The Human-Centric Universe

Human beings seem to be very important in science fiction, or indeed, any kind of story that we create.  Just look at how many of them are in our stories! They’re all over the place.  They must be very important!

At face value, this is perhaps simply because we are human and need other humans to relate to. The closer you come to our “Real” world the more likely you are to have humans in your story. However, science fiction (and to some degree fantasy and horror) has more of an excuse to venture further away from this idea, but even with possibility of strange alien life forms being taken for granted, the pervasiveness of humanity, or species directly related to humanity, seems inescapable.

Most recently, the movie Prometheus featured a species of genetic engineers who have seeded Earth – and perhaps the rest of the galaxy – with human creations. The idea isn’t new and has been appropriated by many franchises over the years, even if they didn’t start off that way (Star Trek, I’m looking at you…) going into the way-back machine all the way: one could argue that a lost of our distant, exotic mythology is a description of how human life on Earth was seeded by alien visitors who may have been very similar to our own, such as the Annunaki in ancient Mesopotamian legends. Obviously this was a major jumping off point for Prometheus.

Trekkin’

Star Trek is probably the most well known human-ubiquitous universe, at least in terms of people being aware of the franchise. The major races in Star Trek (Humans, Vulcans, Romulans, Klingons, Cardassians, et al) were supposedly seeded by the Changeling/Founders species long ago. That’s peachy and all, but I think it was just a lame way of getting around the “every alien has a funny forehead” issue. Within the franchise, it was a way to explain the difference of the Klingon race in the Original Series vs. the Next Generation; the TOS Klingons were an original race, (no funny forehead) but TNG retconned them into a Human-Klingon hybrid created by the Klingons to “infiltrate Human space” or to facilitate race relations with the Federation, yet suddenly a few years later Humans and Klingons are related!! Wowzer, shock!! But I digress…  I’m not really sure what the major desire was to include this relationship in the ST Universe was, since Humans themselves are a significant minority in the Grand Scheme of Things. Although Humans are “important” in that all ST stories revolve around them (because of The Federation, a human centric league of alien races…), ST:TOS seemed to be about Humans confronting the universe, but during and after TNG, it appears to be about human brotherhood, especially now humans are related to half the known universe. Perhaps someone can give me his or her opinion on this.

Travellin’

One of my favourite settings – the Traveller RPG setting (OTU) – features the idea of human exogenesis very prominently.  As usual there is a seeding race, but in this, it is the alien Ancients, a species of interstellar, perhaps even intergalactic lizard-bird creatures. They have eventually devolved into the tech-limited Droyne species after long having blown themselves to bits with their superior technology. What they left behind was a legacy of spreading life through the galaxy, namely in four major races: the Human Vilani, Zhodani and Solomani (us!), and the Vargr, a species of genetically uplifted wolves from Earth. Each species grew to “major status” by developing FTL spaceflight and began to explore and colonize the nearby stars. Inevitably, their empires would meet and, of course, clash.

The Human race, or “Humaniti” is almost used as a mechanism for outlining the differences between the races. They may have a bipedal form and basic thought processes, but the years of development, internal conflict, environmental conditions, even food (the Vilani eat mainly only fermented foods, since the vegetation of Vland, their homeworld, is very hard to digest and must be chemically treated/prepared before consumption) have changed who and what they are.  For e.g.: The Zhodani are psionics capable of reading minds and moving object with their brains, and have become a thought reading police state, essentially; they tend to use robot technology as they can’t be influenced as easily as humans can.  Their society is open because it cannot be closed or private because of the pervasiveness of psionics, as a race they are closer together, than the Vilani, who distrust psionics and are paranoid of them. Obviously, a meeting between Zhodani and Vilani is unavoidable (rules of storytelling!) and is a big part of the Traveller OTU.

The four races of the Traveller RPG’s “Humaniti”, seeded by the Ancients.

None of the human races can claim to be the top of the food chain in the OTU, each one having been knocked down over and over again over the many years of the universe. In fact, in Traveller OTU, this can be said of all the major races – Aslan, K’Kree and Hiver, who are completely “inhuman”, as well – the universe is a rough place and species tend to plateau technologically, most will stagnate, if they don’t achieve a breakthrough and become like the Ancients.

Transhumanizin’

In my own stories, the Tales of Fading Starlight written around 1987-92 or so, is largely influenced by Traveller and Star Trek, I wanted to outline the differences in four species of Humans influenced by “human fascinations”; that is each race was to be defined by the things that humans have been defined by as a developing species: technology/tool use, art/expression, feeling/emotion and exploration/curiosity. Humans originating on Earth are the baseline, they are average and bland compared to the other races, but are the explorative ones, reaching out to see what’s out there (spoiler: bad stuff!). The Dathaedi are the extremes; they’ve followed their artistic and expressive selves and basically look down on everyone. Like Tolkien’s Noldor elves, they are arrogant and self-important. Compared to the Human baseline, they are outlandish, gaudy and wild. A friend once described them as “space Celts”.  The Lamech are humans who have followed through with a technology based trans-human evolution. They have used machines so much they have become them themselves, trying to cling on to fading ideas of humanity, often in impractical or nonsensical ways, such as embedding the attachment points of electronics into their skulls, so the cabling appears like hair. Finally, there is the Gasakt, who destroyed themselves under the influence of a truly alien race that had achieved “ascension”. They left their bodies behind, only to eventually realize that they desired the sensations their bodies gave them, and wanted them back. So they found the Gasakt and took them, separating their “souls” from their bodies and taking over.

The primary focus of these stories was to show that humans will always want to be human simply because we feel that is important. Oddly, though, I feel that we will always feel like were human, no matter how we change. Let’s face it, we’ve been human a very long time, and the people from 500 years ago, were very different to the ones ten thousand years ago, even though we do basically the same thing.

So, Humans being a prime player in SF isn’t anything new, but why is it popular?  Why are we interested in finding out if the real aliens out there are actually ourselves?

I’m going to outline a few ideas, in no particular order.

Familiarity

Humans make great characters because we can relate to them. We can understand, at least on a basic level, what can drive a character to do something if they are human. If they are a bizarre gaseous smoke-like entity that speaks through electrical discharges, we are unlikely to relate to them and lose interest. Often, production designers and make-up artists cite this to justify their unimaginative alien designs, but also because humans need to see a face in order to relate to a character and understand their emotional conditions. Even if a face isn’t present – like on a cheese doodle, or burnt toast – humans will try to look for one and inevitably find Elvis or Jesus there. Humans like to personify other things as humans – take a look at any animated movie or TV show. We either like the idea of ourselves, or can only directly relate to things that are us, which would b a damning indictment of our possible future, but has been used by science fiction quite a bit – we’re always declaring war on the unsuspecting alien peeps of the universe! We seem not to care much about things that aren’t human (Us. Vs. Them), and if they aren’t, see them as ourselves, or how like ourselves they are, rather than what they actually are – ALIENS!  Example: Kirk’s eulogy to Spock, “of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.”

Optimism for Humanity

In general, every human is probably optimistic for the human species as a whole. Oh sure, they might hate what we’re doing to the planet, or developing weapons of hyper destruction, being generally inhumane to ourselves and each other, but deep down, there is a desire to see us continue to exist. Those that don’t perhaps might not be considered human and they might even like that, for whatever reason.

Science Fiction has mostly been about human successes. Even in the face of dystopias and apocalypses, there is a human success or beneficial to humanity takeaway from the story. It might not happen right THEN AND THERE, but it will eventually. Humanity will grow from the ashes. It will learn from this. It will succeed, if it hasn’t already.

Star Trek itself, at its base level, is an exercise in human optimism. Love your brother and sister, go forth and make friends, peace, etc.

The Fermi Paradox

The Fermi Paradox is a way of rationalizing why we as a technological species haven’t heard or seen anything from other cultures and species in the observable universe, discounting of course, alien abductees, spirit channeling and other things for which we don’t have any solid scientific basis for.

Drake’s Equation is our current model for the statistical probability of sentient life. A fraction of existing stars can support life, some of those might have sentient creatures on them, some of those might have TV or Radio and beam their egotistical little selves across the heavens- as we have – and if that’s the case, why haven’t we seen a lot more evidence of other civilizations? It is a statistical certainty.

The Fermi Paradox has many “solutions” explaining why, but still supporting the existence of alien life. A high technology civilization (K2+ on the Kardashev scale) might have shielded their worlds with Dyson Spheres, sealing all radiation that might give them away to outsiders. Or that civilizations have indeed existed, but on such a fleeting time scale, that they grow, flourish and die (or stagnate/revert, as the Ancients did, becoming the Droyne, in the Traveller OTU) before we know of them. Since the broadcasts could take potentially thousands (or longer) of years to reach us, or last only a few hundred years, or decades, we might not be listening at the right time. If there are contemporaneous civilizations, by the time we receive broadcasts from them, they might already be lost to us. Perhaps once we leave Earth and explore ourselves, we will only find the ruins of those cultures.

That’s where we come in. If there are no aliens, or only dead aliens, well, someone’s going to have to pick up the slack and start colonizing those masses of planets and it may as well be us. Because we’ll be all there is. Ray Bradbury addressed this in the Martian Chronicles when the Thomas family realizes that there are Martians, and they are human. It is something for us to be prepared for, optimist or not. With the size of the universe the way it is, there will be far more dead and civilizations than living, vibrant ones.  That’s even the way it is on Earth, right now.

We are the Heroes!

The Universe needs True Heroes! Human ones!

Goddammit yes we are!  If there is one thing a reader likes, it is reading about a hero. Mythology has proven it time and time again and given us plenty of human archetypes to mess around with. Even if the hero is flawed (or corrupt completely) we will want them to succeed, even if it is for our own selfish reasons (our entertainment), a fact ruthlessly exploited in video game writing.  The trick is getting the reader/viewer/player to connect to a character in such a way that one might excuse this or that action because… Making a hero human, or mostly human, or used to be human, breaks down a huge barrier between reader/viewer/player and the author.

So what better than to have humans propagate into the Universe and still be heroes? Just like Star Trek and many others.  Even if the universe is already populated with pretty great and amazing species, cultures and civilizations, we’ll show up and BE THE HEROES!! Yay for us! You know they all were waiting for us, right? It was prophesied! Go Humanity!

Overall, I would imagine that it is very human for humans to talk incessantly about humans. Is it something intrinsic only to humanity, or is it perhaps that any sentient race tends to see itself at the center of things, spinning tales and opinions relating to itself?  We really can’t understand others without being able to understand ourselves, and that is really one of the great drives behind science fiction as a genre, isn’t it?

 

Image credits:
 Traveller races – Games Designers Workshop, Mark Miller and their respective artists.
Bill the Galactic Hero cover – Gollancz/Millenium