Infinimata Press: Projects: No Humans Allowed Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-05-23 10:00:00-04:00 No comments

Tunnel Vision | The New Republic

One could imagine a novel that captured the perspective of a baby or a dog in a way that seemed truthful and even relevant, but the achievement would be owed to everything in the book that is not the baby and not the dog. The reward of so much subjectivity in a novel is owed in the end to its incompleteness, so that we may identify the familiar world that is being illuminated in an unfamiliar way.

The implications for SF&F in such an observation should be obvious: think of all the stories that have been told from the point of view of a non-human or even a non-sentient character. Most of them revolve mainly around the depiction of the other, but as hinted above, the main reason why they work at all is because of what they are being contrasted with: us.

SF&F makes bold leaps in assuming that there are stories to tell about the non-human. It is foolish to think no such stories exist, but it is also foolish to think those stories can be comprehensible (or be more than exercises in trivia) if they are not written for at least a nominally human audience. Until there's another audience to write these stories for, we gotta start where we are.

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Sometimes this assumption can be exploited to tremendous effect. Phil Dick did this in his short story "Rautavaara's Case," in which the human and non-human definitions of religious consummation are explored, and since the story is told from the POV of an alien race, the impact of the story comes from the sheer alien-ness of their sense of transcendence. Although, Dick leaves the door open just wide enough for us to wonder if what he is describing is in fact a wholly "alien" sensibility. We are large and we contain multitudes, after all.

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Most stories from alien POVs are used to underscore one of two things: how completely unlike humans they are, or how human beings fail or are shortsighted in some specific way. A few stories do manage to be about the differences — Ian Watson's The Embedding comes to mind — but a lot of them tend to fall into one of those easy buckets.

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Even if a given work does fall into one of those buckets, the writer's voice can help allow it to stand out all the more. A lot of Clifford Simak's work was like this: the insights alone were one thing, but the tone and flavor he brought to them were entirely another. A friend of mine once described him as "the most American SF writer I know", and meant that in the best possible way. It wasn't until after I'd read some of Simak's work that I saw what he meant.

This all goes back into one of my standing precepts: you have to write first and foremost for, and from, your moment in time and space. When you are in the business of trying to look out towards infinity, these things can seem like constrictions — but if you approach them as starting points instead of dead-ends, they become all the more powerful. It's not provincial or hidebound to try and find some common ground in our experiences when talking about the new and the unknown. If anything, it may be the most useful place to begin.

One day, maybe we'll be wrong: there will be another audience for our work besides the human being. And on that day, I hope something wonderful will begin.

(The title, by the way, is indeed a reference to the almighty Chrome. Now there was a band who had great fun with the idea of being, and catering to, SF fans.)

Tags: Chrome Clifford Simak Flight of the Vajra Ian Watson Philip K. Dick science fiction writing