As part of my preparations for this weekend's Arisia, I've looked back over the idea of truly alien aliens. Tomorrow, I will be joining a panel concerned with this very same topic.
Aliens are an abiding obsession in science fiction and appear in many of the classics of speculative literature generally. In fact, if a space opera doesn't contain some reference to aliens or unknown life-forms, it's considered a notable deviation (so called Mundane Science Fiction movement and Firefly both come to mind). There's a deeply-rooted expectation that science fiction will at some point address aliens.
I don't have any easy answers for this question. The topic itself is more unwieldy than it might appear. When we talk about aliens, are we just talking about the traditional space opera with human astronauts encountering strange cultures on distant planets? Are we also adding in first-contact stories, cosmic horror, and fantasy literature that includes references to "outsiders." Could the treatment of certain cultures within fantasy literature, where customs are unfamiliar and bizarre, (I think of the Dunyain in R. Scott Bakker's "The Prince of Nothing" series), be considered an example of alienness? Where do we draw the line?
Because I have a limited amount of time in this post and presumably only slightly more time in tomorrow's panel, I will restrict this quick overview to science fiction. And as far as science fiction goes, aliens appear because, I would argue, one of the essential 'behind-the-scenes' purposes of this body of literature is an expansion of definitions. What is human? What is sentient? What is understandable? Unless a science fiction introduces an alien whose sole purpose in the narrative is to die in droves at the hands of space marines, some part of these books including aliens will always be a consideration of what makes an alien so, well, alien. Even Starship Troopers, that ur-text of space slaughter, includes discussions of how to understand insect foes.
When we find ourselves slowly moving from a sense of awe and befuddlement to an ability to predict and understand a fictional alien race, we have achieved something notable. In some small fashion, we have broadened the definition of what it means to be human. We have pushed back the borders of what is worthy of our understanding and empathy.
In a previous post I shared my love for James L. Cambrias' "The Darkling Sea," and Michael Faber's "The Book of Strange Things." I think in both cases, the power of those books was not shying away from this monumental undertaking. In different ways, both authors introduced aliens very different from Homo sapiens, and then through a series of careful adjustments worked the reader to an appreciation of certain commonalities. Sometimes this was done through the device of imperfect but improvable metaphors and other times through an assimilation of the untranslatable. In both cases, a reader is brought closer to the unfamiliar through the story. It's hard not to get encouraged by that.
Certainly other themes in science fiction are worthy of discussion, but this question of what is alien and how to find empathy for it, seems to me to be particularly significant. Leaving aside the question of whether we will in fact ever encounter sapient aliens; it's all too clear many people on this planet haven't fully wrapped their heads around empathizing with other human beings. One wonders if the ever increasing technology for personal augmentation and artificial intelligence might bring into our world aliens of our own planet. Entities that do not think like us on a fundamental level that we must find ways of understanding and co-existing with.