How wonderful it will be if the universe really contains other intelligences and other societies! Bystanders have the clearest view. Someone truly neutral will then be able to comment on whether we’re the heroes or villains of history.
Any Sci-Fi novel that traffics in alien intelligence inevitably uses the conceit of a “neutral observer” to comment on the only sapient species we have yet discovered: humans.
What’s a human? What are they all about? What does it mean to be human? In real life, we don’t have anything to compare ourselves to besides each other. It’s telling that in literature we create mythological beings and extra-terrestrial intelligences to offer commentary on our status as a species. If there is intelligent life beyond our planet, what the hell would they think of us?
I had the fortune to read back-to-back novels that addressed this question in radically different ways. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu frames our first interstellar contact in against the backdrop of the Chinese revolution with a good dose of technology and physics. A Call to Arms by Alan Dean Foster has a whole host of alien species dropping in on earth to recruit humans in an intergalactic war. The way the alien species conceptualize earth and humans is revealing of just how conceited us humans can be about our own kind.
[SPOILERS GONNA SPOIL]
In The Three-Body Problem, the aliens in question are Trisolarians, a race of beings living in a turbulent system where their three suns cause significant and sometimes life-obliterating turmoil. Chaotic periods alternate with stable periods, the arrival and length of which are unpredictable.
The Trisolarians’ climate is neatly demonstrated to earthlings via a computer game, and a cult has grown up anticipating the aliens’ imminent arrival (which is some 450 years in the future; space travel is a drag.)
The Trisolarians view earth as a paradise with temperate climates and only one, wholly predictable sun. Their intent is clear from the start. They’re coming to take our planet. And what do they think of human beings, those bozos unlucky enough to have made contact?
Bugs. Humans are bugs and the Trisolarians are pest control.
By contrast, in A Call to Arms, human beings are one of many intelligent species, backward in technology, but advanced in militarism. The “bad aliens” are the Amplitur, and they don’t want to exterminate us, just integrate us into their nebulous “Purpose,” which may involve some genetic engineering and mind control to make us more pliable.
The humans of this world are lined up in direct contrast to the other intelligences, and though we are most violent and unpredictable, we are also clearly depicted as physically superior and conveniently capable of resisting mind control. Dingbat protagonist Will Dulac repeatedly attempts to convince the aliens that we are inherently peaceful, and if the aliens would just leave us alone already, we could go ahead and achieve that world peace.
Earth mirrors the contradictory condition of the human species: fractured geology, extreme climates, multiple countries and languages. Somewhat unconvincingly, all the alien species appear to have both uniform planets (one landmass and apparently no tectonic movement) and uniform traits. If the aliens were people, we’d call it stereotyping (e.g. Massood are good at running, S’Van at making bad jokes, the Wais at elegance, etc…)
Sure, these aliens have cool things like technology and mind control and sometimes feathers, but humans are interesting. Right?
It’s tempting to be a little vain about ourselves (especially once you’ve mastered a smartphone keyboard.) But it’s important to be humble, and sci-fi helps remind us that humanity is a speck of dust in a flash of time. It’s important to keep in mind everything we don’t know.
We can imagine those outside perspectives, and worlds that may be more beautiful or more fractious than our own, species that are more hostile and more peacful. Sci-fi is hard, because it’s hard for us to step out of our skin. We anthropomorphize everything (just ask my dog!)
We’re not important. Not in the scope of the universe. We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, another brick in the wall–man, Pink Floyd was really onto something.
- The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. The prose was often rough, but I usually try to be generous with translation. The ideas were huge, even when my physics-averse mind couldn’t quite grasp it. This is coming out as a film this year and I’m interested to see how the incredible imagery of the novel translates into a visual medium. Thinking back over it, I’m suprised at the scope of vision packed into one novel. It’s a story that’s not easily forgotten and soon I’ll be picking up the sequel.
- A Call to Arms by Alan Dean Foster. Main character: Will Douchehat, er, Dulac. Guy’s got a serious stick up his butt. “You guyyys, we’re sooo peaceful, stop watching CNN, is that a gun?” *faints*
- I have a hard time believing we’d be physically superior to all alien species. Especially after I made an especially ungraceful descent down a snowy mountainside a few weeks ago. My dog pranced about like she was performing the Nutcracker while I looked like a lobster on amphetamines.