Implacable Justice: Arguing Politics and Theories of Law Via the Encounter with Powerful Alien Species

Article excerpt

Although the dystopia continues to beckon as the most obvious vehicle for authors wanting to argue their politics in science fiction, the human encounter with aliens is also employed for that purpose and enjoys one important competitive advantage over the dystopia. While both storylines permit authors to make claims about human nature and comment on the sorts of anxieties and grievances animating contemporary politics, the alien encounter allows authors to do so in a manner that is perhaps less obvious. This is because the reader's attention is drawn to the salient physical and behavioral differences of the alien Other rather than to behavioral differences among humans. Simple misdirection makes the political philosophical arguments made by the author more persuasive for mass audiences because the assumptions underlying them are less immediately available to critical examination by readers. Comparison of two recent series of novels in which primary characters are police officers on the frontlines of encounters with powerful alien species with non-human conceptions of justice--Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Retrieval Artist series and Karen Traviss's unfinished Wess'har Wars series--illustrate the sophistication with which such political argument may be smuggled into dramatic and effective science fiction story telling.

Rusch and Traviss excel at telling riveting, internally consistent serial yarns while also arguing politics. They simultaneously make political philosophical claims about human nature and argue theories of law. Although they share similar views of human nature, they differ in the theories of law they advocate. Interrogating the claims they make about justice necessitates following the intended misdirection, focusing attention first on the aliens, and then on the human interaction with them.

Describing dramatic interaction between humans and truly alien aliens has long been one of the greatest challenges facing science fiction authors. For example, Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 classic Childhood's End includes dialog between humans and one of the relatively humanoid Overlords, but none between humans and the Overmind, which has abandoned this pale of existence. In general, the problem is less one of describing alien biology than of describing interaction between the humans and alien species. Far too many stories have been written about aliens impossibly similar in appearance and behavior to humans to credit as being products of parallel evolution. The enormous Star Trek franchise is evidence that such lack of creativity in describing aliens is unlikely to be punished by popular audiences when there is sufficient if predictable drama.

Countless authors have responded to the challenge with stories about encounters between human beings and aliens resembling species similar to terrestrial phyla such as arthropods, amphibians, reptiles, or birds. Although sentient, such creatures lack some or all the human emotional repertoire. The "pseudo-arachnids" or "Bugs" in Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 novel Starship Troopers provide a familiar example. Lacking any individuality and directed by a hive mind that squanders its life in warfare, Heinlein's "Bugs" pose an existential threat to humanity. They are the merciless enemy Other that it is permissible, indeed righteous, to hate. Some critics detect in Heinlein's "Bugs" reflections of the East Asian Other that Americans encountered during the Second World War and Korean War (Franklin, 49-52). Although Heinlein repeatedly criticizes white supremacy in his novels and short stories, passages in several works reveal an unmistakable demographic and cultural anxiety about East Asians difficult to distinguish from racism, as Everett Dolman says in his essay (Dolman, 196-213). Explicitly compared to the "Bugs" in Starship Troopers, East Asians appear as a threatening horde in the 1941 novel Sixth Column and the 1955 novel Tunnel in the Sky. Heinlein appears more sympathetic to East Asians, however, in his 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. …