Getting Aliens ‘Right’Posted: March 14, 2014
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.