Posted tagged ‘Otherness’

Wonder and Otherness

July 17, 2019

This is a meditation on science fiction, on what it means to me.

Science fiction makes me think of my father. The association is among my fondest memories of him.  He would avidly bring home science fiction magazines:  Analog Science Fiction and Fact, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, and If.  I think he wanted to write for them.

analog_6312

I was reading science fiction novels like a twelve-year-old house on fire.  As a reader who was susceptible to the beauty of all kinds of tales, especially tall ones, I developed a keen interest in sci-fi.  Science fiction opened the world up, and not just the world, the universe.  It showed me wonder and otherness,  in different ways than I could imagine as a reasonably bright boy growing up in rural/wild British Columbia.

So my father and I came together there.

When you’re a young reader obsessed with any kind of subject, reading non-stop at every opportunity to the irritation of all around is de rigueur.

From time to time I would get so enthused I would try to write a science-fiction story myself.  I couldn’t understand why the experience of trying to write a story felt so lacklustre and unfulfilling.  Yet there was that urge to write.  Where does that come from?  And what’s it for?

I went back to reading for enjoyment, admiring the prodigious talents of Ursula Le Guin, Robert Silverberg, John Brunner, Clifford Simak, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, James Blish and so many others.

By the time I got to university, the decline but not yet the fall of my science fiction obsession rolled on.  Then I got more interested in non-fiction subjects. Once I got back to enjoyment reading, I preferred to read modern thrillers and detective stories.

And the culture changed too.  Eventually, the really cool science fiction was on the big screen. A book needed to inspire a movie.

But novels like Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, and dipping a toe (maybe more like a whole leg) in fantasy, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings still stirred me as I entered my twenties.

If-low-resWe are all strangers in a strange land, are we not?  Heinlein’s book described a human named Valentine Michael Smith raised on Mars by Martians.  He must adapt to the culture he finds here on Earth.  In a way it reminds me of the book and movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth, of an extraterrestrial corrupted by the earth-bound existence he drops into.

But in Heinlein’s work, the stranger begins to demonstrate psychic abilities and unusual intelligence, coupled with a childlike naïveté. He understands, believes that “all that groks is God.”

And what is “grok?”  In the 1991 uncut version (released by Heinlein’s widow), ‘grok’ wasn’t explained for much of the book.  It seems to mean an understanding so thorough that the observer becomes a part of the observed.  For the counterculture of the day, a word was welcomed that captured breakdown of the subject-object distinction.  Although “breakdown” implies something falling apart.

The word takes on more the meaning of a coming together of subject and object that can’t always be articulated.

In any case, along with the overwhelming quest story of the Lord of the Rings with its ethical and moral themes, these two books (I read the Rings in the first single combined volume) symbolized the true interest of my mental life more than my course of studies in university about psychology.  As understood by watching white rats very closely.

What about otherness?  I just learned a new word for that: alterity.  (We may not be any further ahead in our understanding, but at least we have a more intellectually acceptable term.)

An  interesting academic article by Isabella Herman, Boundaries and Otherness in Science Fiction: We Cannot Escape the Human Condition, concludes that “we always were and always will be concerned about the other beyond the known border.”  She looks at four modern dystopian science-fiction films, asserting that science fiction is inherently political. Science fiction is engaged in thought experiments about our current human situations.  Politics necessarily applies.

For example, although Herman does describe the movie District 9 in terms of alien otherness, which is what I’m most interested in, she restricts her discussion more to the depicted extreme image of the aliens and associated political dimensions in an alternative South Africa.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what this “otherness” is that I’m trying to get at.  It’s not only about “aliens” but encounters with a mysterious universe while confined to a tiny, tiny corner of it.

Writer Gregory Benford says: “Rendering the alien, making the reader experience it, is the crucial contribution of SF.”

alien

In an intriguing article (despite its academic jargon) by Carl Malmgren, Self and Other in SF: Alien Encounters , the author mentions two directions for critics of portrayed ideas of alien encounter.  One is that whatever form the alien takes in sci-fi, it can never be really alien (or other).  However such writers as Benford distinguish between “anthropocentric” and “unknowable” aliens: the former consist of “exaggerations of human traits”; the latter, alien at the “most basic level,” partake of an “essential strangeness.”

(The second direction of criticism is about the relationship between the human and the alien.  The article cites the SF writer Stanislaw Lem criticizing the common simplistic portrayal of this relationship as Us vs. Them.)

The core of what attracts me to science fiction is the portrayal of essential strangeness.  It can really only occur through a sense of wonder, rooted in our world here today.  And projected through the kaleidoscope of whatever imagination the writer can bring to bear.

As I prepare the final draft of the science fiction novel I’ve worked on for a long time, I think on these things.

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Links to articles about sci-fi otherness, and other posts here bearing on science fiction.

There are online a number of articles (often academic criticism) about the notion of otherness in science fiction.  Here are a few:

Science Fiction and Alterity

A New Science Fiction to Understand What is Coming     This one is especially interesting.

The Transcultural Site: Interpersonal Encounters with Otherness in Lessing, Le Guin and Battlestar Galactica

Some of my posts related to science fiction (especially trying to write the darn stuff):

Why Science Fiction?

Hunting For A Science Fiction Story

Subversive Fiction