Avast! Thar be spoilers ahead!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Don't Need Pets

"For example, can I make even you understand how I know, beyond all question, why it is that the Malacandrians don't keep pets and, in general, don't feel about their 'lower animals' as we do about ours? Naturally it is the sort of thing they themselves could never have told me. One just sees why when one sees the three species together. Each of them is to the others both what a man is to us and what an animal is to us. They can talk to each other, they can co-operate, they have the same ethics; to that extent a sorn and a hross meet like two men. But then each finds the other different, funny, attractive as an animal is attractive. Some instinct starved in us, which we try to soothe by treating irrational creatures almost as if they were rational, is really satisfied in Malacandra. They don't need pets."
-C. S. Lewis from Out of the Silent Planet

I had intended to write about this passage for a course I am taking on animals and religion but after a meeting with one of my professors, I have been side-tracked toward something altogether more practical.

When I wrote much earlier that Earth Abides has been my first sci-fi book that was both true and misleading. It would have been better to say that it was the first book I read while aware of the whole weight of science fiction. But years before that I was having a C. S. Lewis kick having discovered the Chronicles of Narnia and then his religious texts and then his other works. So it was natural that I should come across his strange sci-fi trilogy. I have never quite made heads of tails of it. At the time, I read it in light of his religious works. And since I could not have been more than 11, I confess much of that was merely stored away to be reflected upon later. I have always had rather great faith that eventually I will understand. So I read something over my head and wait.

If I read the book now I would see it through the lens of science fiction and also through Lewis's relationship with Tolkein. I still not sure what to make of it. So I store it away and wait for understanding.

This passage has stuck with me. We need pets. The fulfill in us some deep, cosmic loneliness. We are the only beings like us, capable of complete language - at the very least we absolutely deny every other species the right to be in our class. And, because we deny them, we make it true. We teach apes sign language but refuse to try to learn theirs, to communicate to them as they would to each other.

We like to pretend that humans are a more recent occurrence than they are. On a terrestrial time scale, especially on a universal time scale, humanity is just the tiniest of dots at one end of the scale. But humans, the homo sapiens kind, have been kicking around this planet for almost 200,000 years. During that time, we spend a few thousand years sharing the earth with Neanderthals, and quite a few other cousins from the homo branch of the ape tree. Consider the "ancient world" that you know - temple, pyramids, the great wall of China. The time between the construction of those buildings and today is shorter than the time humans spent sharing this planet with other beings that were pretty darn close to ourselves. Since we shared certain amazing anatomy (their hyoid bone is just like ours) they were able to make the curious array of sounds we call talking.

It probably was not very exciting or fulfilling for either species to have the other around. Life was hard and people didn't have time to waste on existential loneliness - or fulfillment for that matter. Only very recently have we had the luxury of sitting around bemoaning that we have only our own species to wear thin with our constant prattle.

I have been considering writing a parallel universe style story to explore this little fixation of mine. In the other universe, one or more now-extinct species from the homo genus has survived to the modern day. Europe did not happen, at least not the way it is now. Humanity survived in Africa. I have not figured out the new world just yet. It would be rather difficult not to draw from Clan of the Cave Bear or the Thursday Next series.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Word About Genre: Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi

The post-apocalyptic genre details the destruction of civilization or the planet, the end of life on earth, and/or the struggles of the human remnant to survive and recreate civilization. The cause of the destruction may be disease, invasion, nuclear holocaust, or a mundane disaster, such as the melting of the poles or dimming of the sun's power. This genre has ancient roots, present in Babylonion and Israelite myths. The threat of the end of times and millenialism has cycled through humanity constantly over our history.

The disease may be naturally occurring but is most often a manufactured weapon in biological warfare that has been spread by accident. A desperate race may ensue to contain and treat the diseased. The survivors may have natural immunity but frequently have acquired immunity from some government connection, possibly this connection is to the government which unleashed the disease. The survivors rebuild the population while fighting the disease and a second outbreak. Some survivors may interpret the disease as a religious punishment that spared only the just or faithful.

Alien invasion may either decimate the population or destroy the habitability of the Earth. Survivors may fight back in war or attempt to escape the Earth in search of a new home planet. Invasion may also come from a supernatural source, such as zombies, or mutated humans who seek to supplant human culture, I am Legend. The Day of the Triffids is similar except that the invaders are an intelligent and lethal plant life that had been genetically engineered for economic purposes.

Nuclear holocaust was a popular element during the cold war era and the paranoia caused by the space race. This destruction is the result of either direct attack in a war or of misfired weapons. The survivors are understandably hostile and distrusting. Crude clans or governments form according to rule by fist. The threat of nuclear fallout or mutation haunts characters.

Classic Examples:
Earth Abides
Dr. Strangelove
Planet of the Apes
A Canticle for Leibowitz
The Book of Eli
The Road

Related Genres:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Word About Genre: Utopia/Dystopia

Utopia comes from a combination of two Greek words: οὐ is "not" and τόπος is "place". It was first used in Sr Thomas More's book of the same name to describe hypothetical ideal societie, often based upon Plato's ideal from The Republic (which I would only recommend if you want a study in fascism).

Dystopia describes the utopia gone wrong, usually in the form of a controlled state - actually quite like Plato's Republic. Or imagine what has become of Cuba - lack of freedoms, threat of violence/imprisonment/loss of income and nationwide poverty. To survive, many assume conformity is utopia/dystopia societies and individuals are stigmatized. Only the top eschalons exhibit individuality and freedom of thought.

Often these societies feature artificial or contrived religions that reinforce the state power. These religions or cultures focus on one's responsibility to the society over themselves and their families. The family unit is often disbanded and a threat to state loyalty.

The state often directly controls or manipulates the economy by deciding what should be produced and how much. In Brave New World, this is created by a control on population numbers and their desires. They are encouraged to value consumerism, to replace instead of repair, to constantly desire. In other works, such as in Asimov's short stories, computers control the world economy. In Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, this perfect control over the economy leads to disatisfaction as the populace feels absurdly purposeless denied the ability to work.

Many of these works are set in the future after a world collapse which necessitated the creation of a planned, authoritarian state. Since these stories are set in the future, the control of the society is often enabled by advances in technology.

The hero may come from any social class but typically comes from the extremes in society, either the low/working class or the upper/power class. The hero is often a member and leader of a revolt movement, s/he will perhaps even sacrifice himself for this movement, or humanity itself.

Classic Examples:
Brave New World
Nineteen Eighty-Four
Soylent Green

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Theme: Aliens

Aliens are almost synonymous with sci-fi . . . well, aliens and robots. Descriptions of aliens range wide: green creatures with enormous black eyes, bulbous heads and amphibious skin; insect like animals with claws, mandibles and wings; humanoid species, some even identical to terrestrial humans; fuzzy teddy bears; plungers; an intelligent shade of blue; etc. Some are benevolent such as Le Guinn's Hainish. Others are openly hostile as in War of the Worlds.

In these aliens, we are forced to determine what makes us human. First contact with aliens is often met with fear, hostility and xenophobia. Anthropology, culture and language become both barriers and bridges. The direction of first contact can go either way, a visitor to Earth or a terrestrial visitor to another planet. Visitors to Earth tend to force humans to examine themselves while terrestrial visitors are often oblique studies by presenting cultures which vary greatly from our own.

A third possibility is that neither of the two species is human. In the Hainish cycle, the universe is inhabited by a variety of species which evolved from humans to fit their environment. Their physical appearance, culture, history, sex and gender roles, sexual relationships, etc, may vary both from one another and from our own.

The other side of 'alien' is 'familiar.' We judge others by how they deviate from our status quo and by how they challenge our sense of identity.

An alien life form can cause this disruption without any communication between us and them (or those other ones). Alien life has a privilege that non-human terrestrial life does not - the assumption of sentience and of possible communication.

Latent within this theme are old tropes about exploration, the exotic, orientalism and conquest. There is the ever present threat of exploitation. In the Twilight Zone episodes "People Are Alike All Over", the protagonist finds himself an exhibit in a zoo. The title refers to the aliens who have imprisoned him and the recognition that people enjoy the chance to not only study the exotic but also to tame it, to render it innocuous, and to subjugate it. In science fiction, we continually reinact our past sins when one culture meets another.