Exceptionalism in SF/F

The reason I like speculative fiction is because it allows writers and readers to entertain that great question of “what if?” and explore some of those weird things we all wonder about every so often. What are we going to do when we create a computer whose behavior perfectly mimics a human? How about when we figure out how to colonize another planet? Or what would happen if everyone in the world went blind? What does it mean to be human?

One of my writing teachers said that any concept that can be explored using speculative elements could just as easily be accomplished without (by which he meant using realism), but I disagree. Speculative fiction offers a way to explore extraordinary concepts that nevertheless are pretty damn important to all of us. That’s probably the reason why I have a growing interest in philosophy and, in particular, thought experiments.

Basically, thought experiments allow you to distill an actual intellectual/moral problem into a simple, but completely unrealistic story (there’s a great Philosophy Bites interview with Julian Baggini about thought experiments).  That’s basically what sf/f is all about.

A while ago, I read Turtledove’s World War series, which helped me articulate a theme I’ve noticed in a lot of science fiction. World War is about the attempted conquest of earth by a imperialistic species who live much longer and are obsessed with tradition and distrustful of anything new. They consider millennia pretty short intervals. Anyway, they survey earth in 1500, but their invasion fleet doesn’t arrive until 1943. You can probably see where this is going. Throughout the series, they are appalled and incapable of adjusting to how quickly humans learn to fight back and appropriate their technology. I’m actually not a big fan of the series, but it’s a pretty good example of spec fic’s obsession with plasticity being humanity’s defining and saving characteristic.

Think of the new Dr. Who series where humans are the weird and persistent species that basically reappear throughout all time. In The Lord of the Rings humans are the industrious upstarts, driving everyone else out of Middle Earth. And basically every alien character in Star Trek at some point expresses admiration or disgust with humans’ adaptability.

But where does the idea come from? Hubris and simple observation. As a species, we’ve always noticed that other animals exhibit behavior similar to us, like using tools, communicating, and creating social groups, but we’re the only ones on this planet who have deliberately changed our environment to fit our needs on such a massive scale. So, what’s the difference between us and the wolves? We can destroy their habitats and put up our own. They die and we thrive.

It’s not a noble characteristic. It’s not even intelligence. In Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, and all the rest, we are defined by our wile.

And it’s a theme I find vaguely troubling, because I don’t know of many examples where humans are put in the opposite position – where we’re the ones being perpetually out-maneuvered. Rarely, even, is our adaptability portrayed in a sinister way, like in Clarke’s “Rescue Party.” That’s not to say there aren’t stories out there, but they’re in the minority (and if you have reading recommendations, please comment. Maybe I have just been reading the wrong stuff.).

Politically, I’d like to see more writing that inverts this trope because our exceptionalist convictions – that we’ve won the game of evolution – is a big part of why the planet’s temperature is going to rise several degrees over the next century. I won’t go so far to say that this theme is making the problem worse (that would be a horrible hyperbole and really round-about), but I don’t think it’s helping. Sf/f’s strength is its ability to attack and dissect tough issues and concepts like multiculturalism (Mieville’s The City and the City), gender and sexuality (Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness), addiction (Dick’s A Scanner Darkly), complacency at atrocity (Ishiguru’s Never Let Me Go), and faith (Gaiman and Pratchett’s Good Omens. And if you don’t agree with me on that, you didn’t read the book right.)

Artistically, I just want to run into the trope less often. There’s an interesting insecurity at the heart of it, which means it probably needs to be examined.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Exceptionalism in SF/F

  1. Your Sister

    If it needs to be examined… why don’t you do it?

    • Short answer: because I don’t think I’m a good enough writer. I’d like to lobby John Scalze or An Owomoyela to do it.

      • SP

        Stories where humanity gets out-adapted/out-maneuvered seem narratively problematic, unless we’re the aggressors. Otherwise the alien invasion fleet shows up and out-gunned humanity…fails to out-adapt and loses. Could be a good story, but not cheery.

        On the other hand, there are a number of SF aliens that out-evolve us on a massive scale so that humanity has to basically fight a holding/quarantine action. Tryanids from the Warhammer 40K universe, Growlers from Vor, Symbiots from Fading Suns, etc.

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