While developing The Start of Eternity I've been thinking about the problem of how to make the alien characters in the story interesting for human readers. In a previous blog post I did not get very far in resolving my questions about how to reconcile the seemingly contradictory goals of having realistically alien characters and having characters that human readers can understand and relate to.
Issac Asimov created the character R. Daneel Olivaw. The "R." stands for robot, but Daneel was given a male human form. By casual inspection it is not possible to notice that Daneel is a mechanical man. Asimov wrote several novels in which Daneel develops a close friendship with Elijah Baley, a police detective. Long after Baley dies, Daneel goes on to essentially take control of the entire galaxy, shaping humanity's migration to the stars so as to satisfy the Zeroth Law of Robotics. Asimov wrote Daneel into his Foundation series and depicted Daneel as secretly playing the role of various characters who are assumed by humans to be human, even though it is Daneel pretending to be human. I think Asimov first explored the idea of a robot pretending to be human in his story "Evidence" from 1946. Asimov had one of his characters comment on the difference between humans and robots, saying that unlike humans, robots are essentially descent. Could a robot fail the Turing Test by being "too good" and too descent?
I previously blogged about the idea that Asimov could not find a good way to conclude his fictional "future history" about humans taking control of the entirety of our galaxy and creating a transgalactic group mind, Galaxia. I can't escape the feeling that Asimov had painted himself into a corner by allowing Daneel to convert humans into something non-human, a type of domesticated human cattle that would be safely kept within the safe pasture of Galaxia. Can good science fiction be at all restricted to the creation of a "comfort zone"?
The "Martian Named Smith" is Valentine Michael Smith, a character created by Robert Heinlein in his novel Stranger in a Strange Land, a human born on Mars and raised to adulthood by the natives of Mars. Smith is then taken back to Earth and he finds Earth to be a very strange place. I think that one of the greatest things that artists do is look at conventional human society from the perspective of a stranger, pointing out the despicable features of humanity that are often taken for granted by the majority. Artists can create stories about fictional rebels who can show humanity a path towards a better, if only imagined, future. It seems to me that good science fiction pushes us out of our comfort zones. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein was pushing so hard that he was not allowed to publish an unedited version of the book until 30 years after it was first published in a "sanitized" version. The world had to first go through a sexual revolution so that Heinlein's original version could be put into print. Michael Smith could be nothing but alien, not having been raised within a human culture, but Heinlein could use such an "alien" character to help explore how human culture might be changed and allowed to escape from some elements of our cultural prison. Similarly, I want the alien characters of The Start of Eternity to be shockingly alien in unimportant ways, but more human in spirit than the "domesticated humans" of Asimov's Galaxia. If I do this correctly, then readers will welcome the aliens as liberators of humanity.