Much of the science fiction genre is taken up with stories about alien species. Why are aliens so fascinating to readers and writers alike?
There are a lot of possible reasons. Alien species are a blank canvas, we can do with them what we like. We can create a race with superpowers. We can wonder what if…what if lions were intelligent? Read C. J. Cherryh’s the Pride of Chanur saga. What if people evolved psychic gifts? What if we could fly? The list goes on and on.
But I think underneath this there is a deeper root reason we are fascinated with alien races and society. We don’t ultimately, know who we are a race and won’t until we meet another race.
Are humans a war-like race? It seems so at times. Human history is certainly filled with many violent conflicts. Atrocities have undeniably taken place throughout history.
Or are we a peaceful race? We have an incredible capacity for cooperation. Even in ancient history we created incredible artifacts by working together.
All too often our peaceful cooperative nature and our brutal war-like nature are inexorably intertwined. The monuments of the ancient world were often built by slaves. Are they testaments to what ancient could achieve, or to a legacy of brutality? Likely, both.
War itself is a cooperative venture. The entire history of warfare breaks down to groups of humans putting aside their differences, banding together, and then killing other groups. Just look at either of the world wars. It’s paradoxical that the greatest examples of cooperation have been times when large number of humans have banded together to destroy other large groups of humans.
What about human intelligence? Are we as smart and quick witted as we like to believe? Are we as stupid and short sighted as we often fear?
The only really honest answer we have is, we don’t know. We won’t know until we have some basis for comparison. How war-like is war-like? How smart is smart? Without a roughly comparable species to compare to, there’s no yardstick to measure our behavior.
Many believe that dolphins and whales are both sentient and sapient. If so, they don’t paint a pretty picture of human life. Has there been an ocean wide dolphin war? Are whales doing irreparable harm to the ocean they live in? Then again they haven’t invented technology either, so score one for humans being clever.
Star Trek humans know. They know they are more emotional, more prone to war than Vulcans. We are more peaceful than Klingons. They have hundreds of other species to compare themselves to. They have many yardsticks to use. They can see where they fall on the spectrum of all sentient species.
And that’s my point. Until we meet another technologically advanced, intelligent race, we won’t know where we really stand. We won’t know if our war-like tendencies are natural to all species, or if we are better or worse than average. We can only speculate.
And speculate we do. We do it in both science fiction and fantasy. We create alien monsters that have no qualms about wiping out entire planets in one series, peaceful benefactors in another. Fantasy worlds often juxtapose numerous races around humanity. There are lofty, peace loving elves, warlike and brutal orcs, greedy dwarves, etc. Each races reveals something about humanity by comparison. We are a greedy race, but not as greedy as the dwarves. We aspire to greatness, but don’t possess it as naturally as elves.
These yardsticks for humanity are entirely subjective, all in the mind of the writers. But they still reveal a great deal about ourselves and our world view. We choose the yardstick that shows us what we want to see. And that is why we are so fascinated with aliens.