Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Guest Post | Eric Brown on Aliens and Optimism in Science Fiction

I wonder if I've written more often about any other author here on The Speculative Scotsman than Eric Brown.

If that's the case, as it may indeed be, there's got to be a reason, right? Well, he publishes more and more often than most authors... but that's not the thing, I think. After all, I care more for quality than I do quantity. Except when it comes to food. Eating is good.

The thing is, you can always count on Eric Brown to have a store of great ideas. These don't necessarily result in awesome novels, but they're food for thought, and I like that a lot. I like a narrative with an argument. I like a story that makes me question my preconceptions. And as I concluded yesterday, "The Serene Invasion is more than merely interesting. As a thought experiment it's unequivocally gripping, and Brown's got the follow-through down too."

Long story short, it gives me immense pleasure to host a few words from the very fellow today.

Without any further ado, here's the estimable author on aliens and optimism in science fiction...


First contact with an alien race fascinates writers and readers alike. It’s a fundamental trope of SF, there at the very beginning of the modern incarnation of the genre with Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and still going strong today. It’s almost a given, with few exceptions, that first contact will engender conflict, often martial conflict. It’s a great engine for story-telling, after all – a metaphor for the fears of the time and a way of objectifying the other in non-specific terms: the host of alien invasion films of the fifties were little more than America’s fear of the Soviet Union writ large on the silver screen. We’re still at it more than fifty years later, only this time the enemy – garbed in alien guise – is Islamic fundamentalism and terrorists in general. 

Which is all well and good if you like that kind of thing. It generates story dynamic, after all. All stories are powered by conflict – but it’s only one aspect of the consequence of first contact. To begin with, the idea that aliens will be per se hostile is a convenient assumption arrived at for the sake of penning a gung-ho war story... But the idea is based, lazily, I think, on the anthropocentric idea that all races out there will be motivated by the same imperatives that impel the human race: greed, the need of material gain, resources, territory... The likelihood is that when we do come across aliens they will be as unlike ourselves as it’s possible to be, creatures that have been shaped by the evolutionary dictates of an ecology and environment wholly unlike our own. They idea that they will want the same thing as we do is unlikely. 

I prefer to think – optimistically – that aliens might not come to Earth in order to pillage and annihilate, subjugate us and strip the planet of its resources. Call me naïve, but I think that a race that has existed long enough to develop FTL technology might, just might, have outgrown the baser motives of materialistic gain and the desire to do violence. Call me a hopeless bleeding-heart liberal if you like, but maybe aliens might come to Earth with the idea of making it a better place, of making humanity a better race... 

That was the starting point of the ideas that would coalesce into my seventeenth novel, The Serene Invasion

I’d done something similar – though not so ambitious – in the series of linked stories that I fixed-up into the novel Kéthani. Aliens come to Earth, though they remain in the background throughout the book, and grant human beings the chance to become immortal. The choice is ours. We can forego the gift, if we like, and live ‘normal’ lives, dying and remaining dead... Or we can take up the offer of the Kéthani and become immortal – dying and being reborn – with the proviso that we work for them as ambassadors to the stars, bringing the message of the Kéthani to other races out there. There is much argument in the book about whether the gift of the aliens is beneficial, or not – a question that is never resolved. 

I wanted to be more definite in The Serene Invasion, and come down on the side of the aliens. 

In the novel, as in Kéthani, we never see the aliens. We see their representatives, beings called self-aware entities, biological androids if you like, that have been on Earth for more than a hundred years, smoothing the way for the ultimate ‘invasion’. The entities can take on human form, and do, melding into the fabric of society and working their subtle magic... They are the closest we get to the actual S’rene. Now the reason I didn’t want to show the aliens – the same reason I didn’t show them in Kéthani – is that I wanted to retain reader credibility, and I judged there would be a great danger of losing this if I described the aliens physically. One way of portraying the S’rene, and retaining some credibility, would be to show them as in some way humanoid. But I thought it better to maintain the mystery and mystique of these all-powerful beings if I refrained from showing them at all. 

And the gift that the S’rene – or the Serene as they soon become known – bring to Earth? 

They come to Earth and stop us committing violence upon ourselves and upon all life... 

To the majority of the human race, this is a welcome boon – but of course there will be those out there who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, the old ways of violence and conflict. Arms manufacturers an the gun lobby and hunters, and the multi-nationals whose profit depends on people killing each other... 

The novel is about how the world will change, thanks to the Serene. 

It’s SF – it’s also, I admit, wish-fulfilment fantasy written from a standpoint of increasing frustration and desperation with the human race, and our political systems... But it’s also optimistic, in that it shows that, with the right impetus and input, normal everyday people – the disempowered, if you like – can and do embrace the ways of peace. 

I am, if nothing else, a fundamentally optimistic writer. Looking back over all my novels and short stories, I realise that they present an overall positive view of the future, and of humanity. Okay, so in the New York books the world is almost ruined, but there is hope, and the characters portrayed are fundamentally good people, with dreams and aspirations, who win through in the end. The same with Helix; planet Earth might be dying, but there is hope thanks to the alien Builders and the refuge of the ten thousand worlds on the Helix. In the Bengal Station trilogy – Necropath, Xenopath and Cosmopath – I wanted to take a character who at the start of the books is a nihilist but who, though experiencing events through the three books, comes to some understanding of himself, and achieves eventual happiness. I wanted to show that nihilism is too easy a response to the human condition. We live short lives, riven by pain and suffering, physical and psychological, and then we die, face an eternity of oblivion, and we know this... But we are after all creatures with sensibilities limited by the dictates of our environment. We see only what we want to see, what we have been conditioned to see, and therefore – I like to think – we apprehend only a partial truth of the wonder of the universe. 

I can’t prove that, of course: all I can do is write my small, hopeful tales of the future... 

Because there is always hope, I like to think, and in The Serene Invasion I’ve tried to show that for some people – lucky enough to exist on the partial universe of my imagination, and of my readers’ – hope has become a reality.


Thank you kindly, Eric. For the thoughtful essay, and indeed, all the great ideas you've had over the years. It's absolutely marvellous to have you here on The Speculative Scotsman again.

The Serene Invasion is out now, and I hardly need note that Eric has another new novel coming soon. Picking up where The Devil's Nebula left off, Satan's Reach is the second book in Weird Space series, and it should be on shelves this August.

Maybe we'll talk again then! :)

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