Science Fiction Studies

# 17 = Volume 6, Part 1 = March 1979


Patrick Parrinder

The Alien Encounter: Or, Ms Brown and Mrs Le Guin

"But who shall dwell in these worlds if they be inhabited? . . Are we or they Lords of the World? And how are all things made for man?" -- Johannes Kepler, quoted by H.G. Wells in The War of the Worlds (1898).

I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. . . . We [must be] determined never, never to desert Mrs Brown. -- Virginia Woolf, "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown" (1924).

1. "I wonder," says a character in Roger Zelazny's Doorways in the Sand (1976), "what it was really like? That first encounter out there — with the aliens. Hard to believe that several years have passed since it happened." Many people claim that in fact, not merely in fiction, it has already happened. Erich von Däniken's millions of readers like to be told that it has been going on since the dawn of history. NASA puts a pair of life-drawings of the human male and female into an unmanned space-probe so that, should it be intercepted by alien intelligences, they will learn some basic features of human existence. A large pavilion at the "Man and his World" exhibition in Montreal gives to extraterrestrials and the 'evidence' of their encounters with man the same status as the displays of Chinese, Russian, Indian, and French cultures in neighbouring pavilions.

Science and pseudo-science, rational speculation and neurotic cultism may be hard to distinguish at times, but it would be quite wrong to suggest that "alien encounter" fiction makes its strongest appeal to a lunatic fringe. Stories depicting men's "first contact" with imaginary beings touch a whole range of human concerns, from would-be realistic problems of space exploration to the historical guilts left behind by Western man's dealings with other races and cultures (e.g., the Native Americans), and our consciousness of individuality and isolation in personal relationships (can we rule out the possibility of a link between the myths of "first contact" and "love at first sight"?). These considerations, much too wide to go into here, suggest the many layers of response which may be activated by the alien creatures of science fiction.                

By an interesting coincidence, the English word "alien," in the special sense appropriated to it by SF writers and readers, shares the same stem as one of the most fashionable twentieth-century metaphysical concepts, that of "alienation." The excitement and fear aroused by the prospect of encountering truly alien beings are not unlike the feelings, associated with "alienated individuals," such as the nihilists, terrorists and "motiveless" murderers first described by Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Conrad. Nihilism involves the repudiation of common, human emotions of mercy, compassion and goodwill towards others. Similarly, it seems likely that extraterrestrial intelligences would look upon Earth, at best, in a coldly rational manner, without reverence for or even any conception of our own inbuilt prejudices in favour of humanity. At worst, like Swift's King of Brobdingnag, the extraterrestrials might very well conclude that men were a race of "little odious vermin" to be ruthlessly stamped out. A third possibility, that of benevolent patronage, has been much explored by SF writers, as has the idea of aliens "inferior" to ourselves who thereby pose us with the moral dilemmas involved in "conservation." What is most unlikely is that we could expect to meet with aliens on unreservedly equal terms, and still less that we could experience feelings of real community with them; "once an alien, always an alien" may well turn out to be the law of the universe.

The satirists of the Enlightenment, such as Cyrano in Other Worlds ( 1657), Swift in Gulliver's Travels (1726) and Voltaire in Micromégas (1752), were among the first writers to exploit the advantages of seeing humanity from an alien viewpoint. (Previously, it might be argued, the concept of a god or gods had served this purpose.) Cyrano, Swift, and Voltaire use encounters with aliens to show up mankind as the prisoners of an ideology, of a limited and self-interested system of thought. Ideologies habituate us to the particular conditions of the civilization we inhabit, so that we look upon these conditions as if they were normal and natural adjuncts of living. Beginning with the Russian Formalists, twentieth-century aesthetic theory has often suggested that literature is a principal means of exposing the artificial and arbitrary nature of the "structures of feeling" (to use Raymond Williams’s term) that we normally take for granted. Swift is one of the writers whom the Russian Formalist critics cited in support of their theory of poetic ostranenie (usually translated as "defamiliarization"). SF employs a particular kind of defamiliarization technique, since it confronts the reader with new and strange conditions of life outside his own likely or possible experience. This is the technique which Darko Suvin, who is perhaps the leading theorist of the genre, has named "cognitive estrangement.”1               

Philosophically considered, the process of defamiliarization leads us to see men in their present state as the unconscious prisoners of an ideology. Nevertheless, the use of specific defamiliarizing or estranging devices in an SF novel by no mean guarantees that the novel as a whole could be found subversive or even mildly critical of established norms. Most commercial SF is part of the ever-increasing quantity of "escape" literature produced in the advanced countries in the last two centuries. Such literature encourages a vicarious escape from some aspects of the reader's social environment, but only 1 it would seem, in order to bind him more securely to other aspects of that environment. The "superman" fantasy, for example, seems at first sight to embody feelings of rebellion against advanced industrial society, but it also helps to channel off such feelings, and thus to restrain them from any more political mode of expression.                

Fantasies of supermen, we might say, are not really subversive because they are dictated by the rampant individualism on which bourgeois society itself is based. But, at the other extreme, any meaningful act of de-familiarization can only be relative, since it is not possible for man to imagine what is utterly alien to him; the utterly alien would also be the meaningless. To give meaning to something is also, inescapably, to "humanize" it or to bring it within the bounds of our anthropomorphic world-view. This means that we can only describe something as "alien" by contrast or analogy with what we already know. The difference between the most banal literary conceptions of the alien (supermen and bug-eyed monsters), and those which force us to reassess our own ideology bound existence, is one of degree, not of kind, and must be decided by critical judgment. In SF one of the main factors influencing such a judgment is the existence of a long tradition of "alien encounter" fictions. Among the most seminal works in this tradition is Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift.

At the end of the fourth book of the Travels, Gulliver returns home after his sojourn in the land of the Houyhnhnms or rational horses. His wife tries to embrace him but, "having not been used to the touch of that odious animal for so many years," he falls into a swoon for almost an hour. Later he sets up a stable and spends several hours each day in conversation with his horses, which, though they are not Houyhnhnms, are far preferable to brutish mankind. Gulliver has been among alien beings and comes back in a state of "alienation" which amounts to madness. His madness has some all-too-human causes, such as gullibility, fanaticism and an overwhelming pride. For all this, it remains a disturbing rejection of the "ideology" of being human, for which Gulliver has previously shown himself to be an avid spokesman.                

The shock given to the reader by Gulliver's description of his wife as "that odious animal" is caused by the reduction of a loved human being to a nauseous inhuman -stranger, an object. The tenuousness of all human self-conceit is, however, implicit at the moment of his first meeting with a bemused Houyhnhnm:

. . . The horse started a little when he came near me, but soon recovering himself looked full in my face with manifest tokens of wonder: he viewed my hands and feet, walking round me several times. I would have pursued my journey, but he placed himself directly in the way, yet looking with a very mild aspect, never offering the least violence. We stood gazing at each other for some time, at last I took the boldness to reach my hand towards his neck, with a design to stroke it, using the common style and whistle of jockeys when they are going to handle a strange horse. But this animal seeming to receive my civilities with disdain, shook his head, and bent his brows, softly raising up his right fore-foot to remove my hand. Then he neighed three or four times, but in so different a cadence, that I almost began to think he was speaking to himself in some language of his own.

Both parties to this encounter are startled to realize that they are subject to biological investigation. The intelligence of the Houyhnhnm is denoted at first by his manifestation of the signs of mental concentration and "tokens of wonder"; at the end of the passage it is confirmed by his possession of the sine qua non of intelligence, a "language of his own." Later it turns out that the idea of deception can only be expressed in the Houyhnhnms' language by a clumsy circumlocution, "to say the thing which is not." This realization that alienness implies the possession of a language — which, necessarily, cannot be directly represented, and which in certain crucial ways also defies translation — epitomizes the literary problems of the "alien encounter." How does the SF writer set out to describe beings who do not share a common language with us, and who may not even have the same understanding about the purposes of language? The task is one of literary characterization in a broad sense, and the rules involved may be compared with the rules of characterization in more conventional fiction.

2. There are two fundamentally opposing doctrines about character in the conventional novel. The first doctrine holds that character-creation is the fundamental purpose of the novel, while the second holds that character is subordinate to plot. In the latter case, only in those novels which take as their plot the life-history of an individual or the discovery of identity could the portrayal of the main character be said to be an end in itself. The best-known defence of Doctrine No. 1 is Virginia Woolf s essay "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown" (1924). Recently the doctrine has been restated in an SF context by Ursula K Le Guin, under the title "Science Fiction and Mrs Brown" (1976). Doctrine No. 2 admits of many variations, one of which is Scott Sanders's argument that modern fiction (including SF) dramatizes the erosion of individuality in contemporary society: the "disappearance of character" is, according to Sanders, the underlying "plot" of such fiction. 2                

One of the notable features of Gulliver's Travels is that Gulliver himself is not wholly satisfactory as a fictional character. Recent critics have often found him confused and inconsistent. It has been suggested that he is not a rounded individual so much as a variable "point of view" to mediate Swift's satire. 3 Gulliver's unsatisfactoriness, in fact, is not unlike that of many SF characters who are simply rendered as props to help the author tell an exciting story. Le Guin argues that this near-universal failure of characterization prevents SF, in all but a few exceptional cases, from achieving the status of a "true novel." This judgment, though it may be valid as the statement of a personal aesthetic, seems to burden SF with a quite unnecessary stigma.                

Mrs Brown, in the essay by Virginia Woolf mentioned above, was an ordinary lady sitting in a railway carriage going from Richmond to Waterloo. Her reality and her ordinariness constituted the novelist's essential subject-matter, the one thing that he or she must never desert. No doubt there are occasions when, as Le Guin puts it, the SF writer would want to welcome Mrs Brown aboard his spaceship. But individual characterization is usually a secondary concern in SF, in a way that it is not likely to be in novels which take personal relationships as their principal subject-matter. This is because SF describes a world transformed by some new element. The new element — whether it is an extrapolation from present-day science or technology, or some form of intervention by extraterrestrial sources — is bound to have a deep effect on the reactions of the human characters, so that characterization, even in the richest and most "novelistic" of SF works, is always to a large extent functional, a means towards the most effective presentation of the novum which called the story into being in the first place. In SF it is the new element, and not the need for subtle and rounded characterization, which determines the basic rules of the genre.                

Yet, if the new element is an alien life-form, the problem of characterization is re-introduced in a somewhat unfamiliar sense. It may even be that Virgina Woolf s paradigm for the novelist's situation still holds. We do not need to put Mrs Brown aboard the spaceship, kicking and screaming and laying about with her handbag as she is likely to be. Our problem is that of the alien intelligence (whom we shall call Ms Brown) encountered either on her home planet, or in some neutral part of the galaxy, or in a terrestrial railway carriage. Much depends on the nature of Ms Brown's psychology and physiology, which may vary from the comfortably near- or quasi-human to the utterly grotesque. For simplicity's sake, we may start with the most prosaic assumption: Ms Brown appears to be a perfect humanoid replica, she is clad inconspicuously in jeans and sweater (which, however, form a single garment) and is in all probability a Martian spy.                

The SF story which could follow from this is likely to embody one of three different narrative models, depending on the viewpoint that the author adopts. The viewpoint may be that of the human observer of Ms Brown, of the suspected Martian spy herself or of an objective narrator mediating between the two. (The author may, of course, use a "cutting" technique to incorporate two or more of these.) The distinction holds good for any "first contact" story, no matter what the aliens look like or where the encounter takes place.                

Told by an objective narrator, the story most frequently takes the form of a puzzle. How is Ms Brown to be distinguished from a human being? What does her presence mean and what is to be done about her? The tradition of fictions of this kind might be traced back to Edgar Allan Poe's famous detective story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), in which the detective deduces that the crime cannot have been committed by a human being (he manages to pin it on a stray orang-utan). "First Contact" by Murray Leinster (1945) — to be discussed later in this essay tells of an encounter between two space ships in the heart of a nebula foreign to both. How are they to get away without either destroying one another or revealing the whereabouts of their respective home bases? The solution is neatly held back to the end. Similarly, Isaac Asimov's "Let's Get Together" (1957) deals with a Russian plot to kill top Western scientists by infiltrating humanoids carrying nuclear explosives into a robotics conference. Asimov's narrator shows us the robots through human eyes, but this is a detective story in which they are foiled by reasoning rather than by observation. No attempt is made to explain how "mechanical men" are able to look and behave like living flesh, but the punch-line which follows the story's final shoot-out ("Not blood, but high-grade machine-oil") is one of which any pulp-magazine author would have been proud.                

Both Asimov and Leinster use a narrative technique which plays down the sinister and grotesque effects liable to occur in a first-person account, when Ms Brown is scrutinized, as it were, through the eyes of the passenger sitting opposite her. Are not her ears somewhat beast-like, her nose curiously reminiscent of a muzzle — and could those small protuberances on top of her head conceivably be horns? The spine-chilling characteristics so regularly associated with aliens tell us a good deal about the nature of modern mass entertainment; they seem to be designed to relieve the tensions caused by fear of the unknown, fear of violence, fear of the basic insecurity of the modem world-system, and by a pervasive xenophobia. The alien presence in the railway carriage quickly becomes evidence of an invasion, a conspiracy. Conversely, when Ms Brown is met with on another planet the intrepid human space-captain is all too likely to shoot first and ask questions afterwards.                

Only in a very crude story would the reaction to the aliens be purely xenophobic. In most cases the narrator, though repelled by Ms Brown, is also curiously drawn to her. He may end up by paying her an ironic tribute ("She's almost human!"). Or he sets out to study her and her compatriots, finding in them the awesome traits of a higher civilization than our own. An "eye witness" story of this kind looks back to the Enlightenment and may still be written in a style modelled on eighteenth-century forms of empirical narrative such as the traveller's tale and the scientific report. Well's The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), for example, begins with a wary "anthropological" investigation of the alien phenomenon, but ends, like Gulliver's Travels, by showing us the narrator's estrangement from humanity itself.                

The third type of narrative viewpoint is that of the Martian visitor herself. She may be conceived either as a rational interrogator of human life, like Swift's Houyhnhnms and Brobdingnagians and Voltaire's Micromégas, or as a confused and emotional being, torn by impulses of love and hatred for humanity — the romantic model laid down by the "monster" in Frankenstein. The first tendency leads to a detached and often ironic exposure of humanity's cultural and ideological limitations. Ms Brown, in this view, may be pictured as a benign but wryly puzzled observer of terrestrial behaviour. "Why" she asks, "do human beings seem so startled and self-conscious in my presence? After all, the only difference between us is this tiny forked tail that I have . . . And who would have thought that sexual differentiation, which seemed so unimportant to my inventors on Mars that they chose to ignore it, would have caused so much fuss? Do human beings really need to be sure what sex I am before they know how to react to me?"                

Alternatively, the discovery that conventional human identity is a form of cultural imprisonment may be as harrowing for the alien mind as it is for those most directly concerned. Ursula Le Guin uses a mixture of human, alien, and impersonal viewpoints in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which portrays the slow and difficult growth of personal love between Genly Ai (anagram of "alien g(u)y"?), the human envoy to the planet Gethen, and the Gethenian politician Estraven. Kurt Vonnegut in The Sirens of Titan (1959) shows both humans and aliens realizing that their supposed identity is a form of conditioning, a literal "alienation" that has been programmed into them for reasons unkown. Winston Niles Rumfoord disappears after announcing that the goal of human history has been the production of a tiny spare part for a Tralfmadorian spaceship. When Salo, the Tralfamadorian, discovers that the message his grounded spaceship is trying to deliver consists of the one word "Greetings," he commits suicide. Samuel Delany's characters in The Einstein Intersection (1967) are aliens who have mysteriously come to inhabit human bodies, and to inherit human culture; this is explained as a cosmic mix-up involving Goedel's Law and the Theory of Relativity. In both Vonnegut and Delany the viewpoint of the "alien" is hard to distinguish from that of an alienated humanity.

3. The discussion of narrative models has introduced some of the more familiar motifs and plots involving aliens in SF. The basic rules governing the characterization of aliens, however, are common to all these narrative models. While the central feature of alien intelligence is its possession of a different language, its peripheral features consist of a multitude of different sign-systems, including such things as physical characteristics, behaviour-patterns, and sexual roles, by which a Martian Ms Brown might be distinguished from her human counterpart. SF novelists very frequently ignore the special difficulties presented by the language barrier, and rely on these other sign-systems to convey the alienness of their creations. (Leinster's "First Contact" provides a particularly clear example of this, since the aliens' mode of communication does not involve sound-waves. Once the technicians have sorted this out, instantaneous translation machines are set up in no time.) The choice of alien features is always meaningful, whether or not it carries an openly satirical, ironic or didactic reference to human life; aliens in literature must always be constructed on some principle of analogy or contrast with the human world.

It follows from this that aliens in SF invariably possess a metaphorical dimension. The two terms of the metaphor are as follows (I have used I.A. Richards’s widely-accepted terms "tenor" and "vehicle" to distinguish them). The tenor of the metaphor consists of some aspect of human behaviour or human culture which the author intends to defamiliarize, or to reveal as an artificial and, it may be, an ideological construct rather than a natural necessity. The vehicle consists of a recognizable deviation from the human norm. Such a deviation will normally contain features reminiscent of: (1) the natural world — usually animals, but more rarely vegetable or mineral substances; or, (2) the various types of mythological and imaginary beings, including devils, giants, dwarves, and automata or intelligent machines; or (3) foreigners — especially those whose cultural distance from the writer and his audience is such as to make them familiar objects of anthropological or social-psychological speculation; or finally (4) some combination of the preceding types.                

The metaphorical purpose of the vast majority of aliens in SF is immediately obvious to the careful reader. For example, such celebrated novels as Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (1953) and James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1959) may easily be read as Miltonic parables in which alien tempters confront humanity with the traditional Satanic promises of knowledge and happiness. Often there is little to be said about the aliens in themselves (especially in a short story) once their metaphorical purpose has been grasped. At the same time, the metaphorical implications of SF stories frequently appear to go beyond their authors' conscious intentions.

A simple example is Isaac Asimov's "Victory Unintentional" (1942), which tells of a confrontation between two types of "alien" - Jovians and robots — each of whom differs from humanity in a single major respect. The robots are a research team designed by Earthmen to be sent as envoys to the Jovians, who are described as a proud, belligerent people contemptuous of all outsiders. The Jovians do their best to threaten and humiliate their visitors, but fail to realize that these visitors are themselves non-human. The robots only have to demonstrate a few of their "superhuman" capacities, such as imperviousness to poison gases, ability to withstand extreme temperatures, and indifference to atmospheric pressure, before their adversaries come cringing to them in submission.                

Given the date of the story and the fact that the Jovians are accused of an overdeveloped "superiority complex" and an inability to accept loss of face, there is no difficulty in recognizing them as "foreigners," and in fact as Japanese in disguise. "Victory Unintentional" is easily reduced to a parable suggesting that, despite their determination and overwhelming numbers, the Japanese may be defeated by their own over-confidence: "When a superiority complex like that breaks, it breaks all the way." The shallowness of this story is the shallowness of its basic metaphor, a mixture of war propaganda and pseudo-Freudian psychology.                

The story has now acquired a further metaphorical significance, however, which Asimov probably did not foresee. While the Jovian defeat is engineered by human beings, it is actually accomplished, and can only be accomplished, by robots. The robots differ from humanity not in being more psychologically acute, as far as we can tell, but in their astonishing strength. Their consciousness of their own strength allows them to speak with pity and some condescension of the dangers posed to their "human masters" by the Jovians. Asimov has maintained that his robots are completely under human control (as in the Three Laws of Robotics), hence they are not really "aliens." But to the reader made uneasy by the destructive power of modern technology this is not necessarily very convincing. The story may now be read as a striking forecast of the actual process of the Japanese surrender after the dropping of the atomic bomb. If this reading is tenable, "Victory Unintentional" may be said to defamiliarize not only the nature of Japanese aggression, but the confident American assumption that man can remain the unquestioned master of his technologies.                

Murray Leinster's "First Contact" is another political parable, which anticipates the Cold War strategies that developed after its publication in 1945. The chance meeting of two spaceships, "ours" and "theirs," brings about a situation which Leinster interprets as a "balance of terror." Each side would like to behave humanely to the other but does not dare to. Leinster's aliens are, in fact, puzzlingly human in nearly every respect. They are professionals whose calculations simply mirror those of their terrestrial counterparts. The one substantial difference, as we have seen, is that they communicate without sound waves. When the Earthmen present an ultimatum which exactly coincides with the ultimatum that they themselves have devised, they respond by making convulsive movements." Belatedly it becomes evident that they are laughing.                

The tenor of Leinster's alien metaphor is sufficiently trite: no matter what we look like, if we can laugh together we are brothers under the skin. (The story ends with the communications officers of the two ships exchanging dirty jokes.) But the ideology of this story completely undermines its optimistic message; we might be prepared for this by the fact that the supposed aliens are not really alien at all. Leinster is implying that the relationship between two great civilizations is naturally belligerent, so that perpetual vigilance and the maintenance of a balance of terror are the only ways of keeping the peace. Such vigilance must be entrusted to the scientific-military élite represented by the spaceship's crew. The good-fellowship stressed in the story is quite spurious, since it is inconceivable that two such Machiavellian cultures will not end up at war with one another, by proxy if not head-on. The fact that both sides think alike merely confirms the "inevitability" of Cold War attitudes.                

Both "Victory Unintentional" and "First Contact" are cleverly and efficiently written, but their conception of alienness is trite and shamelessly propagandistic. Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" and "Valley of Dreams" (1934) are two much-praised stories which develop a more complex metaphor, although the actual level of the writing is comparatively crude. The most remarkable figure in these stories, which introduce several fantastic Martian species in quick succession, is the ostrich-like part-animal, part-vegetable called Tweel (actually his name sounds more like "T-r-r-rwee-r-rl"!), who has the habit of zooming up into the air and then planting himself in the earth with his beak. Tweel speaks a genuinely alien language but displays exemplary virtues of rationality and self-sacrificing loyalty; hence the inevitable compliment at the end of "A Martian Odyssey": "Thanks, Tweel. You're a man!"                

The second stage of the metaphor occurs in "Valley of Dreams," where Tweel is revealed in a von Däniken-like twist as one of the last descendants of the Egyptian god Thoth. Thoth travelled to Earth and came to be worshipped as the inventor of writing ("They must have picked up the idea from watching the Martian take notes"). Thus Tweel's race are not the Noble Savages that they at first appeared, but the inaugurators of civilization itself. (Further significance can presumably be drawn from the fact that both Tweel's race and the human explorers have a common enemy, the "dream-beast" which snares its victims with unbridled fantasies.) Far from the rationalism of Asimov and Leinster, Weinbaum's aliens reveal a powerful, unsophisticated, and largely uncontrolled use of imaginative materials. The human figures in these two stories are pathetically stereotyped.                

If Weinbaum's Martians incline towards Gothic fantasy, those of H.G. Wells, though equally grotesque, are portrayed in a much more scientific spirit. The Martians in The War of the Worlds (1898) are once again doubly metaphorical. At first they appear simply as terrifyingly aggressive creatures who, like Asimov's Jovians, are defeated by non-human agency; thus the outcome of the contest is both a triumph and a humiliation for humanity. By the end, guided by references in the text to Wells's article "The Man of the Year Million" (1893), we are led to see them as possibly resembling the future descendants of man himself. To this metaphorical structure Wells adds a faculty of meticulous observation, particularly in the episode where the narrator is trapped in the ruined house and is able to subject the Martians to systematic study. The Martians are described by means of a series of highly imaginative and complex extrapolations from or analogies to terrestrial zoology and physiology. Wells's invaders represent the classical portrayal in SF of hostile aliens, with a physique and intelligence explained by evolutionary biology, and with whom no intelligent contact is possible.

4. Only at the end of the story, with their cry of "Ulla! ulla!", do Wells's aliens break into language. Weinbaum's Martians, with their books which the narrator despairs of translating because "they were made by minds too different from ours," are a more sophisticated creation in this one respect. Philological and anthropological awareness have played a growing part in mid twentieth-century science fiction; C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet (1938), with its hero who reacts to his first alien encounter by projecting a Martian-English dictionary and a Malacandrian grammar, is an early landmark. Lewis's philologist-hero learns to speak Malacandrian easily enough, though not as quickly as the standard pulp-magazine hero would have done. It is precisely the possession of a language or other sign-system which cannot be easily learned, or which has radical points of difference from human language, which distinguishes  the most far-reaching of recent attempts to imagine the alien.               

Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (1961) and The Invincible (1963) reveal a fascination with forms of "intelligence" which are as little anthropomorphic as possible. In The Invincible the planet Regis III is dominated by tiny metallic particles which have the power to gather in threatening clouds emitting electromagnetic radiation. The intelligence of Solaris is the planet-wide ocean, which creates a series of human simulacra, the "Visitors," who arrive to torment the small group of scientists inhabiting a research station hovering over the planet's surface. We never learn the ocean's motives for producing the Visitors, but the shrewdest conjecture is that of the cyberneticist Snow, who muses that "Perhaps it was sending us ... presents." The ceaseless self-transformations of the ocean, like the awesome cloud-formations seen by Rohan in The Invincible, are a form of "language" which appears to the human observer as a fantastic dance of natural forms. Both novels combine a "puzzle" element with the viewpoint of the human eye-witness. Rohan concludes that Regis III should be left alone in the future: "Not everywhere has everything been intended for us, he thought." By contrast, Kris Kelvin in Solaris elects to stay on the deserted planet and is last seen "shaking hands" with the ocean, a new stage in the anthropological rituals of first contact. Kelvin's confused and quixotic renunciation of human claims may be compared to Gulliver's estrangement at the end of the Travels.               

Lem's novels do not go beyond the limitations of the human viewpoint, and are thus the eloquent statements of an impasse. In order to bridge this impasse and adopt an alien viewpoint, it is necessary to offer some sort of verbal representation of alien language. This is normally done by subjecting the writer's own language to a controlled stylistic distortion. Such distortion is a recognized, though still relatively infrequent, method of emphasizing the alienness of setting in novels of the future or of the remote past. (It is related, of course, to such conventional devices as the representation of dialect through phonetic spelling, and the use of archaic grammatical forms in historical fiction.) Anthony Burgess invents a heavily Russianized teenage argot ("nadsat") for his first-person SF narrative in A Clockwork Orange (1962), and — more predictably — a kind of Shakespearian argot for his historical novel Nothing Like the Sun (1964). Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1921) uses the methods of experimental modernist writing to convey the rationalized and mathematized experience of D-503, the inhabitant of a regimented, tyrannical state of the far future. Since the novel shows D-503's shocked rediscovery of the emotional and atavistic experiences (such as love) repressed by the State, its writing involves not only the creation of an alien style but its partial breaking-down under stress. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) explores a similar conflict between "natural" and "totalitarian" language more simply by means of its theoretical account of Newspeak, the planned official language of Oceania. Finally, William Golding uses a narrative language in which sensations are interpreted ideographically, rather than by means of our normal conceptual apparatus, in his extraordinarily vivid evocation of the consciousness of the Neanderthal men in The Inheritors ( 1955).                

These examples suggest that a discussion of alien languages in SF might very quickly leave behind the notion of characterization, in favor of a much more general consideration of modernist narrative techniques. Within SF, however, it is not necessary to break with the wider conventions of prose narrative in order to produce work that is validly experimental. The "New Wave" writing of the 1960's, with its fragmented and surrealistic forms, has not made a lasting impact, because it cast its net too wide. To reform SF one must challenge the conventions of the genre on their own terms.                

Brian W. Aldiss's The Dark Light Years (1964) — a novel which preceded the "New Wave" — deals with humanity's discovery of the utods (upside-down utopians?), a race of intelligent, six-legged creatures with a remarkable love for their own excrement. At their first meeting on the planet Grudgrodd, the humans immediately open fire, killing six of the unarmed utods and bringing the other two back to captivity in London's Exozoo. The utods show a serene acceptance of life in captivity with little or no desire to respond to their human keepers — even when the director of the Exozoo goes so far in comradeliness as to remove his trousers and defecate in their presence. The utods' stilted conversations with one another reveal both a healthy curiosity about alien life-forms and a strong sense of the limitations of curiosity. Speaking of mankind, one of them states that "the thinlegs' ways of thought are too alien for us to interpret and . . . any tentative explanation we may offer is bound to be utodomorphic." The utods' language is conveyed in English distorted in the main by some Swiftian euphemisms; thus they use "converted into the carrion stage" for "dead", much as the Houyhnhnms accused Gulliver of "saying the thing which was not." The reader responds to their utodomorphic being while perceiving it, inevitably, as an inverted anthropomorphism; the utods have long ago passed through the frenzied stages of an industrial revolution, and their behaviour is constantly set off against the brutally imperialistic attitudes of human beings.                

The Dark Light Years, then, offers a conception of alienness based on animals (one likely source of inspiration is the well-known popular song, "Mud, mud, glorious mud" about the hippopotamus) and also on the difference between Western and "native" (possibly South-East Asian) civilizations. The utods are a defamiliarization device serving to promote a reflection on human behaviour and, specifically, on the ideologies of Western industrialism and imperialism. At the same time, these dignified, sybaritic, and dung-loving beings are strongly "characterised," even if we are doomed to perceive their character through a veil of human incomprehension. Certainly the utods steal the show — as they were intended to — from the human characters of the story.                

In The Dark Light Years and novels like it, richness of invention and exuberance of detail is combined with a clear grasp of the story's metaphorical import. SF, above all when it is concerned with exploring alien modes of being, differs from other kinds of fiction in its basic premise, which is that of approaching "man" through his contacts with the new and unknown. Yet a consideration of alien encounters involves the modification, rather than the wholesale abandonment, of the idea of rounded characterization championed by Virginia Woolf and lately by Ursula Le Guin. What is limiting about their declarations of loyalty to Mrs Brown is not the stress on characterization as such, but their belief that what is characterized most fully must always be the autonomous human beings of liberal individualism. Is it too much of a travesty of conventional fictional theory to say that the SF novelist must never desert Ms Brown, but that his Ms Brown is frequently an alien, quite possibly with six legs and certainly with a language of her own?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. This essay will appear in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, ed. Patrick Parrinder, to be published in Spring 1979 by Longman (London and New York).


1. On "structures of feeling" see Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (London: Chatto & Windus, 1961), pp. 41-53. For the concept of 'defamiliarization' as developed by the Russian Formalists, see Théorie de la Littérature, ed. Tzvetan Todorov (Paris: Seuil, 1965), especially pp. 83-90, 290-92; and Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language, (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1972), pp. 56 ff. For "cognitive estrangement," see Darko Suvin, "On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre," in Mark Rose ed., Science Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976). This essay and the same author's "SF and the Novum" appear in Suvin's Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (New Haven: Yale U.P., 1979).                

2. Virginia Woolf's essay "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown" is collected in her The Captain's Death-Bed and Other Essays, (London: Hogarth Press, 1950). Scott Sanders's essay "Invisible Men and Women," SFS 4 (March 1977): 14-24, is now collected in R.D. Mullen and Darko Suvin, eds. Science-Fiction Studies, Second Series: Selected Articles on Science Fiction 1976-1977 (Boston: Gregg Press, 1978), pp. 104-14. "Science Fiction and Mrs Brown," by Ursula K. Le Guin, was published in Science Fiction at Large, ed. Peter Nicholls (London: Gollancz, 1976; paperback ed. as Explorations of the Marvellous, London: Fontana, 1978). For a different view of character in SF, see C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966), pp. 64-65.                

3. Swift's handling of the narrator in Gulliver's Travels is helpfully discussed by C.J. Rawson, Gulliver and the Gentle Reader (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), ch. 1.

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