Written by Tim W. Brown
“Who goes there?” – the sentinel’s challenge. And I think to myself: good question! Who am I? What am I? Where am I going? And by the way, why should I tell you?
As far as we know for sure, humans are the only creatures that wrestle with the question “who am I?” From the moment we are ejected from the most comfortable, nurturing environment we will ever know this side of Heaven, each of us is confronted by the problem of working out who and what we are, even as our own bodies change, new social situations arise, and the world around us changes.
This is one of the reasons we enjoy stories so much – of the things which are universal across all cultures, storytelling is one of them. Stories give us a glimpse into experiences beyond our own, to see how others (real or fictional) deal with the questions of who they are, and how they deal with various situations. Stories – listening to them, telling them, talking about them – allow us to share insights and experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible.
The SF/F we so love typically features non-human characters, from the human-variants (Klingons, elves, androids, and so on) to the outright not-human (dragons, Hutts, AIs, and the rest). Whatever their appearance or origin, in almost every case these characters think and act in ways we recognize as basically human – with variations in style, method, priorities, and social norms, but basically human. A truly alien mentality is rare; there are plenty of non-humans who remain largely unknown, but even those generally act in ways that are consistent with human practices (which is, after all, a pretty broad category, considering the range of cultural miscommunication we’ve seen here on Earth, both large and small, humorous and tragic).
That’s not a criticism: good stories are about relationships, and for a story to have much meaning, it has to reach us on some level – and, as far as I know, everyone in every audience is human. Plus, creating and maintaining a truly alien mentality takes a lot of work – and I rather suspect that a story that features such an interaction really revolves around the human reaction to the alien more than it does the interaction with the alien, whether that involves personal interaction, or figuring out what the alien is about.
So who does go there? Who am I? I could give you dozens of labels – but none of them would really tell you all that much about me, just parts of me. And each of those labels point to a story, expressing what that label means or how it relates to my own identity. For anyone – myself included! – to really learn about who and what I am, we need to hear stories: stories about myself, the stories that touch me, the stories I like, the stories I dislike. We are each of us fascinating and complex beings, made in the image of the Creator who is beyond anything we can know or imagine (Isaiah 55:8-9), who not only made the story we are all part of, but entered the story himself, as one of us – a Creator who is, to coin a phrase, both fully human and fully…alien.