The only recent thing I can think of that even comes close is Zoe's Tale, and Vernor Vinge's forthcoming The Children of the Sky. Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World owes a fair amount to that mode of storytelling but is also very different.
Did people become stymied for things to say after they realized that using aliens as code for particular racial/ethnic groups here was a bad idea?
Yeah, I think awareness of the downsides of colonialism happened.
In addition, I don't think many people these days think it would be awesome to be a colonist. Mostly it sounds like a lot of work.
Huh. I don't really know what you mean about The Half-Made World in this context. I can very easily see the very different but not so much the debt it owes.
I think that in addition to the factors you named, the resurgence of space opera (which shares some features with "planets and aliens" but isn't doing quite the same thing) might have stolen some of the energy that used to go into "planets and aliens" stories.
I'm rather fond of "planets and aliens" stories myself, so I'm kind of hoping other people will come up with recent examples that I don't know about.
Two books about froggie aliens: My UNDERTOW and Amy Thomson's THE COLOR OF DISTANCE.
There's Robert Charles Wilson's BIOS. No sentient aliens, but a nifty dangerous biosphere.
There's Scalzi's Fuzzy reboot, though (don't look, John) I'd recommend the Piper version if you haven't read it.
[edited because I put the other comment in the wrong spot. What I meant to say here was:]
Seconding the rec of BIOS; it's one of my favorite planetary-exploration books. I thought the diggers might be sentient because they [rot-13]pbbcrengviryl yherq gung bar qhqr vagb enatr fb gurl pbhyq rng uvz. (IIRC) But there's probably a bug on our planet that can do that...
Edited at 2011-08-05 02:25 am (UTC)
Haven't read it. It's this sort of thing, then? I was not at all a fan of Mieville's earlier work, but The City and the City was not bad.
Whoops, I'm re-posting this so it's top-level and not a non-sequitur reply to Bear.
A Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Aronson has interesting & classic-feeling aliens, although the human anthropologists interacting with them are a bit irritating at times. It's one of those "wander around the planet getting to know each other" stories and it's overall quite good, I think.
It's also twenty years old. Which doesn't disqualify it from the goodness, by any means, but it isn't very recent.
I don't know, and I wish I did, because I really like that genre! I like space opera but dislike milSF and have trouble finding things that suit me in general, though, among newer books.
I suspect the fact that so many people love to interpret such books as being code for particular ethnic groups, or as statements about colonialism, is very offputting for more people than me. I have three P&A projects that I really haven't terrible interest in taking anywhere in the current critical environment.
Also some of it has become fantasy.
Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow isn't recent any more either, is it? Damn. I love this subgenre too, but I got nothin'.
I wouldn't be surprised if the movie Avatar has contributed toward scaring people off that subgenre by being such an outstanding example of 'white guy rides in to save the colorful (literally!) natives'. Though it was extremely lucrative...
I'm pretty sure the decline in Planets & Aliens SF has been going on for over a decade now, actually.
Avatar, for all its faults, is actually a (surprisingly mainstream) example of the sub-genre, which seems to have become uncool/something to avoid as of the late '90s and early '00s. Aside from a handful of works like Karen Traviss's Wess'har books and the stuff people have already mentioned, a thread of the genre that used to be central to SF has more or less been abandoned.
For all that works like Avatar (and in different ways, the likes of Purgatory and The Word for World is Forest) are problematic, it feels like people kept on writing this sort of thing in bulk through the late '80s. Then during the '90s, something happened, the Zeitgeist moved away from aliens, and people mostly stopped.
I, for one, would like to be able to put my finger on why.
Karen Traviss's series starting with City of Pearl, maybe, though there are several different lots of aliens and several different planets. The author says she doesn't read fiction, so it's not exactly in dialog with the genre, and it's odd in some ways; it certainly doesn't go in for human exceptionalism. That came out between 2004 and 2008, and these days the author seems to be writing video-game tie-ins.
The other thing that fits into that mental category, for me, is Kristine Smith's series starting with Code of Conduct (1999), which wrapped up in 2007. In that case most of the action takes place off the alien planet -- a lot of it on Earth, revolving around the alien embassy.
Oh, and K.D. Wentworth's Black on Black and Stars over Stars, which I got from the Baen Free Library, but those are somewhat older, I think.
Huh. I remember really enjoying the first couple City of Pearl novels, but for some reason never finished the series. Maybe it's time to revisit.
Well, I can't speak for anyone else, but I wrote a book about a gifted but neurotic young man trying to come to grips with being placed on an alien planet as an exchange student, and I gave it to a test reader who savaged every page of it because the aliens were not nearly alien enough.
So - leaving my own scars out of it - that made me aware that truly alien aliens were kinda hard to write, and I think if we've gotten smarter and more aware as SF consumers - which I believe we have - then perhaps our tolerance for Star Trek stype aliens who are just basically humans with a few unusual behavior quirks and a prosthetic ridge on their foreheads is diminishing.
(My aliens did have a Secret that was realio, trulio alien, but after dealing with all the comments from someone who was apparently unprepared to deal with ANY parallelism of technology, housing, transportation etc, I just said, you know what, it's not worth the pain.)
Um. Sorry for the dump. Very bad morning here at the code farm. Don't mind me.
"Stype" is apparently my tired brain attempting to portmanteau "stripe" and "type," and is not an REM vocalist.
There's The Knife of Never Letting Go and the books following it. Though I suppose it's more about people dealing with the strangeness of their new planet-though the native population comes in to play there as well.
The first of Lisanne Norman's Sholan Alliance books has something in common with what you describe, but it's more the story of one human and the alien she meets, set against the backdrop of her planet which has been invaded by a different set of aliens.
And apparently it's almost twenty years old now. I'm not used to the 90s being that long ago! (But also I didn't read any of the books til maybe seven years ago.)
Later the series turns into "one human on a planet of aliens, some of whom are sympathetic and some of whom are not," with some cross-species romance which could be read as an analogue to what some human mixed-race couples have to face, though I have no idea whether the author meant it as commentary or not. There is also culture shock and "telepathy doesn't fix all misunderstandings" and things like that.
I stopped reading after three or four or five books; I didn't consciously decide to stop reading, I just never picked up the next one.
2011-08-05 04:06 pm (UTC)
The only recent thing that comes to mind is Nina Kiriki Hoffman's Catalyst, which is ... odd. Deeply odd. But I liked it.
Julie Czerneda's Web Shifter books take place on a number of planets with human/alien and alien/other alien interactions. Really cool aliens. All of her books have really cool aliens.
Okay, some thoughts on possible reasons for this trend:
* Cyberpunk and the notion of The Singularity shifted the SF discourse towards on-Earth or in-System futures to the point where postulating FTL travel uses up most of a would be SF writer's credibility points. Adding living, relatable aliens on top of that started to feel old-fashioned and uncool, like trying to sell people on ray guns in a Hard SF story. Grim Meathook futures don't get to have happy first contact stories!
* Media mainstreaming and backlash. Whether it's overexposure to Star Trek (c.f. timprov
), too many flying saucer aliens in The X-Files, or something else, aliens may have hit a cultural saturation point, leaving writers tired and/or bored of them. Alternately, people might imagine that TV could/is handling them better than they could, or book buyers at chains could've decreed that aliens were over. Either way, the result is less Planets & Aliens stories.
* Growing discomfort/disinterest in "Frontier" narratives. A lot of the ways colonizing alien planets get used as a metaphor for the American West are troubling, and further, the Western and visions of frontiers have taken a dive in terms of cultural relevance. This loops back to the first point, in that as manned space missions taper off, futures where human can reach other planets and meet aliens begin to seem less and less credible.
I'm sure there are other possible explanations, but I'm getting kind of recursive here. Thoughts?
It's funny, because I think the model for what I want out of these stories should be Marco Polo, not Cortez or Pizarro, much less John Wayne. But I think you're absolutely right about the American West thing.
It very easily could be that with science progressing as much as it has and still not having things that we thought we would 30 years ago (flying cars anyone), that the genre took a hit.
I went and checked the publication dates for Sheri Tepper, who wrote a lot of those, although the humans usually don't realize the aliens are actually other people. Not recent.
I'm a bit of a genre outsider, so I can't claim to have any particular insight, but my outsider sense of it is that it has to do with portrayal of conflict. Conflict at its root is about different people trying to control something that is or appears to be scarce: land, resources, romance with a particular person, comprehensive worldview, political agency, whatever. For conflict to be convincing, the reader has to believe that the people in the conflict have equal motivation to keep it going. (If they didn't, the person who "cared less" would just let it go.)
One way to do this is to make the people value the same thing for the same reason. This approach is unsatisfying at best and mockable at worst when humans are in conflict with aliens, because as others have said, that makes the aliens just humans in costume.
A second way to do it is make the people value the same thing for different reasons. This approach is tricky, because it is hard to represent each reason as equally legitimate. Either the humans or the aliens tend to come off as looking unethical or unintelligent.
A third way to do it is to make the people value different things for the same reason. This approach is tricky because--well, my head goes fuzzy just trying to think of a decent example of it. It's inherently a challenge to write.
I don't think contemporary readers will accept a story where humans and aliens are coexisting without conflict. I mean, humans can't even coexist with other humans without conflict. So if no conflict is unacceptable, and portrayals of conflict are also unacceptable or easy to mess up, then I could see where authors might be less eager to take it on than they used to.
Sarah Zettel's Playing God seems like it fits the planets-and-aliens bill, though that's almost 15 years old now so possibly too old; Ken MacLeod's Learning the World?
The boundaries for the story space you describe are very fuzzy to me inasmuch as I don't know that I use it as a recognizable category (or maybe I do but just don't recognize it from the description). Partially, I think, because I don't necessarily distinguish between SF and Fantasy (and occasionally anthropological/historical fiction) when it comes to fiction around learning how to be intelligible to, and (I'm getting a strong reluctance to say 'understand' because it's a pretty loaded term, but the seven other ways I've thought of so far are very wordy. I think that you know what I mean anyway.) an alien culture. Is it a requirement that the 'home', or viewpoint culture be some variant of a modern western one? Or that it examine the influence of different body morphologies and/or environmental conditions on the evolution of a given culture?
You might find Adam-Troy Castro's Emissaries for the Dead of interest. It's framed as an intercultural possible murder investigation, but still has alien aliens. I second the recommendations for the relevant works of Robert Charles Wilson, Karen Traviss and Julie Czerneda.
If you include the type where you have x group of humans interacting and learning about an alien culture while trying to prove to y group of humans that no really the aliens here are worth not wiping out in order to have this world/exploit this resource/not ourselves getting potentially kicked off this planet by this not obviously powerful group of aliens, then they are definitely still being written. I've seen at least two series and a dozen stand-alones in the past seven or so years. I can't bring author names or book titles to mind off the top of my head, just plot elements because they've been things I've picked up in the bookstore, read maybe thirty to a hundred pages of, and put back down. Just because it's being done, doesn't mean it's being done in a way that is to my taste or says something that I think I can learn from. There's also the question of what you're looking for out of the mode - the inter-cultural, the reflection of a home culture, is it excluded if it has thriller, mystery, personal trauma, romance elements (by which I suppose I mean does it have to be some form of 'pure' SF)?
I would not require that the home culture be in any way descended from or analogous to or variant of a modern Western one. I would think that Indian or Chinese or Brazilian colonists meeting aliens would be awesome--or two sets of non-humans meeting each other, that'd work for me too.
I don't think that any of the elements you've listed excludes a work like this from this category, but if it's too far over the line into genre romance then it's unlikely to hit my tastes very well just because that focus and mine don't align well.
I haven't read the comments, but Judith Moffet's books might meet the bill- they're not recent, though.
ETA: There's also the "Guild of Xenolinguists" stories- I think by Sheila Finch. They're more recent, and have both the commonalities and the strangenesses that i'd expect of such an encounter.
Edited at 2011-08-09 04:18 am (UTC)
I was going to suggest White Queen by Gwyneth Jones, but that's 20 years old now.
2011-08-17 02:48 am (UTC)
I just re-read Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon and remembered this post. Do you know the general premise? The main character is a 70-year-old woman who has lived for the past 40 years in a colony on an otherwise uninhabited planet. The colony gets pulled off the planet by the powers that be. She purposely gets herself left behind because she does not want to leave her home. Aliens from another part of the planet find her, and she and they get to know each other. Complications ensue when other humans return to the planet.
I know not only the premise but the specific book; that is a recent example I'd forgotten, thanks.