Science Fiction and “Otherness”

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I read a wonderful flash fiction piece the other day, by Jennifer Stephen Kapral called “The Alien in 36B.” In it, Kapral describes the experiences of an alien ambassador travelling by airplane with a bunch of humans and it is both funny and poignant. I loved the descriptions of the alien’s kaleidoscopic ability to see germs, and I think some of my germaphobic friends and readers will appreciate his disgust at being crammed into an archaic flying tin can with a bunch of coughing, sneezing, bacteria ridden humans.

However, what struck me most was the parallels between this alien’s experience with humans and the experience of immigrants, particularly visible minorities, in North America. Kapral expertly injects a sense of otherness that is so subtle I had to read it twice to catch all of it. The alien “[whose] bones felt heavy with the weight of being constantly watched” must consider his every word and gesture so as not to offend his co-passengers. In a polite, everyday type of conversation he “steeled himself, anticipating an insult.” Even something as simple as passing a drink to the woman next to him, which he doesn’t want to do because he is disgusted by the germs he can see on the cup, becomes a potential political battleground because “humans were extraordinarily talented at taking small, meaningless incidents and turning them into worldwide scandals.”

It made me think of the way we expect people to participate in daily rituals that seem harmless enough to us. Simple politeness can carry the weight of cultural expectations we take for granted. A handshake, a shared meal. To a person of a different religion or different culture, there may be a hundred socially ingrained rules they must break in order to appease out sense of “normalcy” or “politeness.”

I also wondered if it would take the sudden appearance of an alien species to finally make humans see that we are in fact more similar than we are different. Is that what it would take for us to really believe that we all belong to the so-called “human race.”

This kind of “otherness” is an integral part of the science fiction genre. In order to speculate about future worlds, species, societies, we must first be able to imagine ourselves as the Other. Some of the best SF writers today are minorities: women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, immigrants, people with disabilities, people with mental illness; I believe this is because writers who have experienced being “othered” by a majority have a better sense of the anxiety, fear, frustration, and loneliness that comes with being different. One of the reasons science fiction is so popular, I believe, is that it gives people a glimpse of a world that is so different that they can imagine themselves belonging there, when our own world seems to reject them.

What do you think? Have you ever experienced being “Other”? Do you feel that it helps you connect to science fiction as a reader (or a writer)? What did you think of the story? I hope you read it!

If you liked that story, and would like to read more, I highly recommend subscribing to Daily Science Fiction‘s newsletter, or at least checking out their site any time you want a quick read. I hope to see my own work up there some day, but I keep publishing it to my blog instead of submitting it. What a terrible habit!

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9 thoughts on “Science Fiction and “Otherness”

  1. Yeah I have been other my whole life, ridiculed and picked on by all my peers growing up. not to mention having everyone in my family off doing their own thing. I was raised by television and potato chips. My teachers put my desk in the corner of the class room away from the other kids. I didnt have a girlfriend till college if it werent for football I would have lost myself. Any who. That and being a raging maniac alcoholic for 10 years where I believed I was clairvoiant and could traverse demensions led me to writing the stuff that I did in sci-fi it is basically what my entire book Trent Foster & The Council of 10 is all about. I am going to check out the story now. OH, the perfect example of the people feeling other I feel is N.K Jemsen. Maybe at least that is who came to mind for me.

    Thanks for writing you are so talented. I want to be better like you.

    1. Sorry, Matt, I started to reply to this yesterday.

      First of all, don’t sell yourself short. Your writing is really very good, particularly your motivational pieces, which obviously come from a place of deep self-reflection and a true desire to help lift other people up. Your fiction is entertaining and you have a natural ability to tell stories that can only come from being a story lover (amazingly enough there are a huge number of “writers” who don’t actually enjoy the art and craft, who don’t even read! and it always shows in their work, no matter how technically or grammatically correct they are)

      Second of all, GET OUT OF MY HEAD. I really, truly, not-even-over-exaggerating has an entire paragraph dedicated to NK Jemisin in the draft for this piece but decided at the last minute that it deserved its own blog post and I didn’t want to influence other people’s favourites. But Jemisin has been one of my favourite SF&F writer for years.

      And last, but not least, did you end up reading “the Alien in 36B”? What did you think?

      Thanks for reading and commenting! It helps to know there are a few people listening when I shout into the void.

      1. Haha, that is pretty funny we are on the same wavelength apparently.

        Thank you for all your kind words about the kind of words I write. I like to have fun haha. The self-reflection thing is definitly my go too I internalize erry thang which my therapist says is ok as long as I express those things. Just kidding I dont have a therapist. I let the crazy run wild.

        Any way I ended up getting sidetracked with youtube yesterday and plan on trying to read it today.

        I really enjoy your writing and I am happy I’m standing in the void.

  2. Yes, I have experienced being the “other” many times: at university as an older student, going to classes where I was a visible minority, and moving to a small community where I had no relatives or friends.
    This is so timely and will work beautifully on my classroom where, just yesterday, a simple social “error” blew up into an international incident. I intend to use your comments and possibly this story in one of my courses. Hopefully, it will enlighten and encourage some understanding in students who are quick to judge and criticize those they see as “others”.

    1. That’s a great idea! I think this piece would work really well in a classroom setting. I wonder where the conversation will take you if you don’t prompt them first, and just let the discussion evolve naturally?

      It’s been a long time since I was in university, but I know there have been a lot of good papers and articles written on the subject if you need some back up resources.

      1. Yes, we should talk. I love the little twist at the end. You feel so empathetic towards him and then…

  3. I think the great thing about scifi is it can take us as human to view things from a totally different and uneartly perspective. That’s it’s power and why it’s so important for us to read and grow.

    1. Yes! It’s fun to try to write from the perspective of something totally different. You can have a lot of fun in SF by taking an exercise in writing from an insect or animal’s POV and applying that to a humanoid form. Might work for other things, too, like televisions and toasters, but I haven’t tried that yet!

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