I love the sci-fi genre. Not only is it entertaining in the same way as other literature (or eye-candy), but science fiction pieces almost always incorporate the exploration of new concepts and topics, deep philosophical questions, and a cautionary look at what can happen if that information, or those concepts are used for nefarious purposes.
Unfortunately, our societies seem to find it impossible to heed these warnings (or learn from history, even) and we tend to make the same mistakes over and over and over. In fact, people in high places seem to quite regularly misread the cautionary tales as challenges, and dive head-first into the very mistakes the authors were trying to warn us against. (If you question my assertion here, I challenge you to go back and re-read Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and consider where society is right now compared to where it was when he wrote the book.)
In any case, aliens come up quite frequently in science fiction works, for various reasons. Their presence provides the opportunity for an author to share his view on the universe at large, to weigh in on the age-old debate about whether life exists elsewhere, and/or to show off his creative abilities and conceptual talents. Many times they also give the author an excuse for showing off his scientific knowledge or pseudo-scientific knowledge.
On a deeper level, alien societies are a very convenient tool in the arsenal of a genre which has such a rich history of exploring politics, philosophy and theology. They provide the opportunity for the author to pull the reader completely out of their comfort zones, away from their political or religious views, and into an entirely different world, where concepts can be discussed in the relative absence of per-conceived notions. Introducing a human character into an alien world, for instance, allows the author to explore the wrongs of society without having to step on the feet of any particular society, group or nation; while introducing an alien into human society allows her to explore humanity from an outsider’s view, again without directly stepping on any toes.
It is the deeper level that draws me into science fiction novels so much. While the actual implementation of an alien story, especially when Hollywood gets involved, can be superficial, annoying, or cheesy, the underlying principles and politics can be quite fascinating. This is doubly true for me, I suppose, because I’ve always felt rather like an alien being raised in a place I do not belong, so the issues the main character is dealing with may seem very familiar to me, or at least parallel some of my own experiences.
That last sentence is sure to raise the hackles of some in the advocacy communities, and I apologize for that. No one’s ever supposed to say that they feel anything other than human, but I pride myself on being honest and that’s precisely how I’ve felt for most of my life. I have never really belonged anywhere, at least for very long. I very rarely understand why others act the ways they do, and the motivations behind my own actions are very seldom what others expect they should be. This leads to quite frequent misunderstandings in my personal relationships, some of which have cut to the very core of my being and left scars I’m not sure will ever heal. I’ve felt like something other, broken, out of sorts, and unreal for as long as I can remember.
So even as a child, I identified with Pinnocchio’s desire to be a real boy (though I found his propensity to lie perplexing at best). I watched Star Trek TNG in awe at finally seeing a character I could identify with: Data. I am fascinated by 7 of 9’s slow transformation from borg back into the human society of the Star Trek Voyager crew.
Historical novels, romances, and much of the more standard fiction that others love so much rarely have characters that I can identify with. But even when I don’t directly relate to the characters in a science fiction novel, the themes generally contain things that are interesting and even useful to my every day life. Many of the standard “things everyone is just supposed to know and understand” get boiled down and explained in minute detail when an alien commits a social faux pas. Body language that would just be mentioned in passing in most novels, with the expectation that the reader understand the implications, often gets pointed out and explained in detail when an alien misses it. Even when the social foibles are just introduced as comic relief, the fact that they’re in the spotlight helps to explain them.
I wish I had read more science fiction when I was young, but I didn’t really discover it until I was an adult. I watched a lot of sci-fi on tv, but I think all of the dragons and swords of fantasy thrown into the scifi section in the bookstores scared me off.
I’m trying to read more these days. I did read a lot growing up, but I seem to have done a very bad job at my selections (I missed a lot of classics, as well). Do you have any reading suggestions with interesting characters thrown into worlds they don’t understand?