A Sci-fi Oddity: Why are humans always the ones playing catchup?

Okay, so I’ve actually brought this one up in a couple of places online recently, and the confused sort of half response I got resulted in me deciding to turn it into a general post. Simply put, in science fiction, is seems like humans are usually the ones playing catchup. We’re the underdogs, the less developed race, the societal barbarians or the technologically primitive. In Star Trek we’re the new kids on the block discovered and uplifted by the Vulcans, in Ender’s Game we barely beat off two alien invasions prior to the book, Stargate, the Cthulhu Mythos, Independence day, Men in Black, Stranger in a Strange Land, heck even the Marvel and DC comic universes. It seems like the basic assumption is that, if there is other intelligent life out there, humans are definitely on the stupid and helpless end of the spectrum. In truth, it even bleeds over into Fantasy as well, with Elves just about always being better than humans, and other such examples. It’s merely the most obvious in Science Fiction.

So….what gives? Where are the stories where humanity gets out there in the universe and realizes that, yes, there is other life out here, but wait…they are more primitive than us. Isn’t that an interesting thought? What if we got out there among the stars expecting to encounter lots of other advanced species running around, only to discover we were the first to make it out into space? What would we do? Would few fail as a people and turn to our historic roots as mere conquerors? Perhaps it would be us that would play the uplifting Vulcan’s, or we’d have seen too much Star Trek and initiate the Prime Directive. Myself, I rather think seeing the psychology from that point, from discovering we were the first, would make for a terribly fascinating perspective. I’m not sure I, myself could actually do it justice. The easy versions are all dark and, I think, do a disservice to our future selves. To see an actual, honest attempt to predict/project the perspective of humanity in such a time and place, rather than seeing mere allegory about how corporations or humans are scum and we should change our ways (Avatar, anyone?), would be riveting. A case study in human thought, or perhaps human potential, wrapped up in a novel. Hard, certainly, but an utterly fascinating idea. At least for me.

It isn’t any less likely to happen that way either, yet we never seem to consider the possibility. Okay, to be fair, there are some examples out there that at least partially fit. Though, most of those I can come up with, even after some digging around in my personal library, use those easy allegorical methods I mentioned above. One of the books I’ve reviewed on this blog, Ancillary Justice, qualifies in such a way, for example. At least, I’m mostly sure it does, I haven’t gotten around to the rest of the series quite yet. But, aside from those partial fits for the idea, and one or two very rare exceptions I’m sure I’ve missed, we as a species seem to assume we’re overmatched by our alien neighbors.

Why? What compels us toward that pattern of thought? Is it merely the desire to be the underdog? Is it nothing more than a holdover from early sci-fi, where the idea of getting into space was barely reachable, and thus our monsters and space friends alike had to come to us? Maybe we even simply want the people out there to make more sense than we do. It could be any of a dozen things, really.

As for me, upon making my best attempt to take a step back from the question and look at it from the outside, I had to wonder if it wasn’t something we’ve done to ourselves without realizing it. A sort of ingrained species inferiority complex, created by the way we currently teach history. That is, that we teach history primarily by focusing on the horrible mistakes our species has made, and how much better off we’d be if we hadn’t made them.

It makes a certain amount of sense to teach that way, of course. In example, teaching about all the horrors of the World Wars does a credible, if crude, job of instilling a desire not to do it again in future generations. On the other hand, I think it leaves people educated by this method with the instinctive feeling that the human species is scum, and that surely any alien race out there couldn’t have screwed up as badly as we have. In some ways, we might even take an absurd sort of pride in that fact.

Nor does our modern view of the world help alleviate the impression our history books thrust upon us. When you turn on the television, how much of the news is positive? When you look at your Facebook wall, how much of it is dark, brooding tales of woe, predications of doom (particularly in an election year!), and complaints about how much your friends hate their jobs, bosses, or teachers? Is this habit of ours to drift towards the macabre, to desire affirmations of just how bad things are, merely continuing that trend from the textbooks? Is it just building onto the inferiority complex we have about our own kind, perpetuating the idea that we really are horrible scum better off down here in the mud?

Which, come to think of it, links this whole thread of thought to another soapbox issue of mine. It’s not one I’m going to get into at any length in this particular post, or it would drag on forever. But it can be summed up fairly well in a scene from the movie Tomorrowland. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly encourage you to do so, as I think its creators were among the rare few at least partially immune to this thought pattern. Note, the next paragraph contains a spoiler of what I feel is a strong scene of the movie, so you might want to skip down past it if you haven’t seen it yet.

At any rate, the scene I’m thinking of has the main character (Casey) sitting through a trio of classrooms, with one teacher lecturing about Mutually Assured Destruction, the next about the melting of the polar icecaps, and the third speaking of dystopia novels whose words are now coming true. She frantically raises her hand in all three classes, but it isn’t until the third that a teacher finally calls upon her. She asks simply, “Can we fix it?” and the teacher pauses in confusion. She clarifies quickly with, “I get that things are bad. But what are we doing to fix it?”

Now, me, that sent shivers down my spine because of the frightening realization that hit me when I heard the words. Because we really aren’t trying to fix the world any longer. No…that isn’t fair. That statement is somewhat wrong. There are lots of people trying to fix the world. No, I suppose it might be better (not perfect, but a bit better) to say: We aren’t paying attention to the people trying to fix the world.

The common man, you, me, that guy over there, the people on your Facebook friends list, spend plenty of time reading about murder, war, and disasters. We hear it on the news, we see it on our walls, we talk about it at our gatherings of friends and family. But…how often, in comparison, do you see the details of the Paris Agreement on your Facebook wall, or see “40 people saved from war” instead of “40 people killed by bombing.” How high a percentage of your attention is focused on the bleak aspects of the world and humanity?

No wonder we think our species is scum. Only, I wonder if it really is? Just how much, exactly, is our worldview slanted by what is easiest to see. I’m not talking about inaccurate reporting here, but simply the choice of what gets reported at all. Are we so caught up in our belief that we are a horrible, evil species, that we can’t even consider that it might not be true? That maybe, just maybe, we really aren’t so bad after all. An odd thing for a self-proclaimed misanthrope to say, isn’t it. Take it as you will.

 

 

 

2 Comments


  1. What I want to say really doesn’t follow the end section of your post but refers to the start of it. Sci Fi in particular is an almost unique genre of fiction where we are viewed from the outside. Most writing classes would include at least one excercise entitled “Describe this scene as seen from alien eyes…” or words to that effect. An objective, external viewpoint on humanity is an opportunity to see where we can improve.Fiction needs motivation and if there’s one thing that kills motivation it’s Utopia.

    ‘I abhor the idea of a perfect world. It would bore me to tears.’
    ― Shelby Foote

    So we need motivation which means we need an obstacle and in Sci Fi it’s either us or them. Think of what a flop ‘Alien vs Predator’ was compared to any of the other films in either series.

    I do see your point though because you can make a story line around the inverse situation in the time travel or monster niches:

    Unidentfied Space Oddball – Terrible film
    Bill and Ted – I know, but it still counts.
    All the people vs dinosaurs films
    That intelligent shark film with Samuel L Jackson being eaten!
    Godzilla

    They do exist but you have to admit there’s a bit of a problem with quality. Maybe, like you said, it’s just because it’s too damn hard.

    Reply

    1. The original portion of the post was supposed to be the focus, I just accidentally pushed my own buttons and derailed… Oops. As for examples without the more space-faring bits of Sci-fi, there are a few decent examples. Though even those I don’t think really explored the concept in the way it could be. “The Mote in God’s Eye” qualifies in some ways. In a weird sort of way Star Wars sort of subtly qualifies as well, as humans are the dominant species in that galaxy and their perceptions color the movies. There are others, and even a pair of TVtropes that list examples, but none of them I can find really tackle the thought pattern that would be invoked by discovering ourselves unexpectedly on the advanced side of the equation. Which is really a shame.

      Reply

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