Even if it’s not at the front of my mind, the back of my mind is still mulling over February’s young earth creationism (or whatever it’s called) “debate” between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. I often wonder about the experiences and motivations that lead an individual to any form of science-denial, but the laughable absurdity of young-earth creationism isn’t the topic here. I’m only disclosing that the debate played a part in the curiosity that helped this particular blog entry bubble to the surface. That said, if you get time, please watch the “debate” in the video above.
Of all my friends and acquaintances, I knew of one person who preferred Shaun of the Dead until several weeks ago. But even then the question vexed me. How could even one person feel that way?
Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, along with last year’s The World’s End, are collectively known as the Cornetto Trilogy. All three were directed and co-written by Edgar Wright, and all three feature the young and brilliant British actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
I’ll set aside The World’s End because it would unnecessarily complicate matters. So what of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead?
Both are quirky comedies with a little slapstick and well-executed over-acting. Both have dark and sad moments that compel the viewer to reflect upon friendship, death, family, and morality. Both are also fast-paced with snappy, original dialogue. Perhaps the biggest difference is that Shaun of the Dead is a zombie comedy while Hot Fuzz is a buddy-cop-action-comedy-thing. I’ve never understood why anyone would prefer the former over the latter. To be clear, while I enjoyed Shaun of the Dead (watched it once), I am addicted to Hot Fuzz (watched it 20+ times, conservatively).
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a tavern enjoying a pint of beer. I finished the glass and was eager to enjoy another when, as I approached the bar, a line of dialogue from Hot Fuzz popped into my head. “Another pint of lager, Mary.” The line probably isn’t funny if you haven’t seen the movie, but don’t worry about that.
I almost threw the line at the bartender but worried she wouldn’t know the movie, so instead, because she and I are pals, I asked if she’d seen Hot Fuzz. She had, but said she enjoyed Shaun of the Dead more. What?!!!
When it comes to aliens in science fiction, there are some standard tropes you run into. There are aliens that are essentially humans with themes. There are the bug-like aliens convenient for representing enemies because bugs are gross. (Spoiler alert: they’re usually more complicated than that after all!) And so on.
But lately I’ve been hungry for clever attempts at realistic depictions of aliens. I know “realistic” might sound silly here, since we have practically nothing to go on. But I think it’s fair to say a realistic depiction needs to reach away from our idea of what normal life is. Alien life would be something that evolved under who-knows-what conditions, so bipedal apes and giant insects are pretty much out.
Even more importantly, a good depiction of aliens should explore what social interaction between an advanced alien species and us would look like. In a sense, good ole Stephen Hawking is probably right. Any sufficiently advanced alien race would not be something we could fight off. But it’s perhaps a tad pessimistic to assume they would just kill us and take our resources, too. To me, it always seemed like the most likely scenario would be a painfully paternalistic relationship with a species that has a difficult-to-understand set of morals. They wouldn’t kill us, but might consider it perfectly right to run our lives for our own good.
I mentioned this to a friend not too long ago. His response: “Read ‘Dawn’ by Octavia Butler.”
I did. Then I read the two sequels soon after. And by the time I was done, I was awestruck that I had never before heard about this great story all about really weird aliens with well-developed personalities trying to get along with humans.
To be brief, the aliens in question are ancient, natural genetic engineers capable of both intense empathy and infuriating paternalism. The conflict somewhat resembles the paternalistic attitudes groups of people have historically had for each other, while not letting that relationship become a bald-faced symbol for imperial colonialism. The ultimate struggle is a matter of the alien species’ nature against human nature, and the story makes room for both tension and reconciliation.
I don’t want to get into too much detail, because I’d rather you find out from reading the book. But here are a few more themes if you don’t mind some spoilers: The aliens have a take on genetic meddling that, while daunting to human sensibilities, is part of the aliens’ nature; it’s what their third sex is essentially built to do, and in turn what makes their species who they are. I also loved how the story dealt with the aliens’ inability to lie: It’s not a part of any moral code so much as something they can only grasp intellectually, so their habit is to just fall completely silent when confronted with a question they don’t want to answer.
The second and third book move into entering the perspective of characters that aren’t fully human, which is admittedly a little tougher to get into, but are still worth the read.
I’m happy I’ve been exposed to Butler. It’s a shame she and her work is not better known outside of dedicated science fiction fans. I’d like to see more attempts to alien-human relationships that are willing to venture a little far from what’s familiar as a way to force us to question what we know to be right. That’s what science fiction is best at, when it’s good.
“Space is the last great frontier.” Space is indeed spectacular, but maybe not the last frontier of discovery, especially when completely new species pop up with some regularity on your own planet. Due to an inability to grow gills, humans have yet to sprawl into the ocean, so many of these new species are water-dwelling, surprisingly big, and good at hiding. A few of these new species we are newly distinguishing from their neighbors, and others we’ve just gotten to know. But these sharks and squids and jellyfish have been here all along, and are now rolling their eyes at the uninformed humans. Here are some quick introductions to our newly-identified global neighbors.
The half snake, half two-ducks-in-a-costume creature you see waddling around in the video above is a new species of walking shark, also known as carpet sharks. Named Hemiscyllium halmahera, it was discovered off the coast of the eastern Indonesian island of Ternate, the 16th member of the Hemiscyllium walking shark genus. This species is a mini version of its relations- on average 12 cm smaller than the 40 cm length of other species- and has distinctive snake-like dark bands running down its back. The nocturnal members of the genus Hemiscyllium prefer shallow, warm tidal pools, which have one major drawback as a habitat. As the pools are cut off from the ocean at high tide, any resident Hemiscyllium gradually use up the available oxygen, leaving them in a state of extreme oxygen depletion, known as hypoxia. They have evolved to survive until the tide comes in by carefully regulating blood flow, even ‘turning off’ – reducing the metabolism – of some areas of its brain. For an animal that looks like a cartoon creature come to life, that’s quite a talent.