Great science fiction stories should leave the readers asking questions. This statement is probably true of all stories, but I’m particularly interested in science fiction, so I’m focusing on those. In the past week or so I’ve had intense discussions about science fiction television shows and films, and I’ve thought intense things about science fiction books, but I lack others who have read those books to have quite the same kinds of discussion. I’ve posted the discussion I had with a friend on Twitter about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of a Man” (Season 2, episode 9) before (and here is it again), but even now I’m having new thoughts about that episode – about the importance of addressing ideas we hold to be true (in this case, the consciousness of Data) against those who do not agree in a way which allows us to examine our viewpoint and make it more forcefully. I wish I could do that too, sometimes. I’ve been reflecting on how stories encourage us to ask those questions, how they might lead us to certain answers, and what it is useful to ask in science fiction; in particular recently I have been thinking about the question of contact with alien life.
There are two principal sources of these thoughts: the first was reading the Hugo Award nominated The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu); the second was this article in February’s Clarkesworld magazine, which I only just got around to reading. (In the background, I’ve been re-watching The X Files too, in which contact comes up a lot). In the Clarkesworld article, Mark Cole discusses the limited examples of “friendly aliens” in science fiction (mostly cinema; there’s no discussion of the Federation or Ekumen or any other alliance of worlds) and suggests that stories of conquering aliens are more common because we can believe that from human nature and history. I’m not completely convinced that human history is quite so replete with conquerors and violence (perhaps European history) rather than co-operation and allegiance – perhaps it’s just that the conflict receives greater emphasis in our history books? But I also feel that this interpretation is a far too literal reading of contact stories. The Three-Body Problem discusses the impact it would have on human society if the existence of extraterrestrial life were discovered, which is a much more interesting idea. In this scenario, human beings discover that they are not alone in the galaxy and have to come to terms with that knowledge. The approach here is more interesting because it looks at how human beings behave, requiring no idea about the alien life at all – because we have no idea what alien life is like, but we know how human beings react to the unknown, or to new knowledge. Personally, I find the questions about how human beings behave much more interesting than inventing an alien conqueror.