Sunday 19 February 2012

Representative selection of Earthlings

I recently read Nancy Kress's Steal Across the Sky (Tor, 2009), and while I usually find Kress's work to be powerful, moving, intelligently thought-out social-political science fiction, I was disappointed by one decision she made early in the book. In an online classified ad calling for 21 human volunteers to visit alien worlds across the galaxy, the following words appear: "Volunteers must speak English" (page 36).

Oh, why?

Not only is that nonsensical (if the aliens are capable of learning human language, why are they not capable of learning human languages? And if they have to pick one language, why not Mandarin Chinese?), but it would lead to a most unrepresentative sample of humans "witnessing" these alien worlds.

In an online discussion almost exactly two years ago, on the subject of aliens selecting 1000 humans to save from a doomed Earth, I made the following estimates:
  • most will not speak English (under 100 do, maybe about 60 natively)
  • the vast majority will not be Caucasian
  • probably none will be very rich, or famous
  • a little over 50% will be female
  • some will be homosexual, asexual, etc.
  • some will be children or elderly
  • not all will be able or willing to breed
  • many will not be very highly educated
  • not all will be very nice people
Some of these are beside the point, but you can see what I'm getting at. If aliens want to deal with humanity, then their first call really shouldn't be to the President of the United States. I mean, duh. For a science fiction writer this sort of global variety and representativeness should be an opportunity to be interesting, not to mention to write into your story the sorts of people who are massively under-represented in Anglo-American publishing. To go out of your way to miss such an opportunity seems perverse.


Anonymous said...

Once again, you're making me think. Another point about a language requirement. By the time we have the technology to visit alien planets we will most certainly have imbedded universal translators.

It seems to me that anyone who is serious about writing science future fiction ought to become very familiar with Charlie Stross' work. So many of these issues are effectively resolved in works like Accelerando that there is no excuse for such sloppy thinking.

Djibril said...

Accelerando is a frighteningly convincing far-future science fiction (in fact I reviewed it about 7 years ago and said much the same as you just have), but it's only one possible future--probably up there in terms of likelihood with Terminator and the like.

(And to be fair to Kress, her novel is set on near-contemporary Earth; it's only the visiting aliens who have superior technology. That doesn't excuse her from their lazy adherence to English.)