Terry. “‘They’re Made Out of Meat.’” Manchester, June , users.manchester.edu/Facstaff/SSNaragon/Online/texts/201/-Essays/Bisson,%20MadeOfMeat.pdf.
Mitchell, Jonathan. 20 Mar. 2012, https://www.thetruthpodcast.com/story/2015/10/14/theyre-made-out-of-meat.