An Alien Cortés And Pizarro?

Almost none of the SF novels and films of alien invasion and conquest appear to have any notion of how the overthrow of civilisations actually happened on Earth. One of the closest approaches is Ian McDonald’s parable of community relations, Sacrifice of Fools, about nomadic alien tribes with superior business methods who settle among us, rather like Jews or Overseas Chinese; if they ultimately take over the shop, however, it happens well after the end of the novel.

Such an approach could be taken further, with alien refugees or economic migrants being resettled in marginal ecologies that we cannot use for ourselves, with measures of self-government, beginning a gradual process of “alienisation” of our civilisations. The model here is, of course, Late Antiquity and the slow and complex process by which the Roman world became medieval Europe. The Empire never exactly “fell”, but was transformed, and many of its elements are still with us; to my knowledge, no one has lovingly imagined such an organic transformation of our own world through a millennium of alien settlement and politicking.

Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade shows us a small band of medieval English adventurers up-ending a more “advanced” interstellar civilisation that had grown lazy and complacent. They employed barbarian vigour, intrigue, bluff and sheer chutzpah, in exactly the same way that it was frequently done down here. What would be infinitely more interesting than vast starships bombarding human powers into stupefaction would be an application of Anderson’s formula the other way round, with a band of alien adventurers who come to Earth, possibly as refugees from their own conflicts, and become involved in our politics. They could hire out to various planetary governments as mercenaries, switch sides a few times and play the factions until – perhaps more out of self-preservation than ambition – they find themselves on the top of the pile.

But the story would not stop there; unless they had untold billions of their fellow-creatures to summon, and/or we were wiped out by plagues, the result would be the alien band attempting to run more populous human civilisations partly in their own way and partly in ours. The models here include the Hautevilles in the Sicilies, the Khitans and Jurchen in northern China, and Clive in India.

Most conquerors take the titles previously vested in the man they have dethroned, thus claiming legitimacy and continuity. The native ruler may also be induced to adopt the strange and fearsomely competent foreigner as his son and heir. When Disraeli proclaimed Victoria “Empress of India”, this was not the empty flattering title as implied in books of English history; it meant that she was claiming to be the lawful successor of the Mughals, thus providing a neat and comprehensible structure for British rule in the subcontinent, direct or indirect.

Sometimes a conqueror will be known to his own people by his traditional tribal designation, and to the conquered by the traditional imperial one; what with posthumous regnal names too, this makes Jin and Yuan emperors rather confusing. On this model we may imagine the office of the Secretary-General of the United Nations occupied by a personage with a greater number of arms or heads than his/her/its predecessors, and being treated by at least half the population as the rightful incumbent.

Having sorted out the situation at the top, such a sophisticated novel of alien conquest might proceed to deal with the dynamics of who assimilates to whom. Of course, the historical examples all involve interbreeding, which is extremely unlikely with extra-terrestrials. But the other roles would remain: the alien Nabobs, coming to Earth to earn massive wealth by corruption and extortion and returning to their own planets as hotshots; the romantic human-lovers who try to copy our ways; the alien losers who perish of human vices. Perhaps the aliens will have their Memsahib equivalents, dedicated to the maintenance of social distance from the benighted natives and the prevention of native sexual pleasure. Working all this out in detail could be amusing. There does actually exist a short story about an incorruptible alien auditor making the long journey to Earth to investigate rumours of malfeasance, but failing to penetrate the underlings’ smoke-screen; there is also a vicious little satire where we are the battlefield in an alien Korean War, complete with bullshit propaganda. We need much more along these lines.

On the human side, we would have the whole spectrum running from resistance through passive collaboration to sycophancy. The notion that humanity would disdain to collaborate with even a more conventional alien conquest is ludicrous; individuals and whole states would immediately join the invaders to obtain a momentary advantage over other individuals and states. A week is a long time in politics. The aliens do not need fancy stuff like “neural sequestration” or body-snatching, the profit motive will be quite sufficient.

Again, the theme of “alien chic”, including makeovers to resemble the extraterrestrials, has been used in SF, as has the idea that we are programmed “to want to fuck the foreigner”, with literally painful results when we meet the aliens (Tiptree), but all of this needs to be integrated into a master narrative whereby galactics do unto Earth just precisely what human imperialists do to other cultures – a far subtler narrative than spaceships blasting away.

Leave a Reply