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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Science Fiction and Aliens: Human Relationships to the Other "Other"

I've been reading a book called Alien Chic by Neil Badmington and the first chapter got me thinking about how science fiction imagines us relating to aliens. This very concept is part of what I will be writing about for my postmodern animal seminar, although in a more limited and theoretically complicated manner, since my final paper will be trying to tackle Jacques Derrida in relation to the alien. But that's getting away from what this post is about.

I don't think I have ever sat down and thought about all the different kinds of relationships humans have with aliens, but doing so today brought up an incredible multitude of relationships, which spells out something remarkable to me: the alien is the ultimate "other." It can be exchanged with almost every kind of "other" we have created as a species; aliens figure as animals or as humanoid figures with intelligence, and the human response in science fiction varies greatly. They are a way for us to discuss human/"other" relations without ever breaking down into the discourses of racism, without resorting to constantly thinking only of the limited past or present. They open a gateway into a new way of imagining what might be, and how we might deal with ourselves and alien others when the tables truly turn.

It would be impossible to list all of the different ways humans relate to aliens, so I've tried to put together a list of fairly broad relations. A long, though not exhaustive list of human/alien relations follows:
  • Alien as invader (vice versa)
  • Alien as accidental positive/negative discovery (vice versa)
  • Alien as animal (possibly vice versa)
  • Alien as lesser-intelligent beings that pose a minor (and natural), but immediate thread (think Galaxy Quest)
  • Humans as superior to aliens (in sub-intelligent or early-intelligent form) (vice versa)
  • Aliens as seeders of Earth (as divine)
  • Aliens as supreme and seeders of other subjects, such as motivation (think 2001)
  • Aliens as general antagonists
  • Aliens as neither friend nor foe
  • Aliens as antagonists to other aliens, with humans attempting to be mediators
  • Aliens as clear friends
  • Alien as necessary other
  • Alien as human/other amalgam (Alien Nation)
This list can really go on and on and on and on, with the broader categories being broken down into smaller ones. We'd need an encyclopedia for this stuff, to be honest. But, if I missed any big ones, let me know.

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  1. Quietus11:52 PM

    I realised something while reading this, Star Trek probably has every instance you pointed out here. I could probably name a good example for each one, but I'm sure you already know how I mean.

    As for the 'Aliens as seeders of Earth' that could also be a vice versa. Humans sent out on missions to explore, lost contact, thought dead, years later, second mission finds first as near-human subspecies...

  2. Another interesting category to explore would be how alien the alien actually is. In Star Trek, they're usually either "God" and completely impossible for human's to fathom (so they take some humanoid form that we can fathom), or Klingon - basically humanoid with a few of our characteristics enhanced.
    Most other authors that I've read generally have aliens that are relatively recognizable, but C. J. Cherryh has some really great human/alien interactions that take the "alien-ness" of the aliens very seriously.

  3. Quietus: Actually, yeah, Star Trek is guilty of practically every kind of human/alien relationship.

    Good point about the seeding option.

    Jonah: Yes, that's something that gets talked about and that I mentioned briefly in the above with reference to intelligence or animal-form or superior. Your points are good additions, though, and certainly fit under one of the broad categories above.