Science fiction is our attempt not just to learn from the past, but also to gain the benefit of hindsight for the present. To step outside of this time, and even our own species, and really look.
The vehicle for that gaze isn’t the starship Enterprise, or Voyager, or the Cardassian monstrosity re-badged as Deep Space Nine. Those are just settings. The real lens is the Outsider.
Spock was an Outsider. So was Data, and even Worf. Odo, and occasionally Quark. The Emergency Medical Hologram, and Tuvok, and from time to time, also B’Elanna Torres, and Seven of Nine. T’Pol and Phlox too. And those were just the regulars. We’d also have to mention the magnificent Q.
The Outsider is science fiction’s mirror for ourselves, who looks, listens, and implicitly judges. That judgement might be disdain (Q, certainly, and often Seven of Nine), puzzlement (Data, sometimes Worf), quiet vexation (all Vulcan characters), or something else entirely.
They watch, and they notice, and thus through their eyes they allow us to notice things that have been right in front of us all along. They bring things to light, sometimes by drawing attention to them, and sometimes by not understanding why there’s anything to draw attention to.
When we saw how unremarkable it was to have a woman (and an African American woman, at that) on the bridge, with a Russian alongside, it was because the Outsider failed to see any meaningful distinction between these various humans.
When we decried the ludicrousness of racial discrimination amongst aliens whose faces were sometimes white on the left side and black on the right, and sometimes the opposite, it was really the Outsider’s bemused eyes we were seeing though. The observer, whose quintessential alienness was just a thin veneer for the rationality and perspective we strive and yearn for.
In these imagined futures, the Outsider was the yardstick for our own progress. A way to measure it, and thus truly see it.
And progress brings hope.
–Matt Gemmell on sci-fi.
What Gemmell is talking about here is the reason I fell in love with SFF as a kid… and also why I can be quite disillusioned with it as an adult. Because this outwards-looking hopefulness has been replaced by inwards-looking defensiveness; ref. pretty much every single recent big budget comic-book style film about Aliens Are Bad Let’s Kill Them With Nukes, including, it must be said, the recent Star Trek reboots.
And, sorry, but I’m not here for that.
The idea of the Outsider who loves humanity for its follies but is also not part of–and thus free to judge and comment on–humanity is also why I fell in love with urban fantasy as a teenager. I’m talking 90s UF here, of the Interview With the Vampire and Sandman era. To alliterate for a moment, there’s a lot of Lestat in Liesmith‘s Lain. Lain, who isn’t human, doesn’t want to be human, and doesn’t have to play by human rules. He relies on us for his survival–as a god, he’s a kind of vampire of humanity’s collective unconscious–and will use us to his own ends, and our emotions and our fears and our dreams are transparent to him. He sits above us in the most literal sense–his office is in a big tower–but the minutia of our lives fascinates and enthralls him.
Lain is not paternalistically protective of humanity, a la Superman, but he is a seasoned and curious observer of us. He won’t save you from yourself but, if you want, he might take you out to coffee and listen while you unload your life’s story. As the narrator in the Wyrd books, Lain is the harbinger of change rather than the agent of it. To use Gemmell’s words, he is the Observer through which we see transformation in others; Sigmund in Liesmith, Þrúðr in Stormbringer, and Bich and Roxx in BAD MEME.
I occasionally read reviews of Liesmith that describe Lain as being incredibly human for a guy who’s essentially a seven foot tall anthropomorphic dinosaur. These, more than any other other reviews, are the ones that make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Because… yes. Yes, that. That’s the kind of Outsider I love and have tried to create in Lain; the Monstrous Other who’s more human than human by benefit of being outside humanity itself.1
Well, I mean. Most of the time. Lain’s also kinda a jackhole whose overly fond of other people’s dramatic irony and is super racist against dwarves, of all things. But no one’s perfect, right?
- See also: Discworld’s Death, that most beautiful of beautiful cinnamon rolls. ↝