War. Genocide. Slavery. They have been a dominant part of human history for as far back as we have any records. Despite the harsh reality of our past, and the ongoing current conflicts, we insist that the human race has progressed, has moved toward a more peaceful world of co-existence with each other. Despite the new potential for more, and more damaging, conflicts teetering on the horizon, we maintain a delusional belief that, in the long run, all will be well.
Science fiction plays its part in undermining that delusion, but it also supports it. Space opera is usually based on a belief in human superiority over alien races as an unquestioned assumption. It assumes that these alien races are a danger to us and that we must wipe them out. How many fans of space opera even realize that, explicitly or implicitly, these novels are a metaphor for how the average human actually thinks?
Certainly there are novels in which humans and aliens come to some sort of understanding and even manage to achieve a peace that may or may not survive the many stresses that naturally occur, as between nations. But the breakdown of peace is another theme.
There is no end of speculation and theory about why this is so. Humans are naturally violent, etc., etc. Two novels, one science fiction, which I just finished, and the other literary fiction, which I’m still reading. coincidently explore a concept which is not new, but is rarely discussed in any context having to do with conflict, whether it’s between individuals or nations. It’s the idea that we are incapable, as a species, of seeing others from any viewpoint but our own.
In Gordon R. Dickson’s classic, Way of the Pilgrim, earth has been conquered by a race that is human in many ways, but utterly and completely alien in all the ways that count. The Aalaag have made slaves of the human race, which they consider their cattle. Shane Evert, the pilgrim of the title, is called Shane-beast, and so are all humans called: beast. The Aalaag do not learn any human languages, and depend on a small corps of talented translators, including Shane, to communicate for them, but only to give orders. When improbable mass gatherings around the world convince the Aalaag that the cattle will never be tamed and they will thus never achieve the peaceful and productive use of Earth that they anticipated, they prepare to leave.
In the last conversation between Shane and his former master Lyt Ahn, the alien tells Shane that humans are not worthy of the benefits the Aalaag tried to bring them. It’s the summation of the way in which the Aalaag have, from the first, looked down on humans, and disposed of them as casually as you would dispose of a useless or sick animal. Treat your cattle well, but weed out the sick ones. To the Aalaag, the uprising isn’t a sign of courage, it’s a sign of sickness.
In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan uses the building of the Thailand to Burma Death Railway by slaves, including Allied prisoners, some 12,000 of whom died during that insane effort, to illustrate the inherent blindness of humans to any but their own reality. The Japanese overseer can’t understand, to start with, why the captured men (Australians, in this case) didn’t kill themselves rather than allow themselves to be made prisoners of war. Further, he can’t understand why they aren’t willing to see their suffering and death as a privilege that allows them to fulfill the Emperor’s wishes and erase some of the shame of their capture. In that suffering and death, he sees honor rather than horror.
From a review of Narrow Road:
Flanagan pulls us right into the minds of these men raised on emperor worship, trained in a system of ritualized brutality and wholly invested in the necessity of their cause. It’s a harrowing portrayal of the force of culture and the way twisted political logic inflated by religious zeal can render obscene atrocities routine, even necessary. The novel doesn’t exonerate these war criminals, but it forces us to admit that history conspired to place them in a situation where cruelty would thrive, where the natural responses of human kindness and sympathy were short-circuited. And in its final move, the story makes us confront the conundrum of evil men who later become kind and gentle under the cleansing shower of their own denial. How infinite are our ways of absolving ourselves, of rendering our crimes irrelevant, of mitigating the magnitude of others’ pain.
The enslavement of the human race by Aalaag conquerors is fiction; the construction of the Death Railway during WWII was real. Flanagan’s father was one of the survivors.