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Back in 1995 (good heavens!) I began a series of columns for Vector in which I would explore various standard tropes of science fiction. The series lasted until 2001, with an extra piece added in 2005. Not a bad run. They all had pretty much the same format: a couple of illustrative quotations, then a very broad historical survey of the trope leading back to the works from which my opening quotes had been taken (it was based on a series by David Lodge that had been running in the Guardian at that time. Andrew Butler gave me a title for the series, ‘Cognitive Mapping’, and this was one of the earliest of them. It first appeared in Vector 188, August 1996.

Scriber Jaqueramaphan had been all over, mindlessly running around. He’d collect in twos or threes and execute some jape that made even the dour Tyrathect laugh, then climb to a height and report what he saw beyond. He’d been the first to see the coast. That had sobered him some. His clowning was dangerous enough without doing it in the neighbourhood of known rapists.
A Fire Upon the Deep (1992)
Vernor Vinge

He heard a scrabbling sound, thrust the light at it and saw a dark shape wriggling in one of the crumbling slit windows. She dropped to the ground. Dim light welled between her fingers from a short, red, glowing dumbbell. She came towards him, then stood and gazed for a long time. The strangeness of her face began to melt. The split lip and concave nose became as invisible as the features, the beauty even, of a face loved and familiar. Maybe, he thought, she was trying to see him as human too.
White Queen (1991)
Gwyneth Jones

The alien is the most familiar creature in science fiction.

If that seems like a contradiction or a conundrum, it shouldn’t. We have never met an alien outside our imaginings, so the aliens we put into our fictions are drawn almost entirely from within us. Every alien is a human in disguise, though the disguise can be more or less convincing.

Aliens, in one form or another, have been with us in our dreams for as long as we have dreamed. They are the monsters who gather in the shadows beyond the flickering glow of the fire. They are the things over there, the personification of everything that is unknown. When European travellers first began to explore along the coasts of Africa they found people who were as black as if they had been burned. If such strange beings existed on the fringes of what was known, what might be found deep in the unknown? And so early travellers reported what they had been told, about men not yet found but who surely existed, men with no heads, whose eyes were in their chest and whose mouth in their stomach; about men with one immense foot which they held over them as shelter from the cruel sun. These people were never seen, but they existed.

As the blank places on the map began to be filled in, so the utopias and curiosities of our imaginations were shifted off planet. We began to tell stories of journeys to the Moon and elsewhere. And, of course, we found people there. People just like us – though generally kinder, more beautiful, an idealised us – and people like the strange beings we had imagined before, strange creatures whose humanity was at a visible remove from our own.

The strangeness of life about us has constantly nourished our imagination. We need to discover such curious beings about us, it is an impulse as old as humanity, an impulse that gave birth to myths and stories, an impulse thousands of years older than science fiction, yet it is the identical impulse that we feed when we read science fiction. And the alien is common to both. The alien is two things: a being better than us, which in less sophisticated times was simply seen as identical to humanity yet more beautiful in aspect; and a being worse than us, the bogeyman, the nightmare made flesh, the threat that is always in the shadows that surround us.

Sometimes we make this alien – Frankenstein’s creature was an alien, so was Mr Hyde – but more often we go to them, or they come to us. The first spectacular meeting of science fiction and the alien was in The War of the Worlds [1898] by H.G. Wells. This was no more than a step beyond the tales of German or Japanese invasion that were commonplace in late Victorian Britain. But in turning this xenophobia into a story of a genuinely alien incursion, an invasion from the darkest corners of our minds, Wells did something that was at once much more dramatic and much more symbollic.

Ever since then, the aliens we create have shown something about us. During the years between the World Wars, for instance, British science fiction rarely featured the alien as such. There were monsters still to be found in the remote corners of our Earth (The Maracot Deep [1927] by Arthur Conan Doyle) and there were those good aliens, our future selves, achieving some moral, political, social or technological perfection in The World Below [1929] by S. Fowler Wright, Last and First Men [1930] by Olaf Stapledon or The Shape of Things to Come [1933] by H.G. Wells. But American science fiction of this isolationist era was full of bug-eyed monsters threatening something essentially American (usually a woman) and being defeated by the all-American heroism of the protagonist. In American science fiction of this era, like Wells’s Martians, the alien represented the fear of the outside. During the communist scare of the post-war era this became translated into a fear of the inside, the stranger among us, an atmosphere perfectly represented in science fiction by works such as The Bodysnatchers [1955] by Jack Finney, and perhaps even more by the film version, Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956].

In Britain at this period, aliens were noticeably less human, from the plants of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids [1951] to the wasps of Keith Roberts’s The Furies [1966], though they were just as implaccably hostile. But not always so, the devil-aliens who trigger mankind’s transcendence in Childhood’s End [1953] by Arthur C. Clarke indicate that the dual nature of the alien continues to exert a powerful hold. By the early 1970s, aliens weren’t simply good or bad, they were essentially mysterious, as illustrated by their overshadowing absence in both Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama [1973] and Frederik Pohl’s Gateway [1977]. It is the mystery of the aliens, their very alienness, which is the most notable feature of the beings in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. This is a richly imagined and baroque space opera peopled with as many strange races as the bar in Star Wars (and that brief scene in the 1977 film, which simply and unquestioningly accepted the diversity of alien life, has probably been as influential as any in establishing the new attitude towards the alien which Vinge’s novel represents). The dog-like beings, who are vital to the plot, have their most unsettling characteristic casually introduced in this extract: that one of them collects “in twos and threes” seems almost meaningless at first, but we soon come to realise that they exist in units of several different individuals, that individual members of the group can die and be replaced, yet the being, the single identity, continues. This is alien indeed, and even Vinge himself probably doesn’t get fully to grips with how very different – in society, in mindset, in behaviour, in morality – this would make them from humanity, though he makes a more than decent fist of it. Yet in the very moment that their inhumanity is first suggested, so is their humanity made clear: they fear rape.

Vinge’s aliens are the polar opposite of their most common traits throughout the history of American science fiction. They are not benevolent, neither are they hostile, they might fight but they are not the fascist or communist invader of earlier stories. Despite appearances, they are like us: this is a story which does not tell us to fear the strange but simply to accept it, to learn from it.

And if we can accept the alien on those terms, then we can also use the alien to examine ourselves. The old, simplistic view of the alien may have gone, but the political weight it carried has not. The alien girl who meets with our white, male protagonist in this scene early in White Queen by Gwyneth Jones does not meet with our human preconceptions at all. For a start, she is not a girl. But Jones’s use of pronouns when referring to her “Aleutians” is deliberately misleading, it doesn’t just indicate the inability of her humans to fully comprehend the true nature of the aliens, it also stands more broadly for a failure of communication. White Queen and its sequel North Wind [1994] are both freighted with a considerable political content. The relationship between humans and the alien invaders mirrors the colonial experience, and this has been a thread running through all Jones’s books since Divine Endurance [1984]. But more than that the books represent another form of alienation, between men and women, and the failure of understanding that stands forever between them.

The alien, in other words, is anything outside us. Not just outside our world or even our country, but outside ourselves. And in so far as science fiction rests upon the “science” (knowledge) in its name, then it is about learning the outside, about coming to appreciate other ways of seeing and being, about the nature of the alien. Which is what makes the alien the central most important figure in the history of science fiction – and the most familiar.