I’ve read plenty of good “first contact” stories, and a few great ones. A personal favorite, The Mote in God’s Eye, goes some distance to portraying the tragically insurmountable gulf that might appear when two very different species encounter one another. But no one has realized that gulf better than Octavia Butler. From the very beginning, Dawn drips with the anticipation of horror and of violation. Without malice, without intent to harm, but still terrifying. It’s the story of a woman, Lilith, who is either lucky or unfortunate to wake up in the care of benevolent aliens, one of the very few survivors of some extinction-level event that has wiped out humanity. As one reads of the struggle between Lilith and her minder to comprehend one another, one can’t help but fear intently for her. “I do not have high hopes for avoiding something awful happening to this woman’s insides,” I remember thinking.
Dawn — in my opinion the best, most awkward account of first contact with an alien species that science fiction has ever produced — spends a portion of its time with Lilith alone in a cell, utterly in the dark as to what the hell is happening. She is eventually contacted via speaker by her captors/saviors, who explain the situation on earth and that Lilith cannot see them because, being very alien in appearance, seeing them would inevitably kick in a knee-jerk horror/revulsion. We think as humans that we could deal with this sort of thing; I know I do. But then I think about my comically reaction to a creature as familiar as a cockroach, and I understand a little more what it would be like to encounter an alien species. Lilith has to spend a considerable amount of time first coming to grips with what has happened and then in acclimatizing herself to the voice of her keepers before they think it’s safe for a face-to-face. When the aliens do reveal themselves, even though she has been prepared, even though she is at ease (more or less) with them, the initial sight of the aliens — the oankali — still triggers a panicked revulsion in Lilith. Every part of her rational mind knows not to be afraid, but it doesn’t matter. She is confronted by something that seems hardwired into our deep, reptilian brain to be freaked out by.
Part of the power of Butler’s writing, part of why she is able to do this better than anyone else, stems from the fact that she is something — someone — considered difficult to understand by a certain subset of science fiction fans who of late have taken to griping very loudly about the “travesty” that is the call for greater diversity in science fiction. Or rather, we should be cultivating a more receptive attitude to diversity while also not actively campaigning against the diversity we already have. Common knowledge holds that most science fiction fans and authors are white males. I don’t think this is the case. But white males are the demographic that has traditionally been most favored by marketers, by publishers, by people who cover science fiction. In the confines of this myopic and outdated misconception, a female point of view can seem to some as shocking and panic-inducing as seeing one of Dawn‘s oankali for the first time (just look at how many react with irrational hate and fear when minorities request a little more diversity in science fiction). We’re all humans, but there are some fundamental biological differences that make our experiences different; and there are some fundamental social and cultural differences that make our experiences different.
As a (moderately) healthy male, there’s very little my body’s going to do that will cause itself any sort of discomfort. If something hurts, it is because of something I did, some external factor I introduced. A similarly healthy woman will, on a monthly basis, go through menstruation. And while I know some schools of thought cast that as a beautiful miracle to be celebrated with dances and drum circles, most women I know regard it as a time of month about which they’re not super-excited. Beyond that, the act of reproduction, should one chose to undertake it, places the burden of pain and biological transformation on the woman. These are things I can understand up to a certain level, but I will never understand them the same way as a woman, or as a pregnant mother. The very fact that the only frame of reference I have for something as commonplace as having a period is sustaining some grievous injury like being kicked in the groin is proof enough that, however much I open myself, some experiences are just not mine.
Similarly, as a white guy in the United States, I can (damn well better) understand to some degree how horrible it is to be the subject of racist suspicion, discrimination, and violence — but only up to a point. Beyond that point, it is a set of experiences I won’t have and can’t fully comprehend, because I can always retreat into the safety of my race. Even as I sympathize. Even as I believe it wholeheartedly when friends who do experience it tell me how…not just awful, not just degrading, but how exhausting it is to be under fire constantly. Or an Asian-American born in the USA and constantly asked “Where are you from? No, I mean where are your parents from? I mean, what kind of Asian are you?” The same goes for being, again, a woman, subjected constantly to the expectation that you owe a man a smile or a positive reaction to his vulgar come-ons, and that not giving him what he feels entitled to can get you yelled at, beat up, or even killed. The same thoughts came to me when I was reading Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring. It’s one of the things — forcing us outside of our own sphere of experience so that we have to understand the experience of others — at which the speculative end of science fiction can really excel.
Octavia Butler takes what is different about her in comparison to the perceived bulk of science fiction community and uses the strength that comes from it. As a male reader, there is body horror stuff that makes me awkward and uncomfortable (and it should) because it’s drawing on a set of experiences that are not mine. For a female reader perhaps, there is common ground, a shared experience that can be understood from Lilith’s plight. As a minority, Lilith cannot walk anywhere among the oankali without being regarded as a spectacle. Even those who wish her no ill still stare, and no matter how much she learns about this culture, about these people, she will because of her appearance always be an outsider. And for someone who doesn’t identify entirely with male or female, one could understand the frustration of the oankali, whose genders and sexuality are nothing like ours and are frustratingly difficult to explain to people who just don’t possess the capacity to comprehend it.
The one other story I think comes close to capturing the same level of tragic misunderstanding, body horror, and cultural frustration is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. In it, a Jesuit mission to make first contact with an alien culture leaves the book’s main character Father Emilio Sandoz emotionally gutted, mentally haunted, and physically mangled. As the story is teased out of him — the only survivor of the mission — we are confronted with a heartbreaking tale in which much of the horror stems from an honest lack of understanding. What is horrifying to Sandoz and to humanity is incomprehensible as anything other than the greatest of honors to the aliens they encounter. As with Butler’s Dawn, Mary Doria Russell is able to go far beyond the mere “a misunderstanding causes conflict” and tap into a much deeper and far more emotional aspect of such understanding. It’s not just “in my culture, laughing is a sign you want to fight.” What happens to Sandoz is so visceral, and to him (and many of us) so degrading, and yet it is done in such innocence. Experiencing that bit of body horror done to a man makes me even more prone to fear for Lilith once the aliens of Dawn start poking around in human breeding and psychology.
Eventually Lilith gets her revulsion under control, though it never truly goes away. She learns that she has been chosen as someone likely to be able to do just this, and that the aliens hope she will then be able to prepare other surviving humans, so that they might one day be able to return to Earth. Right away things go poorly, because it turns out that an alien species — even a pretty clever and benevolent one — is going to have a hard time figuring out how to handle humans. They don’t look like us. They don’t have the same genders. They don’t have the same social mores. At several points the reader feels like screaming because a decision is being made that is, to us, so fundamentally and obviously wrong, that we can see is going to set things down a tragic course. But the aliens don’t understand why. And the humans aren’t very good at communicating these concerns with their stewards. How do you explain happiness to a species that has no corollary emotion? How do you describe green to a being that can’t see that color?
Pulpy adventure science fiction is a lot of fun. But science fiction, being a big tent, also has the capacity to make us squirm like no genre except perhaps horror. It has the capacity to force us into uncomfortable revelations about ourselves, about our culture, about our assumptions. Dawn made my skin crawl, and for all the right reasons. But while it draws on some biological and cultural experiences I haven’t experienced first-hand, it’s not an exclusionary book. Lilith may be a black woman, but she very quickly becomes me. There is no question of “not being able to relate” because she has different color skin or different parts. Dawn makes the reader both an intimate companion of Lilith as well as a third-party observer to all parties involved. We see the bad decisions coming from so far away, and we can see how easily tragedy could have been avoided if only people understood a little better how to deal with one another. In that way, the differences we have as humans are dragged under the microscope and made to seem all a bit absurd.