April 2009

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

Some of My Best Friends Are Others

“Each one of us an island, floating free” -- Mervyn Peake

It is easy to say I am privileged. I am, after all, white, male, middle class, middle-aged, employed, housed, comfortable. Any one of those categories puts me in a better position than some other people. But, of course, there are so many forms of privilege that there will always be someone more privileged than me, just as there will always be someone less privileged than me.

In truth, there is only one way in which I can claim absolute privilege: knowledge of myself. No one can possibly be as aware as I am of the peculiar mix of hopes and fears, achievements and failures, ability and incompetence that makes me who I am.

But just as much as this is a privilege, it is a prison. I am locked within me. I can never know anyone else as well as I know me. In a very real sense, even another white, male, middle class, middle-aged, employed, housed, comfortable person is as alien to me as ET.

Which is why I read science fiction.

Actually, it is why I read fiction. But science fiction’s whole reason for being is the other, whatever form that other might take. Science fiction is a story of first contact with that vast, frightening world that exists just the other side of my skin.

The important point is contact. All fiction tells you about being someone else, as well as it can. But I can read all sorts of stories about living in a different land or different time, about being a different gender or colour with hope that it might broaden my sympathy a soupcon, but without real hope that it will necessarily change my behaviour. Fiction attempts to make me experience being other.

But science fiction attempts to make me experience encountering the other. It doesn’t necessarily say this is what it is like to be an alien; it is far more interesting when it says this is what it’s like when an alien is standing in front of you.

To my mind the best science fiction novel of last year was The Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs. It was about a doctor with Asperger’s Syndrome obsessed with challenging the vast indifference of God by raising three cloned children in a little town on the Belgian/Dutch/German border. It told me nothing about being a clone (it told me rather more about suffering Asperger’s Syndrome) but it told me an awful lot about the ways I might react if I encountered such disability, from heartless curiosity to ineffectual sympathy, from fear to love to indifference.

Going back a bit further, a novel like Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler, or a story like "The Women Men Don’t See" by James Tiptree Jr., really wasn’t trying to tell us anything about what it is like to be a woman who may be an alien; rather it was presenting a series of encounters with someone so far outside our notion of ourself it was hard to make sense of her. And novels like The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin told us less about being of a different gender than they did about how we react when we need to understand someone of a different gender.

Again there was a time when it was insisted that novels about aliens were covertly about race, just as films like High Noon or Invasion of the Body Snatchers were covertly about communism. (Which makes you pause, for instance, over Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, in which the aliens have the appearance but not the character of demons, a trick repeated in Clarke and Frederik Pohl’s The Last Theorem.) I have my doubts. The alien is just too convenient a symbol of the other for that. Encountering the alien can be the equivalent of meeting anyone who is different from yourself, whether by virtue of race or sex or nationality or political persuasion or disability or social class. An alien could as well be God or your boss, and just because it’s a little green hermaphrodite from Mars doesn’t mean we should read it as black.

In fact the science fiction alien is a very poor model for people of another race if only because they were nearly all written by white men. It is notable that a black writer like Samuel R. Delany exoticises the other far less than most white writers of the time did. It is ridiculous, therefore, to read stories of aliens and imagine that in doing so you are finding out anything about what it is like to be other, because frankly the writers didn’t and couldn’t know. (By the same token, stories by today’s many excellent black, gay, feminist, non-Anglophone writers, whose personal experience of society is very different from the standard white, straight, male, Anglo-American hegemony, still don’t tell us anything about being other, because none of them have actually experienced being outside their own skin either. But they do at least provide different perspectives on the way we might encounter the other and how it is shaped.)

These musings have been prompted by a book I’m reading at the moment about Mervyn Peake (The Voice of the Heart by G. Peter Winnington). I realised as I was reading that Peake’s Titus trilogy must qualify as just about the most asocial work of the fantastic. By which I don’t mean that characters are removed, by circumstance or by force, from society (which happens in fictions too many to number), but rather that the characters move through the vast social world that is Gormenghast Castle, and not one of them finds a successful way of interacting with anyone else. Peake, I am sure, believed that when John Donne said "No man is an island," he was lying. In fact, Peake seems to have believed precisely that everyone is an island, as he said in the quotation from his unperformed play, "The Cave," at the head of this column.

Each of us is separated from the other by vast psychological oceans, and science fiction, when it addresses our contact with the other, is discussing exactly how we cross those cosmic seas. It doesn’t do this by trying to tell us what it is like to be an alien or a robot, a person of another colour or another gender. When Isaac Asimov’s Bicentennial Man wants to be human that isn’t telling us how an intelligent other really would behave, only that an intelligent other is perhaps closer to us than we might recognise. It is the encounter that is at the heart (and I use that word advisedly) of science fiction; how we face up to the difference that is all around us.

The really encouraging thing is how science fiction has changed. It used to be that the only reaction to the stranger was to pull out the ray gun. H.G. Wells’s Martians had to die, C.L. Moore’s "Shambleau" had to be shot, the first reaction of the American army to the arrival of the ship in The Day the Earth Stood Still was to open fire. In real politics (and realpolitik), that still often is the first move. But in science fiction we have slowly, warily, brought ourselves to where the first reaction is more often to try and understand, to communicate, to find common ground.

Lord knows there’s a long way to go. But if we are ever going to get off that island, perhaps science fiction can offer some ideas for how we might handle the encounter.