Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Should Exploring Hard Questions Look Like Us?

I wrote a story about an alien with a nasty past, exploring a fragment of his time. I love the story and find it rather powerful, but I didn't recognize the theme until called on it. The theme considers the question of repenting. If someone who has committed deliberate, terrible crimes gives up their life of crime, are they still accountable for those crimes? Now, my tale doesn't give an answer and if I had to give one it probably would sound something like "It depends," but the philosophical point came when I was asked if using aliens to explore this message diminishes it.

That's a pretty big question, in my opinion. I see two sides to the argument:

1) The truly difficult questions shouldn't be explored in an alien environment because the impact of the decision is lessened to the point that the decision becomes random as opposed to a thinking choice.

2) Presenting difficult questions through an alien world allows us the distance to really explore our beliefs and the reasons for them without our thoughts being disrupted or undermined by emotion.

Remember what I said first. I wrote a story about an alien and I stand by his story. However, I have to ask myself if I'd started with the theme, would I have chosen an alien to bear this question?

Here are my thoughts.

1) Science fiction has a long-standing tradition of exploring issues considered untouchable in mainstream writing because it allows for that distance. Does it diminish the emotional impact? Absolutely. However, if I wrote a story about released sex offenders who had repented and fixed their ways, could I set aside my own fears about the reformed sex offenders in my neighborhood? I think I'd be charged with going on a soapbox and probably would provide an emotional answer as opposed to exploring the question as I did in the short story I mentioned.

2) This position, probably obvious from my earlier statements, is more in line with my thinking. I'd relate it to anthropologists who go out and study "alien" cultures only to learn more about their own. Very few people can look at their own lives with any sense of objectivity and that goes for anything that might touch their lives.

If you ask me if a sex offender should be allowed to live three blocks from where my children play in the park, my answer is no. It doesn't matter if they've reformed. It doesn't matter if they've served their time and swear up and down that part of their past is behind them. I don't want a person who ever did such a thing near my kids.

That statement is not reasoned. It is not objective. It has nothing to do with laws, rights or philosophy. As a mother, I cannot accept the risk.

However, within the context of an alien world far distant from my daily life, I am able to look at questions which otherwise would provoke solely an emotional response.

I think this is one of the successes of science fiction. Racial integration, mixed marriages, homosexuality and many other binding questions were addressed on Star Trek long before they could be touched on a mainstream show. If we are to explore those things that touch our lives, I feel this is a good way to gain the distance necessary to apply objectivity and really question our own assumptions. We may find the same answers for some questions, but others may have a complexity hidden by our fears.

Without that distance, the emotional response can overwhelm the reasoned one and, when we let our fears govern our actions, it is difficult to produce a society, legal or political system that protects the appropriate rights of all people, not just those who happen to sit on the top of the heap.

So, tell me what you think about exploring the bigger questions through the medium of "alien" societies. Does it promote objectivity and therefore reasoned responses or distance to the point that the question has no impact? Or is there a third answer?


Joel said...

Third answer for me. Would reflect the various opinions that humanity have to the tough questions.

Margaret said...

Interesting, Joel. So am I reading you correctly to say it doesn't matter what the forum? I agree, all answers will reflect the human perspective because of our own nature, though is there really a "human" perspective? Cultural differences, especially regarding the big questions can put people on opposite sides of such a discussion.

Joel said...

I think there is only a "true human" perspective. I've thought for some time now that Campbell's archtypes reflect the fact that there's only one human species: despite all our variety, our brain's pathways can only form in certain limited ways. Would be interesting to have seen the archetypes, for example, if any Neanderthals had survived the Ice Age.

Margaret said...

True for archetypes but I don't know how true it is for questions of responsibility and redemption. I've seen significant cultural differences. For example, in several Middle Eastern countries, if you are caught stealing, you lose a hand. In the US, if you're a teen, you get send to a shrink or the Army the first time, then maybe the second time you get a jail sentence but all that is forgotten the minute you turn 18. There's a bottom line difference between the two, more than just a level of punishment. In the US, the law implies that those under 18 are not responsible for their actions and therefore should be given a clean slate as adults regardless of their behavior before the magical age of 18. In other countries, thiefs, regardless of age, are given stiff punishments and their records (or bodies) are marred forever--no chance of redemption through forgetfulness.

Joel said...

The value placed on responsibility and redemption will vary in each culture but be within a human spectrum. Several hundred years ago, cutting off a thief's hand was quite acceptable in Christian Europe. Slavery is acceptable for most of human recorded history. Both, obviously, are not abhorrent in modern Western culture. But was there some sort of intrinsic "right/wrong" dichotomy in such issues? I, personally, believe there was not. From what we understand of genetics and evolution, nature tends to be quite blunt in its approach when something doesn't work: it kills the organism. Responsibility--and redemption for those who "fall" from what a society considers acceptable--is solely within the human sphere of influence. A truly alien culture, if it possessed such notions, would have widely differing view much of which would only fall within human range of understanding by coincidence...and we may still be wrong.

S.L. said...

So, tell me what you think about exploring the bigger questions through the medium of "alien" societies. Does it promote objectivity and therefore reasoned responses or distance to the point that the question has no impact? Or is there a third answer?I don't think there can be one, two, three or forty answers to this question. SF writers have a variety of uses for and agendas behind their alien societies. My aliens are 99% me having fun. The other 1% is usually some sort of personal metaphor, in the sense that the aliens are created specifically as tools and dimensional concepts to be employed for whatever I personally want to explore in the novel. I don't write to pose big questions for anyone but myself, but if the reader wants to jump in and ponder along with me, that's fine. What's been interesting is I don't always come to a logic or emotional conclusion. Some of the time, a lot of the time, the answer is "Heck if I know."

Example: I created a society of aliens -- Jorenians -- to embody certain human religious ideals. On Joren, the ideals work well, and the Jorenian HouseClans have many, many fans among my readers. Those same ideals have never really worked in human society, and if you told any of my readers they'd actually have to live by Jorenian customs, they'd sock you in the mouth.

When I created the villainous reptilian Hsktskt in the StarDoc series, I based their culture and activities on three different invader-type human cultures from the past (heavily on the Norse Vikings.) Likewise, they work well, and everyone hates them. Yet if we went out into space indiscriminantly, we would end up being like them (which I justify below.)

If the majority of SF writers do anything uniformly, it is to provide a highly idealized and completely erroneous image of human beings as they venture out into space and mix in alien societies.

Based on our species history, if the technology were available for anyone on this planet to invade other, occupied alien worlds, we would be likely hostile marauding xenophobes who would colonize through forced occupation and genocide. AKA the bad guys. We are very, very good at that -- but that's another debate.

Jean said...

In my reading, I've learned an alien culture can be used to present ideas which may be too difficult for current society to deal with in the open. You've used the illustration of a sex offender, and that is a volatile example in human society.

I discovered in telling a simple story about me living in an alien society (yes, humans are aliens to me), that I discovered issues I hadn't considered before. Will my readers discover those same issues? Will it change for the better how anyone thinks about or approaches those issues? I hope so. Will it be groundbreaking? Probably not. But, if repeated exposure to violence can make people respond more violently, perhaps repeated exposure to more virtuous ideals will result, over the long term, in people responding more compassionately.

And that brings me to my observations on your two answers question. Using an alien culture to discuss or explore issues too volatile to look at objectively in native culture is fine; however, to reap the benefits of that discussion, the results must be examined in the context of the native culture and workable solutions developed and implemented.

As the author, that may or may not be your job to do. Your medium creates the fertile ground for discussion. Do you, as the author, have the luxury of being able to take your abstract discussion and plunk it down in a real world, let's act upon this way? Possibly. But most likely, you'll be writing your next book to keep the ideas flowing. As the visionary, you will keep building on the vision. Others will be responsible for implementing the vision. At least, that's what I try to tell Her.

Margaret said...

Wow, I missed a good set of comments. Thanks for your thoughts.

Joel -- Interesting point about alien eyes. How can something truly "alien" teach us anything because we lack the framework to understand and accept their morality, even assuming they have one? One of the things I love to explore in my writing is exactly that line where we believe we understand a culture but in truth have it disastrously wrong. This has a long-standing tradition in sociological science fiction but mostly raises the questions and asks the reader to think about it.

S.L. -- Sadly enough, I agree with you on humanity. We are (in the traditional misquote of Hobbes) nasty, brutish and short. Very few humans and no cultures that I can think of off hand are completely altruistic and non-territorial. Even the Native American cultures often touted as examples of how humans should live had competition and counting coup, aggression whether or not they slaughtered their own kind. Not to mention that the ones who would actually make it into space wouldn't be from those few, low-aggression cultures anyway. Oh, and yeah, the 99% fun I can see when I read about your characters :D.

Inuit -- I believe my responsibility is to tell a good story. If a question is raised by the story, I'd never say the story provided "the" answer, though it may have an apparent one. The story provides visions and answers that are right for that specific character and possibly for no one else. However, if the experiences of that character make a reader think about their own choices and reactions, I have to say I'm delighted. If I didn't want to spark conversation, I wouldn't maintain (however poorly) this blog now would I?

Thanks again for sharing your perspectives. I, for one, am enjoying the discussion.

Red Hart Magic said...

Nicely said and an interesting comment on people and how we work. The intellectual and moral versus the emotional. I think your idea that we can "distance" ourselves in sci-fi and fantasy is right on the button. However, I also think it depends a lot on the type of person you are, as to how much distance you need.

As an example, take "Pulp Fiction" the movie. My partner rates it as one of the best movies he's seen. I simply cannot stomach it due to the violence. For me it's too close, to real.

Yes, you guessed it, I write mainly spec. fiction. For me, I need that distance to be able to cope with the violence, whereas my partner can watch Pulp Fiction with equanimity and is looking forward to seeing Kill Bill. Whereas the only violence I can stomach is something like "Arthur" or "Lord of the Rings".

So while I agree with you that tackling violence and rape as Tarantino does promotes an emotional, rather than intellectual reaction in people, it's not that way for everyone.