Sunday, September 28, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Humans Among Them

So we've all read and identified with stories of aliens among humans. I've written them myself (my first book, Otto from Otherwhere, and there's a short story about an alien anthropologist living in a trailer park in the December '91 issue of Asimov's). In a world where everyone (even those people most catered to by society, who are often the biggest crybabies about how misunderstood they are) feels isolated and picked on, this is natural enough. Space aliens, fay, wild talents - in addition to such characters being inherently cool they also provide a paradoxically safe metaphorical way to explore the very real grievances of the marginalized without upsetting the gatekeepers of literature, who are inevitably invested in the status quo, too awfully much. Which is a problem in itself but I'm not dealing the problems of society today, I'm looking at a problem in the tropes, which is -

That in the abductee literature from which the alien-in-human-society tropes are derived, what actually happens is that a human goes to live in alien society.

Changelings are abducted by fairies and kept for a time; possibly seven years, possibly life. The entity left in exchange for the changeling dies, either because it was a sickly fairy child elected for the swap because it wasn't going to live, because it was an old fay disguised as an infant, or because it was a stock of wood to begin with. (Or because the parents tortured it to death trying to get it to reverse the swap. There is an ugly, ugly reality behind the changeling myth and again, not going into that today.) In the alien abduction narratives of the nineties, human men and women were used for reproductive purposes, but the alien hybrid babies were either cultivated with stolen genes or harvested after a short incubation period and taken away, though sometimes the parents were allowed to see them briefly. In neither tradition is the alien raised in human society; the reverse is always true.

The fates of fairy changelings are occasionally explored in modern fantasy, but the emphasis is not on their experience, but on the efforts of the changeling's family to rescue them, or on the perceptions outsiders in the fairy court have of them. There's a disjunct between fairy traditions, which universally declare that the motive of the fairies in abducting babies is to raise them as their own children, and modern tropes, which tend to portray changelings as pets or slaves, a fate reserved for adults taken by fairies in the oral literature. The literary beginning of this change in perception of fairy motives is marked by the conflict between Titania, who wants to keep her dead human friend's child to raise, and Oberon, who wants to use him as a servant, which kicks off the magic hijinks in A Midsummer Night's Dream. (It has always bothered me that Oberon, having used an enchantment to cheat Titania of her adopted son, is allowed to retain this victory.) I am not aware of any science fiction that has yet treated the alien hybrid raised among aliens experience in any significant way.

I start here from my usual standpoint in dealing with Fortean material. I am not interested in whether or not the abduction experience has an objective reality; but for the purposes of a fiction I feel obliged to deal with the source material as if it is objectively true within the fictional world. Despite the broad similarities in the abduction experience that researchers (particularly John Mack and Budd Hopkins) claimed to find, there's a lot of leeway in this source material. Even the classic abductors, the Gray Aliens, have a surprising amount of variety when looked at in detail; and the reasons they gave for the cross-breeding project were vague and contradictory. Were they trying to inject some hybrid vigor into their own inbred and over-refined species? Were they trying to create a master race made up of a little bit of the genetic potential of all the intelligent races in the galaxy/universe/interdimensional crossroads/whatever unit of space/time they're dealing with? Were they trying to preserve the human race, which is scheduled to drive itself to extinction in the foreseeable future (which may yet be quite a long time, if the aliens think in geologic time spans and humans in terms of human lifetimes)? Was this pure or applied research? Presumably some of the inconsistencies between stories involve different factions with different purposes for similar research (think how many different specific experiments white mice and Rhesus monkeys who share the experience of taking part in medical research would have to compare) - what are the implications of these factions for the alien hybrids they create?

I get why this hasn't been done. You'd - well, I'd, some people are less fussed about this than me - have to read a whole bunch of abduction literature (and it'd be best if you could read Spanish and Portuguese, because there's an extensive South American abduction literature which is not available in translation) and do a lot of extrapolative world-building, just to figure out what kind of environment the human hybrid protagonist is raised in. Mother ship? Space station? Planet-based colony? Home planet? Are they adopted out to normal alien families, or raised in a creche with other half-humans, or with a melting pot of different species of hybrids?

What normal human abilities seem magic, funny, contemptible, or cute to normal aliens? Do people pity them for not being able to see infrared, and dismiss the ability to see the frequencies we think of as "visible light" as a trivial party trick? Do humans who can't develop psi power past the point of receiving telepathic communication and feeling when someone is staring at them get treated as defective? Do intersex hybrids, fitting into the norms of their alien society, have an advantage over hybrids who fall definitively into "male" and "female" categories? Is the heroine inherently scary because she has teeth? Is she disadvantaged in public spaces because she only has five fingers on each hand and is not naturally ambidextrous? Are her mating choices dictated or restricted? Do people stereotype her based on what they read in popular novels? Is she romanticized by one group, vilified by another? Is there a hybrid solidarity movement; and does it truly serve the needs of all hybrids? Do they love the alien parents who raised them and regard their human progenitors as strange and distant? Do they even know they're hybrids?

How do you write all this without making it just another lame metaphorical saga encompassing all marginalized groups and representing none?

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