Living Together

BIS Odyssey

The problems of sharing a truly alien world. Published by Triad/Panther Books 1985. Cover illustration by Tim Gill.

Our speculations on colonizing suitable worlds elsewhere in the galaxy are often based on dreams of finding a pleasantly suitable planet with just the right gravity, a nice nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere of appropriate pressure and an abundance of plant and animal life to sustain us in comfort.  Frankly, the chances of tracking one down are limited and, even if we did, there is the obstacle that some other intelligent species might well already have evolved there.  It might welcome us, or it might not.

Much science fiction consists of future explorers slaughtering, exploiting or enslaving the inhabitants – or maybe the other way around – with one group or the other dominating the new world.  But an alternative might be that we both just go our own way and live in isolation from each other.  Planets, after all, tend to be big places and there may well be room for everyone to do their own thing.

Brian Aldiss’ superb Helliconia trilogy, beginning with Helliconia Spring in 1982, describes how this might play out in practice.  The planet’s sun is in a hugely eccentric orbit around a white supergiant star in a binary star system.  Proximity to the supergiant dictates Helliconia’s seasons, which last for centuries during a complete “great year” orbit of around 2,500 Earth years.  Two species inhabit the planet; humans (not Earth humans – these seem to have evolved independently but are noticeably similar) and phagors, who are intelligent white-furred humanoids at a more primitive level.

Humans thrive during the great summer, as described in the second volume Helliconia Summer, and phagors during the winter.  Civilizations rise and fall, but the inevitability of the seasons means that nothing lasts, and neither species achieves overall dominance.  Both tend to have their own regions of the planet, and their own ways of life, so we might expect that they could effectively ignore each other and carry on regardless.  But that is never the case; there is permanent underlying hostility, sometimes exploding into open aggression.  Sharing the same world does not bring about peace.

Separate development of two races in the same land might be the ideal, but deliberate engineering of such a situation has potential problems of its own.  It brings to mind the word for “separateness” in Afrikaans – apartheid.  The system of racial segregation that existed in South Africa until the early 1990s enforced the rule of one race over another – indeed, a minority over the majority.

The 2009 film District 9 is an alternative history where extraterrestrial aliens arrive in South Africa in 1982.  Vast numbers of them are in a very bad condition and are placed in internment camps, with violence inevitably breaking out, and the newcomers fighting back.  There are clear messages about the serious dangers of xenophobia, racial discrimination and intolerance; the parallels with real history are obvious.  The chances of living together in harmony are portrayed as somewhat bleak.

One might hope that physical conflict might still be avoided if both species, either here on our own Earth or elsewhere, could take the time to learn about each other’s cultures and appreciate what they have to offer.  But there is a warning in Damon Knight’s 1956 short story Stranger Station.  A solitary Earthman is placed in close contact with an utterly alien extraterrestrial and begins to understand more and more about why it is here in the inner Solar System.  He develops what he refers to as ‘Wesson’s Law’: “When two alien cultures meet, the stronger must transform the weaker with love or hate.”  At first sight, it sounds cynical, but there’s an inevitability about it.

Like it or not, the chances are that no two civilizations that meet in space will be exactly equal.  One will be stronger, and its sheer presence will unavoidably have a lasting impact on the other.  Whatever the overall outcome, the weaker of the two will never be the same again.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: Outside Our Comfort ZoneThinking the Worst of People

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