A wish for something different at the frontier

So, there’s a planet, and on the planet there’s a human settlement, or area of settlement, which humans don’t go far from, and there are also intelligent aliens. The humans and the aliens have been in contact for a while, but the humans don’t really understand the aliens. Then our protagonist is captured by the aliens, or goes to a part of the planet where humans don’t go, and discovers the fascinating truth about the aliens. This usually but not always leads to better a human/alien relationship thereafter.

How many books fit that template?

In my post on Octavia Butler’s Survivor, I suggested three other examples: Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Star of Danger (and I could have added Darkover Landfall), C.J. Cherryh’s Forty Thousand in Gehenna, and Judith Moffett’s Pennterra. In comments people mentioned Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, Jonathan Lethem’s Girl in Landscape, Amy Thomson’s The Color of Distance, Ursula Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and The Left Hand of Darkness (though that doesn’t have a human settlement) and I further thought of Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed and Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite. Please suggest more in comments if you have some!

In that lot we have some variation on a theme. Some of the “aliens” are practically human and some of them are really really alien. Sometimes things turn out well, sometimes terribly. Sometimes the protagonist goes native, sometimes the aliens get destroyed. But with all those variations, we also definitely have a theme.

I have read all of these except the Lethem, which strongly suggests that I like this story—and I do. When I stop consider what it is I like about it there’s a very simple answer: the aliens.

In my post, I suggested that the way a lot of these stories are written by women writers, and have female protagonists captured by aliens, might have something to do with the suggestion in Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See” that for women, living with aliens might be better than living with men, a kind of extreme separatism. With the expanded list, we find that as protagonists we have several examples of adult men, though we still have a majority of women and a good sprinkling of boys. The relative power balance between humans and aliens is one of the things that varies a lot, and that variation is especially linked with protagonist gender. (If somebody would like to do a proper academic study of this, they could graph that!)

But in the comments OverTheSeaToSkye suggested:

It might be interesting to compare this SF trope to women’s captivity narratives of early American colonization—in the collection I have, some women never came to any sort of accommodation with Native Americans, but other cases are more ambiguous.

and Alex Cohen expanded on that:

The overall theme you’re talking about seems a bright mirror to darker Westerns like The Searchers. Capture by the natives—always of the girl—is one of the recurring motifs in the Western genre, but resolves quite differently. Perhaps the SF stories express our wish that things had turned out differently on the frontier.

Now isn’t that an interesting thought!

It’s especially interesting because there is something colonial going on—almost all of these stories have the little human colony sheltering on the alien prairie. There’s a way in which many stories of colonising other planets are based on the Western idea of the covered wagon translated to space, and here we have the acknowledgement that those prairies were not in fact vacant when the pioneers got there.

Viewed in that light Russell’s protagonist is the closest to the traditional “captured by Indians” stories. (I think they are more usefully “Indians” in this context, because they have a lot to say about white attitudes to Native Americans at the time but not all that much about the Native Americans themselves as real people and cultures.) Russell’s protagonist has a truly horrible time among alien savages. (I should mention that don’t like The Sparrow. I find it emotional manipulative and dishonest.) But leaving that aside, if you look at the rest of those I think we’ve got a very interesting spectrum of wishes for difference indeed—from complete human assimilation to the alien (Survivor, Planet of Exile, Ammonite) to destruction of the aliens and their whole environment (Golden Witchbreed) to hybrid symbioses of human and alien whether sexual (Pennterra, Darkover) or purely cultural (Forty Thousand in Gehenna).

Which brings me back to the aliens. What makes these books interesting, the thing you’d mention when talking about them, is almost always the alien cultures. The protagonist is often there to be an unimmersed viewpoint for the reader in the alien culture, so the human protagonist and the reader can learn about it at a reasonable speed. However little sense it would make in reality for the protagonist to solve the riddle of the aliens and reconcile them to the colony, it always makes sense in that context. What is interesting is that riddle, when it is solved the story is over. Heinlein, who was never terribly interested in aliens, does a story like this practically as an aside in Starman Jones. In most of the books listed above, the aliens are really interesting (at least to me)—and even when they’re almost human (The Left Hand of Darkness, Ammonite) they’re still the most interesting thing and what the book is about.

There’s a thing that science fiction does where it’s essentially retelling a conventional narrative but because it has so many more interesting options for the way the world can be, the story becomes wider and has more angles than it otherwise would. I think this is a case of that. It may well be that some of these writers were consciously (and others unconsciously) wishing for different outcomes on the historical frontier. But in approaching that, the process of transformation has given us something different and other and even more interesting.

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