Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

  • Why do the wess'har dislike humans so much?
    (Originally published on my LiveJournal.)

    Monkey Boys 1: Everyone Else 0

    Okay, the £100K in used random notes wasn't left in the phone booth as I specified, so you get day two of the FAQ. This is an explanation of why humans don't look so hot as role models in my fiction. This story goes back a while.

    Some years ago my ex-husband - hereinafter referred to as H2, to distinguish him from H1 - was very unhappy about a SF novel where the aliens were the threat and the gallant humans (and their sidekicky but inferior alien allies) blew the Bad Aliens to Kingdom Come. H2, who was both a prolific SF reader and a man of science, had drunk his fill of this ethos and was spitting nails about it. "Why are humans always the good guys?" he ranted. "It's institutional xenophobia. Crap."

    Hmm, I thought, wiping the foam from the kitchen table. If I ever write SF (and I had no plans to do so then) maybe I could ask that very question...

    So I did.

    I've had comments that the humans in CoP and CTL - even the good guys, murky as they are - are extreme cases, and that most humans aren't grasping or competitive. Well, of course the human cast of the wess'har wars are extreme: extreme people are the ones who actually do things, and leave everything behind on a one-way ticket, and take huge risks, and shape events. That's why they got on the ship to start with. Normal people tend to say things like, "I don't think I feel like invading a small Third World nation today, dear. I'll just pop down to Sainsbury's and get some tea bags."

    But pretty well all life on Earth is competitive, although not as visibly to urban humans. It's the way species are built and we're probably among the most competitive, although plants are bloody scary. This isn't a value judgement. Put aside the notions of morality, and what's good and what's bad, and just look at it neutrally. We've clawed our way to the top of the food chain because we can manipulate our environment in various ways, and so we can move into lots of different niches. When we move in, other species have to move out, or become those that depend in part on us. And that's all I mean by competitive. Every time we as individuals do something that disadvantages other species because our needs matter more, then we're indulging in competition. (By the way, used any disposable chopsticks lately? You might not even know when you're doing it.)

    Anyway, spurred on by H2's diatribe against this certain novel (and I forget the title) I've tried to turn the issue inside out. It's a journalistic device most hacks are familiar with: take a widely held belief that is almost invisible through lack of challenge and ask, " this guy really a saint?"

    The whole concept of alienness is frequently debated in SF. Just how alien can you make an alien and still make them intelligible to readers? The answer is that if they're that alien, you can't. Novels are explorations of the human condition, read solely by humans (as far as we know) and so they need common reference points. You take it as far as you can, and in my case that means a perspective that doesn't assume humans are the good guys, or that their lives count more than anyone else's.

    This is, in most human cultures, anathema. It strikes me not only as a competitive view - Monkey Boys first, which makes sense in evolutionary terms - but as something that has its roots in Western religion. Since H2's rant, I've made a point of seeking out people who would describe themselves as data rational, usually people with a science or business background, and asking them if they think humans are special and why.

    The interesting thing is that apart from the obvious biological imperative to look after your own kind, their arguments have boiled down to one that's quite emotional and would be called soul by those people more up-front about their beliefs. Culture and language are frequently cited as making us more worthy, but none of that is a reason: it's what we like about ourselves. It's wholly subjective. There's no intrinsic worth in either, let alone an unbreakable definition, other than the ones that humans place upon them. We seem to make sure that those definitions exclude rather than include.

    It's all unexpectedly fluffy and, oddly, I've heard it more frequently from men than from women. (That could simply be because more men end up in the data-rational professions). None has been able to give me a list of real hard facts to support their view - just feelings. Okay, they're entitled to those, but the data rational (and I'd be in that category) can be highly subjective. Ironically, the most common dismissal they have of people who don't agree with them is that they're being emotional. It's not universal, and Peter Watts covered the species issue brilliantly in his blog some time back, but it's a definite pattern.

    So that's why - eventually - I took that fascinating paradox and used it as one of the bases for City of Pearl. If you're going to look at humans from the outside, it seemed a pretty good place to start. Some people are disturbed by that: once you start questioning the most basic tenets of our existence, you have to wonder what you're left with. Some people aren't: they either take it as read that aliens would see us a lot less lovingly than we see ourselves, or they actively enjoy seeing the universal order questioned.

    To the wess'har, we're just another variety of meatbag driven by chemicals and genes. It isn't finding that we're not alone that Earth's big culture shock. It's experiencing what it really means to be just another animal. This is what I mean in the recurring theme that I use of lines - where we place the barrier between what's us, and so is treated one way, and what's not us, and can be treated another.

    In the end, the question of whether humans or individual characters are "good" or "bad" is just that, a question. You have to reach your own conclusions when you read the books. There's no easy answer in in the series, as several reviewers have observed. And there aren't any messages or subliminal tricks in there either. I'm just continuing to ask questions that often don't get asked, and that can be uncomfortable.

    And as you can see, even ex-husbands prove useful in the fullness of time.

    © Karen Traviss 2005