Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 2


The series on James Gunn’s Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis continues with a look at more plots of circumstances.

An Alien in a Human Environment

Gunn sees this as similar to the “ancient or primitive man in a modern human environment” in its use as a vehicle for satire, but it does have other uses and is popular. It’s also more “thoughtful and less adventurous” than the human out of place in the modern world plot.

Alien Being in the Past

At the time of writing his thesis, Gunn says science fiction writers are not fond of “placing aliens in the past”.

His description of when this plot is mostly used is valid:

When such a situation is used, it is usually tied in with human history or mythology to give the story an air of plausibility or a philosophical application. A number of stories, for instance, have tried to explain the presence or evolution of humanity by emigration and later degeneration of an alien race, or by alien experiments with sub-human life forms (usually in such circumstances as to suggest reasons for the springing up of legends of creation, paradise, heaven, Satan, etc.).

He then goes on to anticipate the fiction non-fiction of Erich von Daniken by talking about how some uses of the plot are to explain past mysteries and monuments and mythologies by citing aliens.

He then judges this is a plot of no real importance. It focuses, in his mind, on the opposite of what sf should focus on – the future.

I suspect you could do such a plot that has some sort of relevance to the current world or the future, but, I must admit, no such work comes to mind immediately. I would not be surprised, though, that a few exist.

Alien Being in the Present

Gunn starts right out by stating the present is sf writer’s favorite time for aliens show up, and it’s hard to argue that.

However, I can argue with this:

 . . . there is an immediacy about the situation which translates itself into drama, suspense, and philosophical application. There is enough unexplained phenomena today, from flying saucers to mysterious disappearances, to provide a plausible basis for any number of stories about aliens in our society or even in our neighborhood; science fiction authors no longer feel the necessity of placing their aliens in secluded or poorly populated sections of the globe, although it is still done occasionally. Obvious satire is seldom present in modern versions of this plot type; satire, to repeat an observation made several times before, is not compatible with realism. Philosophical observations, when present, stem directly from the plot, and, unlike early stories, they are seldom stated overtly.

Most of us can supply examples of virtuous aliens lecturing us humans on our ways or who ask questions that illustrate how bad or strange we are. Gunn doesn’t see this as satirical but philosophical, but I think it’s hard to draw that line sometimes. Even Gunn acknowledges that satirical elements do still show up in these plots occasionally.

He talks about Harry Bates’ “Farewell to the Master” (basis of the film The Day the Earth Stood Still) in this regard.

Gunn notes that several stories of recent years feature alien invasions or reconnaissances defeated by aliens “forgetting or neglecting to take into account of one minor fact”. He even cites his own “Paradox” (published under the penname Edwin James) here.

He makes an observation that – at least in 1951 – Martians stand in as a symbol for all intelligent aliens. Certainly, that’s true rhetorically in, say, news articles and essays and politics, but not really sf after further exploration of Mars made the idea of intelligent Martians less plausible.

Alien Being in the Future

Gunn sees the uses of this plot as similar to the “alien being in the present”; however, he sees this plot as coming into existence in modern sf, which remember, was birthed about 1930.

Now I don’t know exactly when editor John W. Campbell decided that human supremacy would be shown in almost every story in Astounding Science Fiction that had aliens, but Gunn hints at a frequent, in 1951, perspective on this plot:

The principal thematic trend in stories of this type is a glorification of humanity—not in its present state but in a possible future state of perfection, which it has reached by long struggle. … A current attribute of humanity, usually minor and unnoticed today, is occasionally singled out as important in preserving mankind or establishing its superiority in the universe. Whatever the reason, these stories, unreasonable as it may be, have the effect of leaving the reader with a warm glow of satisfaction in belonging to the human race.

That “warm glow of satisfaction” does explain this plot’s appeal though I suspect Campbell’s requirements were ideologically based.

Gunn is enthusiastic about this plot saying its possibilities are limitless. It may be used for inconsequential stories, but it doesn’t have to be.

One thought on “Modern SF: Plots of Circumstance, Part 2

  1. keithakenny August 1, 2018 / 6:22 am

    Fine article. SF popular and understandable to modern human readers probably requires human glorification and the concept of perfectibility. Missteps on the road deny perfection and take us to in the other direction, possibly destroying us—nuclear war, environmental disaster, exhaustion of resources, etc.

    Aliens arriving on Earth at any time would fit right in because (as modern humans see it) they must be on the same timeline and basically share the same ambitions, i.e. we could learn from them or be exploited by them. This may be sheer self-centered anthropomorphism.

    See “Aliens Among Us”, an essay from two years ago.

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