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First published in Phlogiston Thirteen, May 1987.

One of SF’s more traditional preoccupations is with ravening alien hordes of one sort and another. They are generally concerned with raping Earth’s fairest daughters (never Earth’s fairest sons—there is nothing gay about your traditional alien). The reasons for such behaviour are rather hard to understand.

Harry Harrison once considered it from the alien’s point of view and this is what he wrote:

Let us travel in our imagination to the fifth planet of the star Alpha Centauri. This is a watery world whose dominant race has a rough exoskeleton very much like that of terrestrial lobsters. One day on a pleasant beach where the royal princesses are sunning their crunchy green shells, a roaring spaceship lands. From it burst hideous EARTHMEN MONSTERS, soft damp creatures with wet eyes and fingers like worms. One of them rushes to the prime princess, tears off her girdle of pearls and…

And what? All I can think of, attempting to put myself into the boots of a rocketship-riding, lobster grabbing interstellar sex fiend is to do—what? I don’t get many sexual vibes from the princess. Maybe I can take her pearls back to the rocket and hock them at the nearest comet cathouse. But that is about all.

Great Balls of Fire—A History
of Sex in SF Illustration
by Harry Harrison

However, just to prove that nothing is impossible, Philip Jose Farmer (the enfant terrible of SF) actually provided reasonable grounds for such miscegenation to work. In the novel The Lovers and the short stories collected in the book Strange Relations he examines every aspect of the human-alien sexual relationships that you can think of; and a lot that you can’t.

H. G. Wells defined the archetypal bug eyed monster in War of the Worlds. His Martians were simply ravening beasts (at least as far as Earth people were concerned). The novel suggests that they were actually more subtle than this (Wells was an artist and he knew better than to make them that simple) but he started the trend and for a long time the alien in SF was simply a Wellsian monster engaged in the alien equivalent of rape, pillage and conquest. The alien spaceship was the SF equivalent of the Viking longship and in story after story, the alien was simply an amoral animal with no redeeming features. It was all surface, of course. Even the writers of this rubbish, if pressed, would have admitted that they were not attempting to be realistic. But it moved, it was action and excitement. Surely, the argument went, that was all that was necessary to keep the audience happy?

Then there was Stanley G. Weinbaum. In the short story A Martian Odyssey he introduced an alien who was actually a well rounded character who did very bizarre things but obviously had his own very good reasons for doing them—even if we had no idea what those reasons were. The story is horribly dated now, and the prose style makes you shudder (it reeks of the pulp tradition) but despite all that, it did show that an alien did not have to be a Wellsian Martian (or a BEM), it could be a person in its own right.

Weinbaum died young, and there was little more from his pen, but he had pointed the way, and this was back in the 1930s!

Few writers followed the path that Weinbaum pointed out. There was more superficial “excitement” from the Wellsian aspects of the alien. There were tales of mighty space battles and deeds of derring do to write. E. E. “Doc” Smith led the way, and a whole generation of writers followed.

But as SF grew up, the writers outgrew their childish beginnings and began to experiment with something more than a simple story. Space battles are all very well, but there has to be something else. We started to get isolated examples of a more mature approach to the topic.

Eric Frank Russell, for example, in a wonderfully funny novel called Wasp, described aliens who were purple and had sticky out ears. What his novel was “really” about was racial prejudice, and if you examine it closely, his aliens are really Japanese in heavy character makeup. But he was trying, and he did rise above the cliche, albeit briefly. Another example is the short story by Murray Leinster (First Contact). It is a thoughtful consideration of what the first contact between humanity and aliens might really be like. The characterisation is not very good and ultimately the story really depends on the gimmick in the ending, but again, he was trying.

There are other examples. There is no point in listing them. The point is that ever since Weinbaum proved it could be done, the writers knew that they could do something else with their aliens. They just often lacked the skills to do it. But they did try, and we must give them points for effort.

Perhaps the very best of the Wellsian derivations was Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. A more modern viewpoint on the same subject is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game which won umpteen awards a couple of years ago. It also is essentially Wellsian and the aliens are not particularly imaginative, but somehow Card puts together a magical novel which richly deserves all its awards. If the Wellsian approach gives us novels like these latter two, then I’m all in favour of it. Unfortunately, far too often the aliens have been a Wellsian surface without the depth that both Heinlein and Card saw was really there. Don’t read Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard. You will weep if you do, and they will be tears of pain.

With the demise of the magazine and the rise to prominence of the paperback, we started to see a new emphasis. All the pulp genres were starting to reach a wider audience and all of them began to attract better writers. The reasons for that are complex, but briefly, good writing is a better investment than bad writing, and publishers prefer good investments. The larger the potential circulation, the more the publisher is going to try to fit the best he can into it. It all comes down to money, but it seems to work. The better writers have staying power, the weaker fall by the wayside. The wider audiences are nowhere near as tolerant as the (smaller) pulp audience was. So, in a somewhat Darwinian way, the field improves itself.

We get works such as John Brunner’s The Crucible of Time and Robert Silverberg’s Time of Changes, whole novels told strictly from an alien point of view. And if your viewpoint character is not human, you damn well better make him well-rounded and convincing because if you don’t you’ll lose your audience and the book is dead.

We get short stories such as Larry Niven’s Known Space series (Tales of Known Space is the definitive collection) where Niven the author has sat back and done his damnedest to invent believable aliens mainly (as far as I can gather) for the sheer fun of it, but in the process has bypassed the Wellsian aspects and emphasised the “human” (bad word, but I can’t think of a better) aspects.

Then there is Fred Pohl, ploughing the allegorical furrow in novels such as Jem, where the aliens are used simply as puppets to carry a message. But Pohl is an artist and he knows that messages need a sugar coated pill—you still have to tell a story, and so the aliens (of necessity) have to be convincing or else they will collapse under the weight of the significance the author makes them bear.

As the field has grown up, so the stories have become more subtle. The writers are trying to do things with their material that they would not have dreamed of thirty years ago. A wider variety of purpose is by definition a recipe for deeper, more subtle works where everything is more rounded, not just aliens. It is all a question of focus. That is itself a function of maturity and treatments such as those mentioned above are therefore becoming more common. But I say again, the writers have always known it was possible. They just weren’t always capable of doing it. Maybe they had to grow up too.

But approaching the subject at that deeper level raises the interesting question of alien societies themselves. Is it possible to create a truly alien being? After all, these stories are written by Earth people (at least, I think they are) and Earth people have no direct experience of the truly alien. Is it not true that any alien society devised by a writer will simply hold up a mirror to our own? Anything else would require the writer to step outside of all the cultural imperatives that they have absorbed in a lifetime; that may be possible on a conscious level, but the subconscious will always betray you and sneak in some familiarity when you are not looking.

In a sense, this argument has a lot going for it—it is the reason why so many aliens are simply the man next door with a green skin or a tentacle for effect. However it doesn’t have to be true, at least not in any absolute sense. That’s why we have anthropologists. (At this point I was going to make a Margaret Mead joke, but I decided that would be cheap, so go and read Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein instead—it contains the best Margaret Mead joke ever told.)

We have a great many cultures here at home, and all of them are alien to each other (both in the true sense and in the SF sense of the word). Could you, for example, understand the motives of a Muslim fundamentalist? Or a deep southern bible belt Christian fundamentalist for that matter. It isn’t only geography that divides east from west and it isn’t only money that defines the difference between the poor and the rich countries of the world. There are so many societies here at home, so many reasons for doing things in a certain way (and for not doing other things at all). Even transposing some of them one for one onto some tentacled nasty or other would give a well rounded and pleasing wholeness to an alien society. However, that would be cheating. A much better way is to use it as a starting point and extrapolate from there. Anthropology may not be a science, but it is a descriptive recipe.

It is just such an approach, such an awareness of the rules (if you like) that govern societal growth that account for the richness and subtlety of novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. In some ways this book can be considered definitive. It is the most detailed examination of alienness (if there is such a word) that I know of in the whole of SF.

Other approaches are possible of course. You don’t have to define a culture by its members. You can define it by its artefacts. In terms familiar to us, this is the archaeological rather than the anthropological approach. We know next to nothing about the sociology and culture of many of the pre-Sumerian cultures of the Middle East. They were illiterate societies who left no record of themselves. Nonetheless, we know they existed because we have the things they left behind them—their weapons, their pottery, their jewellery and their houses. You can deduce a lot from these. Even in the cases where the societies were literate we cannot always read the writings they left (some of the Cretan writings are still undeciphered today, and if we had never found the Rosetta stone we might never have deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics). Nonetheless, we still know a lot about how these societies worked. Frederik Pohl took this approach in what is probably his best novel, Gateway. We never see the Heechee aliens on stage at all during the course of the book. All we ever see are alien artefacts and all that we know about the Heechee is what we can deduce from them. The deductions may or may not be correct. It is this element of mystery and uncertainty that gives the novel its strength. In sequels to the book, Pohl makes the mistake of answering some of the questions he poses so cleverly in Gateway. Eventually the Heechee themselves appear on the stage. Inevitably they are disappointing. These later novels are much weaker as a result.

Speculations of these sort are only legitimate within the SF framework, and they are one of the distinguishing features of the genre. It is sad that the great unwashed, force fed on a diet of “B” movies, generally equate the SF alien solely with its more Wellsian characteristics. That is one of the things that cheapens and tarnishes the genre in the minds of those who approach it from outside rather than from within.

But you and I know better, don’t we?

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