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Killing Aliens

Science fiction stories are fables for the modern era. Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles is really about Colonialism, District 9 is really about racism and refugees, and C.S. Lewis' Out of This Silent Planet is really about jingoism. In The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K. Leguin writes about the great mistake so many soldiers, armies and societies make again and again: making/believing their enemy is inhuman.

Of course, in Leguin's novel the "enemy" literally isn't a human. The novelette, which even Leguin described as moralistic, turns the normal science fiction conventions on their head. Humans are the invaders and the en-slavers of the Athsheans.

We first meet the small, green ape-like Athesheans from the point of view of a military officer Captain Davidson. He and the other colonists don’t believe the aliens--nick-named “Chreechies”--feel pain, sleep or have any intelligence. Most of all, they consider them harmless and dumb, mere animals. “The fact is creechies are a meter tall, they’re covered with green fur, they don’t sleep and they’re not human beings in my frame of reference,” Captain Davidson tells another officer. Introduced as savages, the reader views them as such. I did so on my first reading.

Of course, Le Guin reverses this view a chapter later, and destroys the preconceptions and biases of Captain Davidson and the other officers. A xeno-anthropologist explains how each stereotype is merely a misconception. While the Athsheans lack technology, they have developed a nuanced, complex culture. But only one human is even capable of understanding this; the others merely want to cut down their forests.

The Athshean are not innocent of dehumanizing their enemies either, with most of the Athsheans referring to the Earthlings as crazy--“They are backwards, Selver. They are insane.”--or evil--“If they are men, they are evil men.” This gap between Earthlings and Athshean only grows, and eventually leads to political war, a liberation insurgency on the part of the Athsheans.

By the end of the novel, anatgonism and segregation has replaced possible integration and cooperation.So how does this affect us today? The human instinct to marginalize/dehumanize the enemy has not dissipated. No matter how holy we like to believe ourselves, we persist in stereotypes. Like WWII propaganda depicting the Japanese as rat-like, a nation at war seems destined to dehumanize and hate their enemy. Today is no different. I've met soldiers who told me--in hushed tones or in boisterous drunkenness--that they hate all Iraqi's/Afghanis/Arabs/Muslims, or some variation thereof. Googling the words “Islam barbaric” yields 400,000 hits, and who knows how many hits Western invaders would yield in Arabic.

six comments

Two additional things I thought of on the way to LA today:

1. This book is also really about colonialism, but I focused on its view of violence and colonialism.

2. The book is, I believe, out of print and that is why we did not link to Amazon. I sincerely recommend you try and find it.

To a small degree the dehumanization of your enemy is partly conditioned inside the US military. Its easier to pull a trigger and not hesitate or feel terrible about it later if you don´t consider your enemy human. You should read LTC Grossman´s book, it has a fascinating piece from thing as simple as using silhouttes instead of round targets at a shooting range, and statistics on firing rates for the civil war, WWII, the Korean War, and by Vietnam the conditioning had been perfected. Of course these things are always exacerbated by a language barrier, its hard to consider someone you just had a conversation with to be a “untermensch”.

That was one thing I feel District 9 did really well; showed how quick we are to dehumanize one group because they are different. In the beginning the aliens/prawns are given humanitarian aid and treated as refugees. As refugees, they quickly become second class citizens. Until eventually their lives are less valuable than human resulting in experimentation and murder. Though the movie had its weak points, the social commentary was excellent. It’s interesting how scifi movies are usually from the human point of view, how we are usually the righteous, and how we always win.

Ok- I’ve read most of Lewis’ and essentially all of Bradbury’s sci-fi, but of course I have read the book you discuss here (I think I’ve read some of her other work though).

Have you guys read Dune? After reading most of the Accidental Guerilla I have noticed a significant amount of similarities with the Bene Geserit and their Missionaria Protectiva.

@ Chris C – Yeah, Grossman is incredibly informative. The silhouettes thing is scary in its implication that killing can be taught. But at least that is turning the enemy into a silhouette, not an evil thing.

@ Matty P – The further I get away from District 9, the more I respect it. Especially Aliens on Earth that we abuse. Total flip of the situation.

@ Jon – I loved Dune. I haven’t read it in years, but I loved it when i read it. If you think it is worth it, I’m probably going to have to re-read it for post ideas.

Note that Grossman bases much of his work on firing rates during WWII on SLA Marshall, whose work has come under attack recently. Grossman’s own data has also come under attack here: