That first post was science geeky and professor-like, right? Time for science fiction geeky, and for some fun.
The first version of Alien Nation was a 1988 action film, but I’m talking about the TV show that aired a year later. It rated highly, but only lasted one season because it was axed along with many other shows when Fox underwent a change in management. When yet another such change came along a couple of years later, the original cast was reunited to finish out the planned story in four TV movies, corresponding to the five planned seasons. (People were trying to do sagas on TV before Babylon 5, and this show should get some credit for doing it first.)
The man behind this effort was Kenneth Johnson, one of the greats of modern science fiction, especially of the social variety and especially on television, including The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, the initial concept and first installment of V, and to an extent, Farscape. Spotting some similar points and issues across these? That’s Kenny.
OK, social science fiction: using fantastic elements, e.g. aliens, dimensional alternatives, and whatnot, to highlight and further problematize existing human hassles. Here’s a quick profile for how it’s done:
- Human-analogue aliens
- Alternative aliens
- Without prior plausibility
- With prior plausibility
These are tactics, not independent options, and Alien Nations does all three at once.
Human-analogue aliens are stand-ins for humans, sometimes called rubber forehead aliens. Alien Nation does this to address immigration and refugee issues, and very well, too. I highly recommend Frederik Pohl’s “The Day After the Martians Came” (in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions) as probably the most hard-core version.
Alternative aliens change the variables more profoundly, such that they do it differently rather than the same. When the difference lacks prior plausibility, then the effect is colorful but can lack punch or becomes a circular construct, like wolf- or tiger-people humanoids having a noble-savage honor code. That image relies on seeing humanity in a cultural and nigh-mystical sense of “consciousness” as emerging from, in fact escaping from being apes, and suggesting it might happen likewise with other creatures. However, the “it” is simply false – humans are apes, we didn’t “come from” them in a way which escapes that identity or emerges into a new way of being. So our wolf-people are still merely rubber-foreheads, and quite likely a crap version because they get to be a stereotype which doesn’t even exist for humans either.
When the difference is founded in prior plausibility, then a curious disturbing quality can emerge which I quite like. It throws the presumed or assumed morality of our way to do it into high relief, specifically into a question-state rather than a certainty-state.
Alien Nation does both of these with the Newcomers’ reproductive biology:
- There’s a third sex who provides no gamete, but must act as an intermediate copulatory partner with the female
- Although the zygote is formed in the female’s body, the embryo is then transferred to the male, who undergoes pregnancy.
The first lacks prior plausibility, which is to say, either an example of such a thing in known biology or an imagined model for it that works without hand-waving. The digametic (sperm/ova) model appears to be the only way that gametic sex occurs in multi-cellular organisms, and insofar as individual features reflect it, they go one way or the other, hence there are as many reproductively operational sexes, bodily speaking, as there are gametes, apparently fixed at two. No “helper” sex in copulation who doesn’t contribute otherwise has been observed for any gametic mode of reproduction on Earth, nor does any theoretical model for how that might work pan out statistically. [Before you get mad at me, yes, I know what gender is, and yes, I know that mammals display a variety of variant individual outcomes. I’ll post on how that relates later, and for now, trust me, I’m not a gender essentialist nor is anyone who’s knowledgeable about biology.] So it’s a neat idea but it’s only an idea.
The second, on the other hand, is quite wonderfully plausible given its presence in a variety of creatures, most famously the family of fishes including pipefishes and seahorses. There are still just two sexes, but a given individual can be both. No known mammals or even amniotes do this, but hey – it’s still pretty close in the many-roomed mansion of Vertebrata. Given some zigs or zags in vertebrate history, we could be doing this even now.
In the show, a lot of this gets processed through the main human character, Matt Sykes, who is a relatively thoughtful but generally unreconstructed man’s man who doesn’t talk about his feelings much. Here’s the first part of the episode which concludes his alien partner George’s multi-episode saga of pregnancy, embedded in a crime story which is all about the expectations of manhood. You can follow it through its parts via the Youtube links.
I used a lot of science fiction in the bio classes I’ve taught, beginning with an exercise in 1994 and generating some pretty aggressive course designs, up through 2014. Here are two handouts from a nonmajors laboratory course I did for a while which really dug into the prior-plausibility technique: Alien and life-history strategy, and The Brood and reproductive investment. Please ask any questions you’d like about them, and consider that every feature of human physiological sexuality is inherited via our origins as a mammalian primate, and is therefore historical rather than conceptual in its profile.
Now check out the exercise at the end of the second handout, repeated below with minor changes. What humans do is listed first with a real-world alternative in the parenthesis.
Invent a creature about our size, cognitive and social and rather like us in many ways, but which differs from us in one dramatic way regarding the organization of its reproductive investment strategy. In other words, “tweak” one of the following to its opposite:
- Obligatory sexual reproduction (vs. sex being an option in addition to cloning)
- Single sex per individual (vs. true hermaphroditism, whether sequential or simultaneous)
- Few offspring with high gestation investment in each (vs. many offspring with low investment each)
- Pregnancy (vs. egg)
- Bias toward female investment (vs. bias toward male investment)
- Non-parasitoidal (vs. parasitoidal)
- Altricial offspring (vs. precocial offspring)
- Long maturation time (vs. short maturation time)
Consider how these creatures’ values might differ from ours due to these differences. What might we find disturbing or difficult to consider “human” about them?
In class, I had the students work together and just pick one thing to tweak, but I’ll flip a coin for each option … and I wound up with three changes. Meet the Vargeen! (click on the image for the full writeup in PDF)
Try it yourself, using just one tweak: roll a d8 physically or with an online dice roller to find which one will flip. Interpret what you get for a cool culture/values bending alien species to meet, and post about it in the comments for me to work over. Let’s see what kind of SF we can get.
Next: About killing