Science Fiction in Perspective: The Extraterrestrials
Moralists have spoken and written about the Brotherhood of Man for so long that the phrase has become a cliche. But science fiction may have given new meaning to the idea by extending it to embrace the Brotherhood of Intelligent Life.
For a genre widely thought of as being devoted to Bug-eyed Monsters (BEM's, as they are abbreviated by fans), SF has a remarkably progressive record for creating a sympathetic attitude towards whatever other sentient beings may exist in the universe, regardless of their outward form.
It took a long time for even science fiction to achieve this mature attitude—and most popular culture still lags behind, to judge from the so-called science fiction movies from Hollywood (or Tokyo) in which aliens are almost always portrayed as monstrous invaders that must be destroyed.
It was, unfortunately, H.G. Wells who first popularized the BEM—in THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. With Percival Lowell's theories of life on Mars then current, the England of 1897 was prepared to believe in the possibility of an extraterrestrial invasion, and Wells' novel became an instant sensation.
Orson Welles' radio adaptation of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS 40 years later created a panic among millions of Americans that is still a topic for sociologists. With xenophobia against blacks and Jews still endemic, it is hardly surprising that the idea of an invasion by things with tentacles would arouse fear and loathing.
None of this was consistent with the evolutionary humanist philosophy, with its stress on the value of intelligence, that Wells himself espoused. How seriously he took the idea of his Martians—as opposed to his message against the complacency of the world subjected to their depredations—is open to question. But the damage was done.
Before THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, the idea of extraterrestrial beings that were actually different from humans—whether for reasons of their environment or otherwise—hadn't been taken too seriously. And no one was prepared to voice the idea that human and alien might be able to find common ground in spite of those differences.
For more than 30 years afterwards, extraterrestrials were divided into two classes as far as SF was concerned—humanoids, who were good, and nonhumanoids, who were evil. Early SF magazine covers of the 1920's often featured giant ants, reptilian beings, things with tentacles, etc., all intended to be as repulsive as possible—as were the stories.
But science fiction's entire attitude towards alien beings was changed overnight in 1934 by two stories—Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" and Raymond Z. Gallun's "Old Faithful." So influential were these stories that at least one authority, Lester del Rey, considers them—along with John W. Campbell, Jr.'s "Twilight" (also 1934)—to have established the basic foundation of modern SF.
Weinbaum's astronauts, making the first trip to Mars, encounter neither a beautiful princess nor a monster, but a strange birdlike (but definitely not a bird) creature whose name (perhaps) is something like Twerreel, and who becomes their guide—and ultimately protector—in an expedition across the Martian desert that includes meetings with other forms of fauna and flora just as strange, and some dangerous.
In Gallun's classic, it is the Martian who makes the visit. Scientists from Earth have established a sporadic and difficult communication with the being they call Old Faithful. Both his physical appearance and his thinking are alien to man's, but he nevertheless longs for contact with whatever beings are signaling him from across the void. When his own society forbids his communication project as wasteful, he defiantly undertakes the arduous journey to Earth—at the cost of his life.
E.E. "Doc" Smith, the father of the cosmic adventure form of science fiction called space opera, had populated his SKYLARK series (1928-34) with the BEM's typical of the age. But after 1934, he completely altered his treatment of aliens in the LENSMAN series (1937-45).
Among the heroes of the LENSMAN epic are Worsel of Velantia, who looks like a dragon with eye stalks; Tregonsee of Rigel, who vaguely resembles a tree-stump with tentacles; and Nadreck of Palain IV, whose physical attributes are nearly indescribable and whose natural habitat is at a temperature of several hundred degrees below zero.
Instead of monsters to be feared, these aliens are friends to be trusted—and many of the villains, by contrast, are quite human in appearance. Indeed, Worsel and the other inhuman lensmen of the Galactic Patrol are often more interesting than Kimball Kinnison, the human protagonist of the series.
Smith conveyed the Weinbaum-Gallun influence to many other science fiction writers, such as James White—whose HOSPITAL STATION series (1962-71) depicts a galactic medical center where both doctors and patients come in all forms imaginable and the problems are often humorous as well as dramatic (a human doctor who takes a memory tape on alien medical knowledge is often influenced by the alien's sex drives as well).
Larry Niven, whose KNOWN SPACE series (1965-73) involves human encounters with such bizarre—but usually friendly—aliens as the puppeteers, kzinti and bandersnatchi, writes in the same tradition as Smith and White. Anyone who doesn't believe the most "inhuman" creature can be delightful is referred to "Neutron Star" (1966) or "The Soft Weapon" (1967) or RINGWORLD (1970).
BEM's still existed after 1934—but they were generally exiled to the second- or third-rate magazines, or to Hollywood. And while hostile encounters between men and aliens could still be a subject for serious science fiction, they required a really imaginative idea to justify them—as in the creature of Campbell's "Who Goes There?" (1938) that can physically mimic its human antagonists (a concept ignored by Howard Hawks' 1951 film adaptation of the story, THE THING).
Where mistrust occurs between human and alien, as in Murray Leinster's "First Contact" (1945), it is often grounded in the same problems that afflict humans in relationships among their own—and can be dealt with in the same manner. And in place of the antipathy toward alien invaders that once prevailed, SF can show sympathy towards aliens victimized by humans in stories like Philip Jose Farmer's "The Lovers" (1952).
In a number of stories, SF expresses moral concern that man should be careful to recognize alien intelligence that may appear in forms not easily recognizable—as in the case of tiny plant-like creatures in Paul Ash's "Big Sword" (1958)—and respect its rights. The problem of where the borderline lies between pre-sentient and sentient beings—and the moral issues raised by contacts with them—has been treated in works like Farmer's "Prometheus" (1961) and H. Beam Piper's LITTLE FUZZY (1962).
Problems of communication and cooperation with alien beings whose intelligence is obvious but whose psychology differs from man's is a recurrent theme of Poul Anderson in novels like THE REBEL WORLDS (1969), THE BYWORLDER (1972) and PEOPLE OF THE WIND (1973). Like nearly every other modern SF writer, Anderson always pleads for understanding in place of fear and mistrust.
Even in novels of inter-species conflict, like Robert A. Heinlein's STARSHIP TROOPERS (1959), the conflict is portrayed in a somewhat detached Darwinian manner as a struggle for Lebensraum and survival of the fittest—the aliens aren't supposed to be "evil" just because they look different. And Heinlein himself will more often call for understanding and cooperation—as in THE STAR BEAST (1956).
It is a shame that the enlightened view of modern science fiction hasn't been more influential on modern culture as a whole. Although there have been a few hints in the last decade or so, on isolated episodes of STAR TREK and other programs, of a more sympathetic attitude towards nonhuman intelligence, monsters and general xenophobia still prevail.
This is no mere academic or literary matter, either. Whether or not one takes seriously the numerous books about Chariots of the Gods (which are exaggerated at best, and total nonsense at worst) or the equally numerous reports of flying saucers, common sense dictates that intelligent life must exist elsewhere in the universe, that it may well not be intelligent life as we know it—and that mankind had better be emotionally prepared for "first contact" when it comes.
John Pierce's Science Fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.