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The New Aliens of Science Fiction

by Nicola Griffith
This essay originally appeared in Nebula Awards 30 in May 1996.
American and British science fiction reflects American and British culture. At
any given moment, if we want to know which particular group of people is
disturbing the rest of society, all we have to do is take a look at the kind of alien
with which the genre is currently preoccupied.
Science fiction has always been concerned with exploring the Alien, the Not Self,
the Other. Let me take you on a tour of the history of that alien, show you the
broad trends (there will always be the occasional writer, like Lem, who puts a
spike in my nice neat theories, sigh), and then come back to what SF considers
The Alien today.
The first aliens of pulp SF were slimy bug-eyed monsters from the nether regions
of the solar system. Nothing like us, supposedly, except they were always
recognizably and rather adolescently male: they were war leaders, they had no
kids hanging around to spoil the fun, and (if the cover illustrations of the pulps
are to be believed) they often abducted good looking and scantily clad human
women for nefarious purposes.
In the thirties and forties, during the grim years of the depression and just before
the second world war, the green slime monsters turned into androids and robots.
These metal men (some of these robots had female names, but we weren't fooled)
were smooth, emotionless and rather, well, Teutonic. Then came the McCarthy
era. In keeping with the paranoia of the time, aliens became those who looked
like us, who pretended to be us in order to take over the world. Aliens were
vegetable beings grown in pods in the back garden who took the place of Mom
and Dad; or amoeboid extra-terrestrials who rode invisibly on the backs of their
unsuspecting hosts.
And then came the sixties. During this era of pot and peace we felt a bit more
kindly disposed towards the alien. In John Wyndham's THE CHRYSALIDS,
post-holocaust radiation led to minor mutations such as six toes, or telepathy.
Those who deviated from the norm, even those who looked normal--perhaps
especially those who looked normal--were hunted down and killed. The
interesting thing about THE CHRYSALIDS, of course, is that the story is told
from the viewpoint of a mutant. As far as the reader's sympathies were
concerned, there was no longer that clear dividing line between *Us*, humanity,
and *Them*, the monstrous enemy. For the first time, we were being asked to
imagine ourselves as and to identify with The Other. During the civil rights
marches, while our ears rang with Martin Luther King's dream, science fiction
was telling us that The Other was human, too. The idea of alieness had suddenly
become one of degree.
The next tentative step down that road was the portrayal of aliens who were
normal humans, biologically speaking, but who were raised by aliens and
therefore not quite Establishment. If you're raised by weirdos and foreigners,
where do your sympathies lie? A prime example comes from Heinlein: Valentine
Smith, the STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. (In Hollywood, a similar
process was occurring in another genre, Westerns. Take for example all those
films where a pregnant white woman is abducted by Apache. Mother dies in
childbirth. White boychild grows up behaving and believing in himself as
Apache...at least until the cavalry come along and tell him, hell no, he's a *real*
man, not a savage.)
So. By the sixties our aliens had progressed from green slimy *Non*-Mankind,
to robotic *Fake*-Mankind, to the muties and pod-people of *Twisted*-
Mankind. They were now hovering on the fulcrum between maybe-maybe-not
Mankind.
Where were the women?
In early SF, female characters served as the scientist's ignorant girlfriend, or the
hero's reward for a job well done. By the fifties and sixties, women were allowed
to be heroic as long as they did it in their own sphere--courageous mothers
defending their children, or human housewives who set up coffeeklatches with
alien housewives thereby achieving world peace. Most of these women (not all,
of course--remember, I'm discussing broad trends only) were shining fictional
examples of socialization. But in the 1960s, in the real world, women began to
protest this socialization. We stood up and said: "That's *not* who we are!" And
so male SF writers, a bit puzzled, but game for the challenge, turned to an
examination of who women might be.
This examination manifested itself largely through writings about women-only
societies: the "sex-battle texts," to use Russ's term. The women in these books
were not fully human. We were portrayed as being bereft of sexual feeling; or we
had plenty of sexual feeling but were frustrated and embittered by having no men
to express those feelings with; we did not understand Art; we did not understand
science and so were invariably technologically backward. Women-only societies
were often portrayed as static, hierarchical and insect-like (see, for example,
Wyndham's CONSIDER HER WAYS). This kind of fiction operated very much
out of traditional cultural assumptions--often nothing more than a reversal of
male/female roles. The female characters were only alien because they weren't
"proper" women.
In the late sixties and early seventies, women writers took over the job of talking
about the alien. Writers like James Tiptree, Jr., Joanna Russ, Vonda N. McIntyre,
and Suzy McKee Charnas examined the alienation felt by women in western
society. Starting in the sixties and continuing throughout the seventies and early
eighties, a few writers turned away from the sex-battle text, the idea of "men"
versus "women," and more towards an examination of the entire notion of
gender. The best of these include the work of Russ, Tiptree, Theodore Sturgeon,
Octavia Butler, and--perhaps the most well-known--Le Guin's THE LEFT
HAND OF DARKNESS. But even the Le Guin book posits a "genderless"
society in which all characters are referred to as "he" unless they become
specifically female for the purposes of sex with another character, who has
become specifically male. It could be argued that THE LEFT HAND OF
DARKNESS is really about men and gender, and that it is the potential (and,
more to the point, the willingness) to assume "non-male" gender that makes the
characters so alien.
At this point, a lot of male writers began pumping out dreadful, reactionary stuff:
Edmund Cooper was guilty of this, as was Heinlein. (There are always
exceptions. Among those who at least tried hard were John Varley and Samuel R.
Delany.)
Then, it seems to me, SF writers looked up, saw the inevitable nature of the next
aliens on the horizon--the aliens of sexuality as well as gender--and panicked. In
the eighties, then, there was a sudden renewed interest in high-concept SF: hard
science, action-adventure, the re-emergence of famous Golden Age work (and
the attendant phenomenon of "sharecropping"). There was also, of course,
cyberpunk.
Cyberpunk, at its most cliched and derivative (and there is of course much
cyberpunk that *isn't* either cliched or derivative), seems to be merely a
revisiting of film noire ideas and a regression to the Nerd Triumphant school of
literature. In this guise, it is often nothing more than a hybrid of nihilism (all
those grey, raining mean streets where no one cares and nothing makes a
difference) and the shop-and-fuck novel (brand names, the lust for consumer
durables, descriptions of women's clothes..=2Eusually tight, black, spike-heeled
and shiny). At its best, cyberpunk does discuss ideas of alienation, particularly in
the relationship between people and machines, but generally (Pat Cadigan is a
shining exception to this rule) this occurs within the context of those same old
traditional cultural tropes about men and women.
As this eighties backlash eased off, sex, sexuality and gender again became hot
topics. Many women writers--mainstream as well as SF--emerged for the first
time, or re-emerged. Writers like Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercy, Gwyneth
Jones and Joan Slonczewski, Suzette Haden Elgin and Eleanor Arnason were all
writing novels looking at how women have become or remain Other. Many of
their fictional characters were lesbian or bisexual. Men were reading these books,
too, of course, and then--rather startlingly--began to write them. See, for
example, Geoff Ryman's THE CHILD GARDEN.
There is a group of twenty- and thirty-something straight white boys--particularly
in England, I'm not sure why--who have started writing novels and short stories
with lesbian or bisexual women protagonists: I can think of Simon Ings, Colin
Greenland and Eric Brown off the top of my head, but I'm sure there are many
more. And now, in the nineties, American men seem to have got in on the act:
Allen Steele's latest novel has a dyke protagonist; one of Mark Tiedemann's short
stories, "Rust Castles," mentions two lesbians. In fantasy, too, men are happily
writing about women who love women: Charles de Lint's MEMORY & DREAM
is one example, Cole and Bunch's THE WARRIOR'S TALE. There are many
more, in both genres.
So. Why are straight men writing about dykes? I think some are doing what
Wyndham did with THE CHRYSALIDS: genuinely trying to explore the alien,
trying hard to understand--and to make understood--women who love women in
a male-centered world. It's difficult not to applaud these attempts, even when the
authors make the occasional appalling blunder about the nature of Lesbian
Woman. But some, whom I do not applaud, are simply exploiting what they
perceive of as being the political climate. Today's young male writers think of
themselves as hip, cool, feminist kind of guys. They know that it's not cool to
have Big John the manly man save the world all on his own and, along the way,
pilot anything that flies, drink anything that pours and hump anything in a skirt.
They change Big John to Big Joan. But that's all they change: we end up with a
Dyke Heroine who saves the world and, along the way, pilots anything that flies,
drinks anything that pours, and humps anything in a skirt.... This, the writers tell
themselves (and everyone else), is not an adventure skiffy yarn but cutting-edge,
slipstream SF. "Look," they say, "we're exploring all these, like, alienated groups:
women and (ooh, kinky shudder) lesbians."
Men, of course, are not the only culprits. Women who lack imagination are
making the same mistakes of cliche with their gay male characters. For some
reason, this seems to be happening more in fantasy than science fiction. Before
anyone leaps to any conclusions, I am *not* saying that men should not write
about women or vice versa, or that straights should not write about gays. I just
want people to avoid cliches, to think a little before they commit their well-
intentioned atrocities to paper.
And most of the writers in our genre *are* well-intentioned. There are others
who are not.
1994 marked the publication of a nasty little book entitled COLORADO 1998. It
was written by a man called Mark Olsen, the communications director for
Colorado for Family Values--those nice people who tried to enshrine into law
discrimination against lesbians and gay men. [Thank you, thank you, the
Supreme Court for the recent decision cutting CFV off at the knees.] This book
purports to describe how America would really look if queers ruled the world. (I
have to admit that I find it mildly embarrassing that it took a small-minded
fundamentalist to get around to imagining in print what the world would be like
if dykes and gay men were in charge. Why haven't any of *us* imagined this? I
really hope someone reading this will go off and write a queers-rule-the-universe
story. I'd love to read it.)
COLORADO 1998, with its bestial portrayal of lesbians (we grunt all the time,
walk strangely, like badgers, and have terrible table manners), is a classic role-
reversal tale where the writer gives away his prejudices. In attempting to show
how awful lesbians are, Olsen simply holds up a mirror to the kind of persecution
and hatred happening today *against* queers. There is no essential difference
between this book and the sex-battle texts of the fifties, sixties and seventies.
Like most tourists in the genre (P.D. James is another), Olsen is about thirty
years behind the rest of us.
1994 saw the emergence of something called Lesbian Chic. (Cindy and k.d.
making out on the cover of Vanity Fair, etc. etc.) Not coincidentally, that year
there was also a resurgence of women writing about women. Melissa Scott, in
TROUBLE AND HER FRIENDS, was explicit about the alieness of being queer,
and female, in the future. Carrie Richerson's short fiction was chilling, and
exciting, and different: her women were not only dykes, but dead, too--a double
whammy. Suzy McKee Charnas's THE FURIES took a brave and unflinching
look at how women and men can be utterly alien to each other; at the difference
in their violence; and at the ways in which women and men might try (or not, as
the case may be) find common ground.
We know that these issues--sex, sexuality, gender--are here to stay in SF because
there is a prize, the Tiptree. We know the *award* is here to stay because not
only has the SF community rallied magnificently to fund the award, but the
award has sparked controversy--mainly from those who did not win, and were a
bit disgruntled about it. Any number of writers, from old SF hands like David
Brin to recent tourists such as the aforementioned P.D. James, have postulated
futures in which women are the dominant sex. While such fiction may be role-
reversing, it is not necessarily role-expanding.
So. Here we are in the mid-nineties. SF writers have this vast history of the
examination of the alien on which to draw: slimy bug-eyed monsters, robots,
muties and pod people, women, lesbians and gays. 1996 is an election year. I
think the rights of lesbians and gay men--particularly with regard to queer
marriage--will be one of the most intensely fought over and intently watched
battlegrounds. As the war hots up, I suspect that much, much more SF with queer
protagonists will roll off the presses. But lesbians and gay men are not the only
political hot potato. Look at what's happening in California and Florida--the
growing fear and resentment of immigrants. I think we might soon see some
science fiction about immigrating aliens and how they upset the fabric of society
by coming to *our* world and using up *our* resources and why don't they just
go back to where they came from? Another hot spot is affirmative action--
discussions about whether or not to take away set-asides and other help for racial
minorities and those with disabilities. I wouldn't be surprised to see the new
aliens of SF being sick and disabled, and demanding that humanity pay attention
to them and treat them with dignity and respect.
Whatever happens, I'm certain that as science fiction matures it will continue to
play more with the *Us* end of the Us-Them spectrum. It will continue to
examine the alien, and to make the alien understood. Or it will continue to try.