What fools these mortals be

Aliens are unique to science fiction.

In no story about detectives solving a murder or heiresses wondering what baron to wed will you find anything told from the point of view of a nonhuman intelligent creature. All other genres, from Westerns to War Stories to Historical drama to mainstream tales about college professors cheating on their wives, are told from within the human realm of human nature and can never leave it. In science fiction and in science fiction alone is there an opportunity to step outside the human realm, and turn, and look, and to see the mask of man from the outside.  Only in science fiction can we speculate on what humans look like to intelligent nonhumans.

Science fiction has this unique property because it is the only genre where the readers will accept the introduction of props, settings and characters which do not exist now on Earth or at any time in the historical past. All other genres are restricted by their readers to the confines of the real; and, as a matter of fact, extraterrestrial intelligences do not exist now on Earth or at any time in the historical past. By definition, a story with a nonhuman extraterrestrial character is science fiction.

A broader question is how well (if at all) we humble human authors can invent and readers can imagine anything from a point of view other than a human one.

If the task is absurd or impossible, then this unique aspect of science fiction is trivial.

If the task is feasible, and can be done and done well, then this unique aspect of science fiction grants the genre a profound purpose—a purpose far deeper than the mere telling of tall tales about earthmen fencing four-armed green Martian savages to rescue a kidnapped space princess.

If the task is feasible then science fiction is the only place to go, the only vantage where to stand, to look at mankind, because it and it alone steps away and turns and looks at humanity from the outside.

Before we address that broader question, the gentle reader may be contemplating at least two objections to the bold statement that examining man from a viewpoint outside man is unique to science fiction.

The first is that fantasy stories, myths, fairytales, Aesop’s fables and stories about animals, from Lassie to Black Beauty to Bambi, involve imagining what human beings might look like seen from the viewpoint of gods or sprites, ghosts or talking animals, or dumb animals. It would be odd indeed to classify BAMBI or FINDING NEMO or HAPPY FEET as “science fiction” and yet the audience for those tales sees human beings only from the beast’s-eye view. In the oldest poem in the West, THE ILIAD, many a scene is told from the coign of vantage of the Olympian gods. The far-famed Wagner’s Ring Cycle is told mostly from the point of view of gods and dark elves, giants and river nymphs, valkyries and so on: Indeed, in the first opera of the cycle, DAS RHEINGOLD, there is not a single human character on stage at any time.  The first objection, then, is simply that the statement is not true: many stories look at man from outside.

The second objection is subtler: all stories by their nature take the reader out from his own personal viewpoint. That is the core of what the story-telling imagination is, and what it does. Reading GONE WITH THE WIND as if by magic transforms the reader into the rich and willful daughter of a slaveholding Irish plantation owner; WAR AND PEACE transforms the reader into any number of Russian nobles and serfs in the midst of the Napoleonic wars; in SIEGFRIED, we become a young hero raised by a treacherous dwarf, destined to forge his father’s sword to slay a dire dragon, and win the love of an exiled goddess and the gold the world craves; in BAMBI, we become a deer; in WATERSHIP DOWN, a rabbit.

The second objection, in other words, is that science fiction is not only not unique in taking us outside our own viewpoint, but that this act of imaginative self-departure is ubiquitous and essential to all story-telling. If the reader can look at the world from another set of eyes, what does it matter whether the reader is transformed for an hour into a Southern Planter, a Russian Boyar, a Germanic Hero, or an English Hare?

Science fiction (so the objection runs) is doing something no different from any other genre, and indeed, does something less useful, because, unlike Southern Planters and Russian Nobles, the Vulcan scientist or Klingon warrior or green-skinned Orion slavegirl simply does not exist.

Imaging life from the point of view of a stranger or an enemy may have the benevolent real-world side effect of increasing my sympathy and brotherly love for him, and affirming our common humanity. Whether or not there is any common humanity with the Mollusk Men of Mars, or the Sorns, or the Tharks, or the Old Ones, there is little point in the reader learning how to step by an act of imagination into the shoes of these inhabitants of the Red Planet, because neither do they exist, and even did they, none of them wears shoes.

In sum, the second objection is that looking at ourselves from outside is what all story telling does, so science fiction is not unique; and looking at ourselves from the point of view of characters who resemble real people serves a useful real world purpose of engendering empathy with others.

The answer to the second objection is simple: Empathy is engendered by the care and skill of the portrayal, no matter who is portrayed. Whether or not the person portrayed is real or unreal means nothing.

Scarlet O’Hara of Tara is no more nor less real than Thweel the Martian. Both exist in the imagination only. Both have a relation to reality that is symbolic or emotional. When the nonhuman creature of the Genii in Disney’s ALADDIN yearns for the manacles to be struck from his wrists, and his bondage to end, all spirits longing for liberty understands precisely how he feels, because the emotion is the same in the real as in the unreal circumstances. When the completely unrealistic Siegfried, raised by a magical dwarf in a cave, yearns for the mother he has never known, it is not less poignant than the similar yearning by Oliver Twist, because both are orphans. When Bambi suffers the same loss and longing when his mother is shot by hunters, no skeptic is so foolish as to object that this scene is not moving and melancholy on the grounds that, unlike Siegfried and Oliver, deer cannot put their emotions of filial love for their mother into words, nor can they weep tears.

The answer to the second objection, in other words, is that it is the act of exercising the imagination which is the beauty and the justification for story-telling.

By the nature of imagination, the thing imagined is not real. It can be closer to reality or less close, more realistic or more fanciful, but this degree of realism has little or nothing to do with how well the scene draws the reader out of himself, and how firmly he finds himself planted in the shoes of an orphaned boy or, for that matter, an orphaned fawn.

A realistic scene portrayed without craft or genius does not engage the imagination and therefore fails as an exercise of the story-telling art; an unrealistic scene, even one involving magical beings or talking animals, which is told with craft and skill does indeed engage the imagination, and does indeed accomplish the feat that story-tellers are commanded by the muses to attempt.

The answer to the first objection is not so simple, for it involves a subtle distinction between what seem to be twins.

How is a Martian different from a Dark Elf?

Why is imagining life from the point of view of Tars Tarkas of Mars argued to be unique or profound, when imagining life from the rabbit’s-eye view of Fiver of Watership Down requires a more sustained effort of imagination? The objection is even more biting when we consider that Tars Tarkas is something of a stock character, the noble savage from a warlike tribe, whereas Fiver is a three-dimensional person.

The difference here is partly definitional. A story which was a solid speculation on how a nonhuman intelligence like a rabbit would be shaped by the biology and psychology of a rabbit, its needs and way of life, if done as a scientific speculation, would indeed be science fiction.

Likewise a man who wrote a story about an angel but who paid careful attention to the particulars of how a purely intellectual being, each one unique to its own species, and wrote a solid and logical speculation about the powers and limitations of such a being, extrapolating from what we know to what we do not know, he would not be writing a story like MICHAEL or THE BISHOP’S WIFE or IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, which are fantasies. What he would be writing would be science fiction in all but name.

I dare not pause to dwell on the vexatious question of where the misty and ever moving boundary between fantasy and science fiction lingers. For the purpose of this essay, let us agree that both fantasy and science fiction are voyages into the unknown.

They take place outside the circle of light where the real world and the real historical past rest comfortably. To one side sleep the twilight forests of elfland, and dim shapes, half-familiar, of shining fawnlike beauty or wormlike winged horror are glimpsed in the deep shade among the fireflies. To the other side the blazing towers of Futuropolis rear, with jetpacks and rocketplanes soaring up into star-filled infinities, and countless ages yet to come. Both are beyond the walls of the known world.

But the difference, if I may be permitted an oversimplification, is that the bridge leading to the science fiction story is primarily intellectual, a matter of speculating from the known to the unknown. The mystic bark floating downstream to a story in elfland is primarily emotional, a matter of myths, images, remembered echoes of things once beloved, now lost.

Hence the real difference between a Dark Elf, or any denizen of a fantasy tale, and a Martian, or any citizen of science fiction, is whether an act of imagination is needed to understand, indeed, to sympathize with him.

Let me use Albrecht from the opening scene in Wagner’s DAS RHEINGOLD as an example. He emerges from the dark underworld into the river depths, and spies the nicors playing in the water, the jolly and lovely Rhine-Maidens. Overcome by lust and longing, woos them in his awkward way, sneezing, and is repulsed with that sadistic mockery only truly lovely women know how to command. In his frustrated rage, mingled with greed, he vows to foreswear love, and to use the gold he steals from the unwary mermaids to forge a magic ring to conquer the world.

There is no emotion in Albrecht’s Dark Elfin heart which I myself have not felt. (Indeed, earlier this week, I stole atom bomb codes being guarded by nubile yet disdainful coeds disporting in the local swimming pool).  My point here is that, whether the scene takes place beneath the Rhine, and involves magical gold and curses or no, none of the nonhumans has any nonhuman emotions or motives. Indeed, as in most myths, the motives have a simple directness to them: lust, greed, hate, powerlust.

The service mythical heroes and elves and pagan gods do us, the audience, is showing human emotions writ large.

Contrast this with what happens when a science fiction tale handles contact with aliens. Even in stories that, while well told, do not reveal that spark of genius which surely characterizes Wagner, we will nonetheless find in them something the fantasy story lacks.

Let me use an example from STAR TREK. In one scene in Deep Space Nine the greedy Quark the Ferengi is speaking with the deceptive Garak , a spy for the Cardassians. The fall to discussing human beings in general, and Federation in particular, who are their only hope. The scene is worth quoting at length.

And the worst part is, my only hope for salvation… is the Federation.

I know precisely how you feel.

Quark suddenly gets an idea.

Here, I want you to try something
for me.

Quark pulls out a glass and fulls it with a foamy brown liquid.

Take a sip of this.

Garak looks skeptically at the drink.

What is it?

A human drink. It’s called root beer.

GARAK (eyes it suspiciously)
I don’t know…

Go ahead. Aren’t you just a little bit curious?

Garak hesitates a beat, but then takes a sip. He immediately makes a face.

What do you think?

It’s vile.

Quark is glad that someone agrees with him.

I know.
(searching for bad things to say)
It’s so bubbly and cloying and happy.

Just like the Federation.

But you know what’s really frightening? If you drink enough of it, you start to like it.

It’s insidious.

Just like the Federation.

There’s a long beat as the two aliens share their
common bond.

Do you think they’ll be able to save us?.

I hope so.

Quark takes a sip of the root beer, then shudders.

The show BABYLON FIVE, from which DEEP SPACE NINE took its  inspiration in its later season,  had a scene making a similar point, when the aliens discussed that the human capacity for making communities, for forging bonds of friendship with those unlike themselves, was the source of their unique strength.

Even in very simple books, space operas and adventure stories, merely by having an alien on stage, the author has to make a decision about what he thinks would make a nonhuman different from a human.

In A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edger Rice Burroughs, John Carter is transported by occult means to the dying planet Mars, where the barbarians struggle over the ever shrinking pool of resources amid the ruins of a once-proud civilization. The Green Martians live in a communal, communistic lifestyle, and, since they raise their children in common, have neither families nor any human affections nor emotional softness. Hence, odd as it sounds for a swashbuckling adventure story, John Carter’s advent on Mars is the coming of a man who understands the value of sympathy, charity, and follow-feeling. In other words, man’s charitable nature was what this author chose to contrast against the cruel Martian nature.

In the Lensman series by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, while it is a space opera and hardly concerned with finer nuances of character development, the author there again is forced to decide what makes human distinct from the various aliens of the galaxy. Mankind is braver but less subtle than one race, the plutonic Palainians; less focused in intellectual power than a second, the dragonish Valentians, but also much more stubborn; and more immoral and erratic than a third, the bovine and placid Rigelians, but possessed of a drive and vigor they lack. Larry Niven did a similar thing with his cowardly Puppeteers and his warlike Kzinti.

The earliest example that comes to mind is WAR OF THE WORLDS by H.G. Wells. Even though the Martians had not a single word of dialog, and no character from Mars was named, the contrast was made and the statement was made about human nature. It was a statement that was so strong, and so persuasive, that most science fiction readers, if not the general public, takes it for granted these days.

And yet is is a controversial statement indeed, and one not to be accepted unskeptically: Wells made the humans helpless before the Martians by reason of their lesser intelligence and technical sophistication. The Martians were alien only in the sense of having what H.G. Wells thought made civilization superior to savagery and man superior to beast: cold and ruthless scientific intelligence.

(And the earthlings prevailed only due to the greater adaption to the Earthly environment, disease germs and all: considering the number of white men who were wiped out by native diseases when establishing colonies and based near the equator, we can see this is sound speculation.)

The silliness of having Martians neither attempt to negotiation and find a mutually beneficial arrangement, or take quarantine procedures, would seem to belie their allegedly superhuman intellect. But this is because H.G. Wells did not identify some other element of human nature, such as, for example, our greater moral insight or more rational law codes, as offering the superiority of civilization to savagery, or man to beast. Nor did he, as a modern nihilist writer might do, propose that savagery was nobler than civilization, and beast equal to or better than man.

H.G. Wells concept of cold and scientific big-brained aliens is perhaps the most commonplace stereotype of science fiction; but even at its more stereotyped and thoughtless, it is nonetheless a statement about human nature.

There is a difference, after all, and a profound one, between viewing man as halfway between ape-man and superman, and viewing man as halfway between the beasts below him, over whom God granted him dominion, and the angels above him, whom men fall on their faces in fear when they behold.

It is a difference between viewing life as a Darwinian war directed (despite that there is no person doing the directing) toward the end of ever upward evolution; and viewing life as a lawful hierarchy.

Now, again, the gentle reader may wonder in what way the contrast between Men and Martians differs from the dwarves and elfs and giants of fantasy stories. For after all, are not dwarves more greedy for gold than man, and yet less bold; are not elfs more gay and perilous, yet less sober; are not men smaller and wiser than giants?

And again I say the difference, while subtle, is real. I am not talking about a mere contrast of picking one human characteristic and saying this nonhuman or that has more of that characteristic, and hence less of its opposite.

No, indeed. What these science fiction writers did and do, even those whose work is pedestrian, provided the work is done in a workmanlike fashion, engage in some, even if small, intellectual speculation about how the alien psychology is a logical extrapolation of its nature, and in so doing, if only inadvertently, the writer makes a statement about human nature. The giants and elves and dwarfs of fantasy and myth have human natures, human emotions, and deal with life in a human way, even when there seems no reason for them to do so.

Why, praytell, do the fairies in MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM have a King, when the fairies neither toil nor spin, nor set boundary stones for land, nor have disputes over property, nor make wars upon each other? What does Oberon do?

To be sure, there are countless exceptions and counter-examples. There are science fiction writers who took some mythic creature like a dragon and planted it on a far world and called it an extraterrestrial. But it is still a dragon. And there are fantasy writers who, less concerned with the ancient forms of fantasy, extrapolated the characteristics of nonhumans beings, and invented speculative reasons for their customs and behaviors based not on myth or symbolism but on rational speculation.

It would be perhaps too facile if I were to claim the first category are ‘really’ fantasy books dressed up in science fiction drag, and the second were ‘really’ science fiction books disguised in the whiskers and boots of fantasy.

Instead, I will make a humbler claim. Books of the first type, no matter how skillful or unskillful they are written in other areas, are not doing what science fiction does best when they treat of the logical implication of nonhuman intelligence, and books of the second type are doing what science fiction does best, even if the book is not shelved with the science fiction.

In even something as simple and humble as a role playing game, where there are other races than man to be encountered and played, the game designer or dungeon master is constrained by the nature of the genre (since the rule-bound nature of such games encourages logical rather than mythical or symbolic thought on the topic) to establish in what physical and mental statistics the baseline homo sapiens differs from Kzinti or Elves or Robots. If most moderators tend to make Mankind the jack of all trades and master of none, that moderator, whether he knows it or not, is making a statement about a view of human nature that his game portrays. If another moderator makes the humans the more warlike, or the most fecund, or the most civilized, or the least magical of the various nonhumans, once again, the story told by that game setting makes a statement and offers an insight (if only a trivial one) into human nature.

A Western can and will make a statement about the nature and the contrast between Cowboys and Indians; likewise a Whodunnit will make a statement about the nature of criminals and detectives, or, in the case of the detective stories simple enough for me to follow, about the nature of criminals who dress as ghosts and the teen sleuths and their talking dog.

But science fiction, even humble stories, hack stories, adventure yarns or space operas, provided they are done with proper workmanlike attention to detail—all science fiction stories except the very worst and laziest can and must, the when a nonhuman intelligence comes on stage, make a comment about human nature itself.

In terms of the useful benefit to building up sympathy with one’s follow man, I myself can think of nothing more useful than the contemplation of those things universal to all men, and the contrast with the inhuman.