Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Aliens, and Alice Munro

I long for aliens.

I want the barbarity of a language wholly unlike ours. I long for intelligence unconstrained by the local obsessions of high-strung social mammals: from time to time I tire of monkeys.

I long for senses unknown to us, and for the faltering reach of metaphor and analogy to try to capture and convey experiences that we can never have, but that we that we will know exist.

Aliens! They would test the limits of our tolerance and understanding in ways we can't even imagine.

There are people who long for aliens because they think they will arrive and tell everyone else that they were right all along.

That is not what is going to happen.

I took to reading, when I was a boy, not because I was a literary type with any special affinity for words, but because I wanted aliens. I read science fiction out of a deep hunger for otherness. (Otherness was not, otherwise, very easy to come by in Springfield, Oregon in the 1960s.)

At first the mere appearance of otherness sufficed. Tentacles, clustered eyes, and so forth. But I soon caught on to the fact that most of the writers had just fitted put their standard human heroes or villains with ornamental limbs and mandibles. Only a few, only a few, gave me real aliens that were windows into otherness. There was a short story by... Isaac Asimov? About some military experiment that converted human beings -- or loaded their minds, or something -- into the native species of Jupiter. (Human beings, obviously, could not begin to survive on Jupiter, regardless of technological enhancements.) But for some reason the experiment just didn't seem to work: their explorers seemed to arrive, but never to report back. The narrator was their last try before closing up shop.

What he discovered was that being this new creature was so wonderful, the experience so rich, the sheer physicality so joyful, that he had no intention of ever going back to being a human being. Like his predecessors, he deserted his species at once and lit out for the Jovian territories.

There! Now that was a real alien: that was the sort of alien experience I was after. And then there was Ursula Le Guin, with her pregnant king (did Left Hand of Darkness really come that early?) and a few others. But I came to the end of them quick: science fiction was still mostly a comics-and-pulp hack genre, back then. That was lucky for me, because as I came to the end of it, still hungry for more, I groped my way back to H. G. Wells and Jules Verne: the classics of the genre, such as they were. And then, a funny thing happened. The aliens of these writers were not especially gripping -- sometimes they were in fact ludicrous -- but the writers themselves were alien. The 19th Century was a different place. Their language was different; their presuppositions and preoccupations were slightly but distinctly other. 

I had found another way to travel to other worlds, and meet alien minds, and I never looked back: I became a voracious reader of literature from long ago and far away. Though I still tire of monkeys.

Why do I think of this now? Because I'm a dozen pages into a book of Alice Munro's short stories, and I'm having that experience more powerfully than ever: I am in hands of an alien, more intelligent and tough-minded than me, who is going to show me things I never dreamed of and make me understand things I never understood. 

Thank God for aliens. You never know when they're going to show up.


Nimble said...

She is a toughie -- absolutely unblinking in her minute observations of moments and lifetime arcs.
It is delightful to come across a mind that works distinctly differently to one's own and has the knack of communicating their perspective.

tatz said...

I'm not sure which collection you're reading, but if you want more of her deep alienness I'd recommend Runaway (particularly for the story "Passion") and The Progress of Love (for "Miles City, Montana").

(And then I'd invite you to read the late Mavis Gallant, who was even better at both craft and strangeness than dear Alice is.)

Dale said...

Thanks! I'm reading Hateship & etc. Totally new to me. (And I haven't read a short story, I think, in twenty years.)

marly said...

Alien language. Hmm. Maybe you should also learn Cherokee when you're not massaging or reading...