Contact (Part 1?)

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.

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3 thoughts on “Contact (Part 1?)

  1. I love Star Trek, and “The Measure of a Man” is one of the most memorable episodes.

    That’s an interesting point about the way that aliens are portrayed in science fiction. I absolutely agree with you about science fiction leaving the reader asking questions, and that’s one of the reasons why I love stories about humanity interacting with aliens. It’s why I love the Federation. I think too many alien invasion stories just take the generic action movie format (fighting a foreign bad guy) and make the bad guy from another planet, instead of another country. However, I do think that alien invasion stories can be done in an interesting way as well, with some metaphor for a real-world issue. Ultimately, though, the point is that it’s supposed to say something about humanity.

  2. I have so much more to say on this topic; if I could keep to a regular blogging schedule there’d be another couple of posts on it by now.

    I like the Federation, although not as much as the Ekumen (from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle), because of the vast array of different versions of contact that are scattered throughout the Star Trek series (although I’ve only seen The Original Series, one-and-a-half seasons of The Next Generation, and a couple of Voyager episodes so far). I wonder, though, about the Prime Directive alongside other narratives of conquest and interaction, if in telling these stories we don’t privilege the conquests narratives of human history over those times when contact and connectivity are about co-operation and support, which is another important part of human history. I think such stories might be more difficult to construct in television and film (the primary media of Star Trek) but they do come up in the Hainish/Ekumen novels. Particularly, there is the question of how contact/conquest works when travelling over long, difficult distances.

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