Some time ago, I participated in an inquiry to name my choice of “Best Alien in Science Fiction,” posed by John DeNardo at SF Signal. “Aliens are a classic trope dating back to the earliest days of science fiction,” John said. They are the quintessential “other” archetype in science fiction.
From conquering warlords (War of the Worlds) to instructing sages (The Day the Earth Stood Still) to victimized pacifists (Martian Chronicles), how the “other” is portrayed and how humanity interacts with it, has been explored throughout science fiction since it began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Of course, in science fiction—a metaphoric literature of grand scope—these ‘others’ / aliens make representation through archetype. So, the aliens of War of the Worlds represent a conquering nation; Klaatu of The Day the Earth Stood Still may represent a benevolent dictator; the Martians of Martian Chronicles represent our indigenous peoples under the yoke of settler colonialism and an exploitive resource-extraction mindset; and the monster of Frankenstein exemplifies the disabled/deformed unsavory departure from our ‘perfect’ self-image. Author Brian Ott tells us that “it is a profound mistake to interpret the genre [of science fiction] literally.” He reminds us that it is not what the aliens are but what they represent that matters (except when, in some cases, they are one in the same). Science fiction is both “the great modern literature of metaphor” and “pre-eminently the modern literature not of physics but of metaphysics,” adds Peter Nicholls, Australian scholar and critic.
In a previous article entitled “Dreams and Perceptions And ‘the Other’” I described an experience with the unfamiliar. Have you ever done the same? Looked backward while driving through a familiar scene to gain a different perspective? And just felt different for a moment? Like you’d entered a different dimension and briefly glimpsed ‘the other.’
What is it like to meet ‘the other’?
In story, characters are defined through their experience and their approach to the unfamiliar. A new relationship. A stranger in town. A different culture. An alien encounter… How does the character react? Is it with fear? Wonder? Curiosity? A mixture of these? By describing “the other” science fiction writers describe “us”, given that it is through our own eyes that the other is viewed and described.
By describing “the other,” science fiction writers describe “us.” In his book Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient Edward W. Said contended that for there to be an ‘us’, there has to be a ‘not-us.’ According to Patricia Kerslake of Central Queensland University, this arises from a postcolonial notion of ‘the Other’, through a mutual process of exclusion. This exclusion inspires the very idea of ‘alien’ by imposing expectation on perception. Kerslake argues that: “When one culture imposes its perceptions on another, in that it begins to see the Other not as they are but as, in Said’s words, ‘they ought to be’, then the process of representation becomes inevitable: a choice is made to see a ‘preferred’ real.”
In her 1975 article “American SF and the Other,” Ursula K. LeGuin unequivocally scolded the Western SF genre for representing and promoting colonialism and androcratic motives by “othering” or making inconsequential the poor, the uneducated, the marginalized and women.
…The question involved here is the question of The Other—the being who is different from yourself. This being can be different from you in its sex; or in its annual income; or in its way of speaking and dressing and doing things; or in the color of its skin; or the number of its legs and heads. In other words, there is the sexual Alien, and the social Alien, and the cultural Alien, and finally the racial Alien…
The people in SF are not people. They are masses, existing for one purpose to be led by their superiors…
If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself–as men have done wo women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation–you may hate it, or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality, and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality.
You have, in fact, alienated yourself.Ursula K. LeGuin
Written 45 years ago, Le Guin’s scathing article may have accurately represented the North American science fiction community of writers of that time. Today, despite the remnants of a strong old guard that still promotes a patriarchal colonialist hegemony, the science fiction genre has matured and grown beyond this self-limiting view. This is partly because current authors—many who are women and many who are representatives of minority or marginalized groups—have given SF a new face and voice that promises to include equality, inclusion, and a fresh look at exploration and ‘the other.’ In most cases it is ‘the other’ whose voice—for so long missing—is now being expressed.
The genre of science fiction has diversified and matured to embrace “mundane science fiction,” literary fiction, speculative fiction, climate fiction, cli-fi, eco-fiction, indigenous futurisms and more. Each of these genres provide new opportunities that give voice to ‘the other’ from women (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and N.K. Jemison’s The Broken Earth series) to disabled people (Mishell Baker’s Borderline) to the indigenous human (Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves) to the non-human (Costi Gurgu’s RecipeArium) and the environment such as water (Emmi Itäranta’s The Memory of Water and my own A Diary in the Age of Water).
My Choice for ‘Best’ Alien Character: Solaris
The most memorable aliens for me have been those that helped illuminate our history and our very humanity, whether they played the archetype of simple antagonist or misunderstood as “commentator” on human prejudice, insecurities, greed, heroism, compassion and honor. I can think of several aliens who have provided excellent examples of this: the victimized ” prawns” of Peter Jackson’s District 9 comes to mind. Each provided a platform for the exploration and exposition of human’s strengths and weaknesses. How we handle or even recognize “the other” is very compelling and illuminating.
My choice for alien character is the ‘self-aware’ planet in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris: see my film review of Steven Soderbergh’s film interpretation of Stanislaw Lem’s book Solaris in a previous article on this site. What follows is a brief summary:
In response to his friend’s plea, a depressed psychologist with the ironic name of Kris Kelvin (George Clooney), sets out on a mission to bring home the dysfunctional crew of a research space station orbiting the distant planet, Solaris. Kelvin arrives at the space station, Prometheus, to find his friend, Gibarian, dead by suicide and a paranoid and disturbed crew obviously withholding a terrible secret from him. It is not long before he learns the secret first-hand: some unknown power (apparently the planet itself) taps into his mind and produces a solid corporeal version of his tortured longing: his beloved wife, Rheya (Natascha McElhone) who years ago had committed suicide herself. Faced with a solid reminder, Kelvin yearns to reconcile with his guilt in his wife’s death and struggles to understand the alien force manifested in the form of his wife. He learns that the other crew are equally influenced by Solaris and have been grappling, each in their own way, with their “demons,” psychologically trapping them there.
Ironically, our hero’s epic journey of great distance has only led him back to himself. The alien force defies Kelvin’s efforts to understand its motives; whether it is benign, hostile, or even sentient. Kelvin has no common frame of reference to judge and therefore to react. This leaves him with what he thinks he does understand: that Rheya is a product of his own mind, his memories of her, and therefore a mirror of his deepest guilt—but perhaps also an opportunity to redeem himself.
Solaris is the epitome of the “other”, a force and entity unrecognizable and unfathomable. Lem’s existentialist portrayal of “the other”—and by extension of humanity—serves as excellent commentary on what is important to us and our identity. Unlike the familiar human-like figures of a Spock, Zhaan or the fremen, Solaris accomplishes its ‘other’ role through arcane manipulation of the human characters’ dreams and yearnings. We never understand its motivations or intelligence, yet we are drawn to its force and reflective mirror of our souls. It is its very incomprehensibility that attracts us, as to an abstract artwork, and challenges our very identities. Solaris shows neither judgment nor morality. It exists through the lens of paradox. Both there and not there. Fluid but enduring. Fractured yet whole. Like water.
All lead to the ultimate question asked of science fiction: who are we and why are we here?
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.