Monday, 28 September 2015

We come as friends

I just watched a film of the same name (We come as friends), made by a Frenchman (Hubert Sauper), that won awards at both Berlin and Sundance film festivals. It's about Sudan, but it's also about colonialism, which is a common theme in science fiction. During the film there is even an excerpt from Star Trek, the original series, where James T Kirk says ' we come as friends', and adds, phaser in hand, 'but we are ready to defend ourselves.'

Probably the most recent science fiction blockbuster dealing with colonialism, and how it can ruin both natural and alien habitats, is Avatar. The film neatly goes to the essence of colonialism, and why it is usually bad for those at the receiving end. Those colonising are there for one of two reasons (often both): to plunder resources, and to 'help' (i.e. improve) indigenous cultures.

At first sight going somewhere to steal resources, usually trashing the environment in the process, seems like the worst part. But the second is more insidious. In Avatar, there is a blindness by the colonisers as to what  the existing culture has, its beauty, its alignment with nature rather than technology, and its strength of community. In Avatar, being a Hollywood production, the local culture triumphs, and we can all cheer as the baddies (us, by the way) get what they deserve, and the hero finds his true love.

Meanwhile, in our own backyard, Hollywood endings are few and far between. Lands are taken away from indigenous peoples time and time again, their cultures are destroyed, replaced by supposedly better ones. And they are given guns. The lands they lived off for countless generations are poisoned so the people have to work in the colonisers' factories or farms. Sound familiar?

So, when we venture out into the stars, are we going to be the good guys, as in Star Trek or Stargate (where peaceful explorers are even more heavily-armed), trying to help others without trying to improve (subjugate) their existing culture? Even in Star Trek, the film Insurrection (one of the best) acknowledges this dark corner of humanity's soul.

I've written a couple of short stories set a few hundred years in the future, where mankind has indeed gone out and colonised the stars. But we are not the good guys. We plunder resources from other worlds, and 'educate or exterminate' other races we encounter. Is this pessimistic? I'm not so sure.

My two favourite quotes from the film 'We come as friends' are as follows, the first by a local African, the second by a Brit who has been out there sometime in a local village:

'They came here and taught us how to need money'

'They're maybe two hundred years behind the rest of the world, we all know that. But maybe they don't want to catch up, maybe they don't want what we have. Did anyone stop to think that?'

Humanity is characterised by a capacity for love, but also blind fear of 'otherness'; racism and bigotry are easily learned or transmitted, leading to wars, tragedies, and ... inhumanities. If we can be so inhuman to each other, what chance are aliens going to have?

In my book, Eden's Trial, humanity is put on trial by vastly superior aliens, and its very right to exist is challenged. Imagine there was a mature, peaceful but strong alien presence out there, and imagine they took a long hard look at our achievements but also our wars and inhumanities. What would you decide in their place?

If there are superior alien races out there, maybe we can learn from them, and grow up fast. The danger for other species might be if we are actually the (technologically) advanced ones. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and we come as friends could be the death-knell for civilisations we encounter. I hope I'm wrong, that it won't be that way.

But in the meantime, if one day aliens do come a-knocking to our little backwater planet, it might be safest for them if they take a leaf out of Stargate's book, and come as friends, too, but heavily-armed.

The two (free) stories referred to (Sylvian Gambit, and Executive Decision) can be found here.


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