Alex Raymond, Arthur C Clarke, Claude Veillot, E.E. 'Doc' Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edmond Hamilton, Gardner Dozois, George T. Chesney, Gregory Benford, Gwyneth Jones, H. Beam Piper, H.G. Wells, Harry Turtledove, Ian McDonald, Jack Finney, Jack Williamson, John Clute, John Collier, Octavia Butler, Peter Hoeg, Philip Francis Nowlan, Roger Zelazny, Thomas M. Disch
This column from my Cognitive Mapping series, which first appeared in Vector 202, November-December 1998, might well be seen as a companion to the column on Aliens, looking at another aspect of our enduring fascination with the other.
Suddenly, Gillespie finds he wants to seize Eamon Donnan and shake him. In the still centre of this spiritual space, he wants to shake all this stupidity and play-acting out of his prison friend. What do you look like? he wants to shout into his face from a distance of very few centimetres. Do you think you are one of them? You can’t even sit on their stool because your legs are too short and your joints are in different planes, and you think that you can dream their dreams and give a home in your head to their archetypes?
He wants to say all this and shake this thing in front of him back into the Eamon Donnan he knew. But he does nothing. He doesn’t know why this angers him so much. He doesn’t like to think that he is jealous that Eamon Donnan has found the courage to do and be what he desires most.
Sacrifice of Fools (1996)
He realised that he was thinking in the slow, muted logic of Ipen himself. He assumed that the pursuit of chimp status-markers was a given, the great goal of his life.
This revelation startled him. He had known that he was diffusing into Ipan’s mind, taking control of some functions from the bottom up, seeping through the deeply buried, walnut-sized gyrus. It had not occurred to him that the chimp would diffuse into him. Were they now married to each other in an interlocking web that dispersed mind and self?
‘Again and again from 1989 on, I tend to use exogamy as a shorthand description of the essential subject matter of post-agenda sf’ John Clute wrote in Look at the Evidence (1995). Leaving aside the question of exactly what is meant by ‘post-agenda sf’, Clute is writing about one of the most fundamental changes in the nature of sf: our relationship with the other.
The first aliens we encountered were simply humans who had been located by their author in some fantastical other realm, such as the Moon or the Sun. They weren’t characters but types, intended to reflect and comment upon certain social and political situations, instruments of satire that worked by being identical to ourselves, not truly alien at all. Either that or they were curiosities, the distorted products of travellers’ tales as wondrous and as essentially non-human as the elephant or rhinoceros or octopus. It was only with the cold and implacable intelligence of H.G. Wells’s Martians that humanity found itself encountering other beings that challenged our place in the natural order of things
And challenge it was. The War of the Worlds (1898) followed a pattern that had already been established by such paranoid tales of invasion as The Battle of Dorking (1871) by George T. Chesney: if we could not trust our neighbours on this planet, still less could we trust anything that wasn’t even human. We know that the Martians are a more ancient race than us, we know that they are technologically far more advanced, but we learn nothing of their culture, if culture they have. They are nothing more than killing machines bent on simple, brutal conquest. The Selenites in Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901) present a slightly more complex picture, but they still turn into the enemy. And this is how we would see aliens for a long time: the role of the pulp heroes of the first half of this century, from Buck Rogers (in Armageddon 2419AD (1928-9) by Philip Francis Nowlan) to Flash Gordon (in the comic strip created by Alex Raymond in 1934) to Kimbal Kinnison (in E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series which began with Triplanetary (1934)), was no different from the role of countless cowboy heroes of the slightly earlier dime novels: to kill aliens (indians). The role of aliens was equally simple: they were bug-eyed monsters intent on nothing but destroying the Earth and raping human women. (Even that alien combination of great ape and Frankenstein’s creature, King Kong (1933), was attracted to Fay Wray and met the inevitable response: the might of our military machine.)
Perhaps such fear of the foreigner was inevitable in a world which saw two global conflicts within a generation. In the years between the wars the alien didn’t feature much in British science fiction, but in America writers such as Jack Williamson and Edmond Hamilton were forever fighting the alien threat, reflecting a national mood of isolationism. There was a similar mood after the Second World War when Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunts were reflected in such xenophobic literature as Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955). Repeatedly, and in many forms, the alien is a cypher who fills one role only, that of the enemy. In ‘The First Days of May’ (1961) by Claude Veillot aliens use humans as depositories and food for their eggs; in ‘White Fang Goes Dingo’ (1965) by Thomas M. Disch aliens use humans as pets; even as recently as Worldwar: In the Balance (1994) and its sequels by Harry Turtledove the role of the aliens is essentially unchanged from that of Wells’s Martians, to invade.
Already in the days after the Second World War, however, the mood was changing. Alongside the hatred of the enemy that was an inevitable residue of two world wars, and the further fears of the foreigner engendered by the new Cold War and the accompanying terror of the nuclear threat, there was also a thin optimistic vein that believed in the new experiment in international co-operation represented by the United Nations. In the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) the alien visitors actually bring the peace of a United Nations in space. Klaatu may be confronted by a paranoid array of military might, but the notion of exogamy, of marriage outside, was born here.
The mood was there, also, in Childhood’s End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke in which humanity’s salvation lies in overcoming our traditional dread of demons (an eloquent expression of all that we fear in foreigners) and going with the aliens. In its way, Childhood’s End set the pattern for exogamous science fiction as effectively as The War of the Worlds set it for tales of alien attack. As recently as Dawn: Xenogenesis I (1987) by Octavia Butler, the aliens – whom we must marry as our only hope of survival –are repulsive: there are many fears and prejudices to be overcome along the way to even the most desireable of outcomes.
Gradually a strand of science fiction grew up in which aliens became something other than the enemy, and in so doing we learned more about them than we ever did when their only purpose was rape and conquest. In stories such as ‘Omnilingual’ (1957) by H. Beam Piper, for instance, we learned that they had a history; and in Roger Zelazny’s ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes’ (1963) we learned that they had a culture. Eventually this romance with the alien led to marriage, though in Strangers (1978), Gardner Dozois shows that marriage to the alien without fully understanding the alien could lead to tragedy.
Nevertheless,the rush towards marriage initiated by Childhood’s End became ever more precipitate. Following the precepts of the Helsinki Syndrome, by which it is recognised that hostages come to share the beliefs and desires of their captors, (or maybe the religious principle that mankind was made in the image of God) humans have started to remake themselves in the image of alien invaders. In White Queen (1991), North Wind (1994) and Phoenix Cafe (1997) by Gwyneth Jones and again in Sacrifice of Fools by Ian McDonald, humans commit self-mutilation in order to reproduce alienness in themselves. (In Phoenix Cafe this is extended to an alien making herself over in the image of a human.) In the passage quoted, Gillespie recognises that biology and culture must place a yawning gap between us and the alien. He works with them, he co-operates, for all the frequent failures in understanding he embodies the principle of the United Nations; yet his unexpressed desires show us this is not enough.
Yet still the basic necessity that drives this exogamy remains the same. Apes, because of their closeness to and difference from humans, have been a common feature of exogamic fiction, from Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes (1914) through King Kong to His Monkey Wife (1930) by John Collier and The Woman and the Ape (1996) by Peter Hoeg. Yet, as Gregory Benford shows in his story of a man trapped in the mind of a chimp, ‘Immersion’, the purpose of this marriage of minds, this learning each from the other, is simple survival. In this anthropological tale we are told that fear of strangers is a significant survival trait in primitive beings, but the story shows that marriage, that the coming together of strangers, is an essential survival trait for the future.