Literature Spotlight: Peering Into an Alien Mirror

Prompt: Explain the popularity of Science Fiction. Use at least one work from this genre to explain its appeal.

Science fiction is one of my favorite genres. I love it (and I suspect many of its readers love it) because despite its trappings of the future, good science fiction is very much a reflection of the time period in which it is written. One of Sci-Fi's major draws for me is that it can highlight and discuss social issues that might be touchy to talk about in the present day. Through the skillful use of spaceships, aliens, utopian planet colonies, and other 'flight-of-fancy' scenarios, a science fiction author can hold a mirror up to the way our current society deals with an issue by showing how their fictional society does. By reading sci-fi from previous eras, then, we can catch a glimpse of what people of that era were thinking about – and what was considered an acceptable 'flight of fancy.'

The Skylark of Space, written by E. E. 'Doc' Smith in the 1920's, included an equal ratio of women to men on the spaceship – surprising for such an early entry into the genre. However, what is not so surprising is that the women involved are cast in incredibly traditionally 'female' roles – they are the wives of the scientists who invent the spaceship, and play a very motherly role on the ship. In particular, one comedic scene shows the women in the kitchen, trying in vain to make sandwiches in zero gravity. It plays out like a Jules Verne-esque slapstick routine, with the ham and cheese floating all over the room. Tellingly for the time it was written, the only thing the women seem to feel like they can take the initiative to do is fix lunch for the menfolk.

Contrast that with the Original Series of Star Trek, first aired in the 1960's. Star Trek depicts a world where gender no longer matters – a black woman has an important bridge position as the Communications Officer, and even if her lines are mostly comprised of “Hailing frequencies open, sir,” still, nobody bats an eye at a woman doing more than just fixing lunch. Further contrast that with the Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, which began with the novel Leviathan Wakes in 2011. The second book in the series, Caliban's War, contains not one but two female main characters, a Martian space marine and an Earth diplomat. Both are in positions where they are well-respected (though they receive pushback throughout the book, but it's plot-related, not related to simply being female). Both radiate power in different ways and both are treated equally in terms of gender.

Original series Star Trek also dealt with racial tensions. Lieutenant Uhura may have been a well-respected and equally-treated bridge crew member within the context of the show, but the show's writers still received pushback from the network about her place in the story. In the 1968 episode “Plato's Stepchildren,” there is a scene where Uhura (played by Nichelle Nichols) and Captain Kirk (played by William Shatner) share a kiss, widely cited as the first example of a scripted inter-racial kiss on US television. The network wanted them to film the scene both with and without the kiss, so that they could decide later whether to air it. The actors chose to intentionally flubb every take without the kiss so that the network would be forced to air it. The story of that episode serves as a reminder that Original series Star Trek, like most good science fiction, prodded at the boundaries of what was considered an acceptable social construct at the time.

While Star Trek's society treats all races and genders equally where Earth humans are concerned, it does still get a chance to display ideas of racial tensions and play with the theme of racial equality – through the clever use of aliens. Mister Spock is a great example of this – here is an alien as First Officer of an Earth Federation starship, who frequently gets mocked and insulted by the other crewmembers for his pointy ears, his green blood, and his unusual customs. Uhura may have been indicative of what race relations could be, but Spock depicted race relations as they were. Certain episodes also dealt more pointedly with the idea of race prejudice, most notably the episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” which dealt with the last two survivors of a war-torn planet still hell-bent on destroying each other. This is the famous episode with the 'black-and-white' aliens – their feud was based on which half of their body was black and which one white. While a bit heavy-handed, it does still speak volumes about the sometimes silly things that drive us to war and the dangers of prejudice.

Caliban's War displays racial tensions as well, but in a different way – by highlighting the fact that they are all humans. When I mentioned the two female leads up there, you probably thought of them as different species – perhaps the Martian space marine was an 'alien' and the Earth diplomat was a 'human.' Well, in actuality, they are both human. In fact, the three-way war between the Outer Planets Alliance, Earth, and Mars is essentially an entirely human war – there are no aliens to speak of in the whole book (with one exception – no spoilers!). But the stark differences in lifestyle, outlook, and even physical appearance between someone born on Mars and someone born 'down the well' on Earth leads to them treating each other as aliens. You can easily see, through the diplomat's eyes, how different humans can become in different circumstances, and how these differences could lead them to fail to understand each other on a primal level.

Race and gender are not the only social issues that can be depicted in science fiction. Plenty of other issues are presented, all depending on the time period in which the work is written and the aspect of society that the author wants to explore. Caliban's War includes a scene that will stick with me for months, where the female space marine visits Earth for the first time and chats with a young barista. The barista talks about the Earth policy of having young people work for a few years after high school to make sure they like working before the government spends money sending them to college. The planet has become so over-populated that not everyone needs to work, so those who don't like working can simply go on basic support and devote themselves to leisure. For the space marine, who grew up in a colony where everyone has a place and a job to do, this concept is foreign, almost incomprehensible. By contrasting these two personalities, Corey allows us to consider the ideas of single-payer systems like free university education and healthcare from multiple perspectives, and draw our own conclusions.

This is precisely why one of my favorite recent sci-fi works is Larry Niven's The Draco Tavern. This collection of super-short stories centers around Rick Schumann, the bartender at an alien bar called the Draco Tavern. The stories are between 5 and 10 pages long on average, generally taking the form of a conversation Rick has with one or several of his alien patrons. The stories present little vignettes that bring up a question and then end, leaving the reader to think about their answer. The Draco Tavern's questions range from 'What if you could choose when you died?' to 'If a human kills an alien, should he be subjected to the alien form of punishment?' to 'Should I feel weird knowing that this alien race took samples of my DNA and are using it to lab-grow meat for their own consumption?' The beauty of The Draco Tavern is that it doesn't attempt to answer any of these questions, just present them and leave the reader to chew on them for a bit.

Science fiction may seem fanciful, with all those aliens running around on starships firing photon torpedoes at each other. But in reality, a skilled science fiction author can often tell you more about your own beliefs and opinions by comparing them to those of his aliens than you might ever get from sharing them with a therapist. I've only scratched the surface here, but this deeply personal self-searching that arises from peering into an alien mirror is one of the many things that keeps me coming back to science fiction, time and time again.
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