Sleeping With The Alien

Well, some would say that most of us do this every day. But I am thinking rather of those SF stories with aliens who are so like us anatomically (via parallel-evolution hand-waving, panspermia or mislaid colonies) that we can have sex. Larry Niven’s interspecies sexual diplomacy (rishathra) is of course a locus classicus, but by no means unique. Tiptree suggested that we might become obsessed with aliens as sex objects even if they hardly notice us: we are so wired to impregnate or be impregnated by the stranger that we have to fuck it or die.

Her famous story is savagely dystopian, but let us conduct a thought experiment about more cuddly aliens. Imagine a species very like us but with feline fur. Can we imagine earthlings wanting to make love to them? Of course we can. (I would go for her, at least until the first hairball.) But then we would also have horrified xenophobes protesting that, “But she’s not human!” We know what “human” means in this context, a member of a different species.

Very well, next stage. Suppose that the alien had philosophies, thoughts and feelings like us (or like we pretend to). If you prick her, does she not bleed, if you tickle her, does she not laugh? Although some of us would then call her a “moral person”, an ethical equal, for whom we would give our life, and she hers for us, can we imagine earthlings who would still shout, “But she’s not human!” Of course we can. If we found that our imagined catwoman shared our descent from Mitochondrial Eve, but had diverged later, what notice would they take of that? But now we are getting near the point where earthlings have been known to deny one another the title of “human” too, by adding a “sub” prefix.

What has always piqued my curiosity is what, when people say about others that they are not human, they actually mean by it. The advice given to farang punters in Thailand, terrified of becoming intimate with a trans woman, namely “If you can’t tell the difference, why should it matter?” is surely germane. Such men seem to be looking for some conceptual womanhood above and beyond compatible genitals and whatever measure of psychological interaction and comfort is vouchsafed them; in what exactly might that consist? That she can conceive a child, which most ladyboys cannot? That every cell of her body is stamped female, which I believe is a misapprehension anyway? That she has a female soul? Enough already; as the advisor suggested, if you cannot see what the ladyboy is missing, why is it so important?

The bystander saying, “But she’s not human!” may be concerned with minor physical differences such as between earthlings and humanoid aliens. Why these should be greater and more shocking than the minor differences of skin colour, hair and epicanthic folds on Earth needs then to be explained. Or perhaps the bystander is concerned about the bedmate’s moral core. But we do not actually need to meet beings from the planets to get the feeling that we are sleeping with something that is not human, in the sense of an empathy-free predator; we may be unfortunate enough to get into that situation with someone born in the same street. The extraterrestrial, on the other hand, might be what Spider Robinson calls a gentlebeing, an entity of goodwill.

If we discount these interpretations of what it might mean that our bedmate is not human, what do we have left? If body plan, sexual compatibility, thoughts and feelings and finally ethical awareness are not enough for our putative xenophobe, then what exactly would be left in his mind as the correlative of the word “human”? “Like me”, perhaps? But anyone demanding that his bedmate is just precisely like himself has no business having one.

Posted on July 15, 2009 at 10:13 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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