Archive for the ‘Pamela F. Service’ Category

Service, Pamela F. Under Alien Stars.  New York:  Atheneum, 1990.

In a future that sounds much like now, an alien civilization has been occupying earth for the last decade or so.  The alternating focalizing characters are a human boy, Jason, and an alien girl, Aryl.  To begin with the observe each other with disgust–her maroon skins and clawed hands and feet disturb him, and he seems soft and pale to her.  (Note how the alternating narratives put readers in the position of comparing their responses and seeing the similarity between their attitudes.)  So skin matters a lot here, and you’d have to be pretty ingenuous about American educational obsessions and the nature and purpose of books for young people not to suspect that an allegory about racial tolerance is going to develop.   When it does, though, it has its problems.

The basic and thoroughly unsurprising thrust of the plot is that, when forced by circumstances to work together, this boy and girl develop an admiration for each other’s skills and courage, and find a common ground in their love and concern for their parents–his mother, her father–that allows them to be see past their apparent difference to their essential similarity and fight for the same cause.  In other words, this book follows the absolutely most obvious path a novel for young people with alternating narratives might follow.

But in this case, they are forced to come together because an enemy of the aliens has now invaded Earth and humans and aliens need to come together to oppose it.  And while the original alien group is mostly humanoid in appearance and even to some extent in character, this new one is purely and utterly alien, disturbingly asymmetrical in appearance (they are described as looking like Swiss army knives wiht many appendages) and prone to an utterly uncompromised and clearly, we are asked to believe, inhuman violence against their enemies.  In comparison, the original group the girl belongs to seem almost human–yes, the blew up a few neighbourhoods here and there, but otherwise, they just rule the earth in as peaceful a way any superior alien force with powerful weapons might manage–and are therefore, it seems possible to tolerate and work with.  They may be Nazis, they may have a firm commitment to the superiority of those higher-up in a hierarchical society, they may misunderstand and feel disgust for the ways humans feel concern for and brotherhood with lower species like pets and even houseplants–but they’re not as awful as the really, really bad Nazis.  In other words, tolerance emerge beyond prejudice in a realization of fellowship and likeness made possible by the presence of something truly intolerable, something it is wise and just to oppose and feel horror at.  Tolerance depends on a larger intolerance–a just abhorrence of what is truly not like us.  If I were to follow the logic of this, I’d have to conclude that the Danish, say, might get over their prejudice against Norwegians by uniting with them against the truly awful Finns.   So much for tolerance and anti-racism.

But that apparent ideological contradiction is undermined by yet another one.  The original alien race is described as being highly organized and regimented, and not much valuing anything that isn’t rational, etc.  For that reason,  our heroine’s father thinks that maybe his people have something to learn from the humans of earth they have conquered:  “they’re quite spunky, really, and there’s much they could offer our philosophers and artists” (24).  That “much” includes a loving concern for others, like pets and such.  As often happens in SF involving alien races, we earthlings turn out to be more capable of feeling, more thoughtful, more sensitive–nicer than the others.   But as it happens, when it comes to uniting against the really bad guys, human art and philosophy are hardly what saves the day: its just lots of spunky bravado.  Jason is good at surviving and fighting, and so is Aryl, and that’s actually what bonds them: their mutual aggressive spunkiness.  So much for the special humaneness of the human contribution.  (And there’s something in that word “spunky”of that superior dismissiveness Mr. Grant had for Mary on the Mary Tyler Moore show–spunky things are cute and little and so surprising and endearing for their vociferousness.)

Under Alien Stars is very upfront also about another aspect of its allegory–its representation of what happens when one group colonizes another.  Aryl’s father belongs to what is identified as an “Empire,” refers to “imperial” matters, and calls earthlings “natives.”  This makes the gradual coming together of our two main characters problematic.  While the novel pretends that its a matter of discovering their similarity and thus equality, the facts of the original setup remain: one group is vastly powerful, the other is a conquered race on its own home ground.   At the end, Aryl’s father will recommend on the basis of the novel’s events that earth will become part of the Empire–i.e., although unstated at the point, a colony, and still held by force and in the control of the Empire, safe only in its agreement to be conquered and behaving as others think best.  Yet Jason sees this, at the end, in a surprisingly optimistic way:  “In a strange way, they [the human race] had won after all.  They had won back the stars.”

The abject defeat hidden by this unthnking cheerfulness becomes more obvious if I think of what the allegory here allegorizes.  In particular, what happens if I think of Under Alien Stars in terms of the aboriginal issues I’ve recently been considering in other entries here?  A homeland invaded by more powerful, more bureaucratic people with a more hierarchal world-view and less close ties to and respect for the earth and other species; and a developing understanding that, in these circumstances, accepting the lifestyle and power of your conqueror and becoming more like them in the hope that they might then become a little more like you: that’s the kind of thinking about native cultures that led to the creation in North America of the much-despised residential schools and other attempts to destory aboriginal cultures.

It seems to me, then. that this novel reveals, perhaps more clearly than many others with similar implications do,  some of the ugly underside of the conventions of literature for young people: the fostering of the idea that the best thing to do for less powerful beings with less experience of the larger universe out there is to accept the power and wisdom of those with power over you, and try to become more like them and at one with their interests.  That sounds like a repressive way of thinking about young people and adults–and a way that is surprisingly common in literature adults write for young people.  What’s particularly instructive about Under Alien Stars is how that conventional wisdom of literature for young people here gets applied to questions of oppressed and conquered people.  The usual happy ending of literature for the young–they get more like older people–now has clear and unfortunate political implications about racial and cultural supremacy, and those implications reveal the potential oppressiveness of the same ideas in our adult thinking about the young.