Aliens and the family unit

Well, according to Grim Reviews and Papers Falling from an Attic Window (hi guys!) I’ve become involved in the online Derleth / Lovecraft debate. To be honest, I didn’t know there was one, but it touches on some very serious issues – the integrity of an artist’s worldview, the limits of universe sharing, and so on.

Some of the genre debates are less serious (tho’, come to think of it, not necessarily to those taking part in them). My favourite such was one I found a couple of years back – a very involved conversation about who would win in a battle between the USS Enterprise and a Star Destroyer from Star Wars.

The debate scrolled on for pages, and got very technical. I gave up reading it when both participants started referencing blueprints, competing technologies, etc. In fact, I couldn’t help feeling that the answer was very easy – the USS Enterprise, every time, because they’re the good guys, and both the Star Trek and Star Wars narrative models would demand their victory.

That throws interesting light on good guy / bad guy spaceships. For me, the basic function of bad guy spaceships is to look utterly threatening and apparently terrifyingly all-powerful (‘This station is now the ultimate power in the universe’, etc), but in fact be a bit crap; the basic function of good guy spaceships is to look ramshackle, or at the very least fallible (‘the engines canna take it, captain!’, etc), but really be indestructible and all-defeating.

That’s a result of the narrative structure that these stories are built on. Without all powerful but ultimately frangible villains, and apparently weak but in fact all-powerful good guys, you don’t get high stakes, fear of failure, final victory and thus the dramatic tension and resolution that keeps people both watching and satisfied.

I’ve also been wondering if there’s a visual semantics of starships. What’s noticeable is the extent to which good guy spaceships are rounded and cuddly, and bad guy spaceships are spiky and alienating. Good guy spaceships are implicitly a home; bad guy spaceships are a threat to that home, tearing into it and breaking it up.

One condition of much of the alien / opponent activity we’re shown is a lack of emotional bonds, contrasting strongly with the close relationships between on-board good guys. Even Star Trek – most hierarchical of SF shows, making heroes of an entire military command structure – is predicated on close emotional rather than organisational ties between its leading characters.

And in Star Trek, antagonist space ship crews are notable for their lack of that emotionalism. From the Borg to the Klingons, the Ferengi to the Romulans, anyone who fires on the Enterprise is really a non-family unit firing on a family unit. One more narrative trick to ensure we empathise with the good guys…

So where does all this lead to? Well, what’s really interesting is what it exposes about popular science fiction’s envisioning and dramatisation of the alien. It’s not really alien at all; it exists to provide a fallible opposite to human good, an opposite that’s portrayed in terms that – by definition – we can’t empathise or engage with, except as an evil, disposable antagonist.

3 thoughts on “Aliens and the family unit

  1. Well, the debate about Derleth regarding Lovecraft came before the internet, but has certainly picked up added vigor since it appeared online. Sort of two-fold, or even two different debates, if you break them down:

    1. Derleth’s influence on the actual content of the mythos.
    2. Derleth’s real life handling of HPL’s stories following his death through Arkham House (claiming rights and such).

    Your view is welcome though, good sir, unintended or not. Just thought I’d throw a bit of background in. As for the rest of your post here, you present some interesting and humorous info I can’t disagree with. Keep up the good work!

  2. Fantastic post, Al! I agree with all your points re: good and evil ships.

    We need to meet up – I must re-read your email (caught it early in the am or late at night, n’ it’s a blur in a pile of ‘to respond’ messages) and get back to you. Had a fantastic idea that needs much discussion, amongst all else.

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