Humans’ Special Power

Seriously, wouldn’t all you people rather be elves?

So, the other night I was at a party (for the release of Croak by Gina Damico) and I had a conversation with my friend, John Perich and various others about the portrayals of humanity in fantasy and science fiction stories and games. He brought up the whole trend that puts humans in the role of the ‘default’ race and that all other races (be they sci-fi aliens or the cohabitants of a fantasy world) have built-in qualities that define them somehow as ‘other.’ Dwarves are stubborn, Klingons are violent, elves are beautiful and noble, Vulcans are logical, etc, etc. Everybody’s got their schtick–everybody, that is, but humans.

The reason for this, as I pointed out in the aforementioned conversation, is that it is phenomenally difficult to portray alien species as anything other than slightly more specialized versions of human beings. This is because we have no other analog for intelligence or sentient beings and, even worse, have no way to think or conceive of things that are alien to our own way of understanding. Much as we might like to claim to ‘understand’ a dolphin, we do not and cannot. It’s thought process, no matter how advanced, is fundamentally alien to our own. Therefore, in order to get our head wrapped around it, we start with a human intelligence, remove some parts, add some other parts, and we get our dwarf or elf or Ferengi or whatever. Of course, such beings aren’t really alien in the same way that a 2010 Corolla isn’t a wholly alien object to a 2008 Corolla – same basic framework, but with a variety of cosmetic and minor functional differences. Even if we try really hard, the best we wind up with is a comparison between a Corolla and a Ford Mustang. If we really want to talk aliens, we’d need to find a way to compare the Corolla (us) with a blimp (them). Good luck.

Anyway, because humans are the default setting – where we begin, necessarily and ultimately, to paint our picture of alien life – efforts have been made across the specfic genres to give humans something special to make them unique. After all, if there’s nothing special about us, that means we aren’t awesome, and we’re obviously awesome, right? The trouble is, when everybody else is better at certain things than we are (Klingons are better warriors, Vulcans are better thinkers, Betazoids are better diplomants, Ferengi are better buisnessmen…), whatever are we better at than everyone else? Here are some of the more common theories:

The Human Spirit

Yeah, we haven’t got super strength or wings or ageless lifespans, but we’ve got spunk, dammit! Humans never give up. They are adaptable, optimistic, and have that special something that gives them the edge over the competition. They don’t believe in no-win scenarios, man!

In RPGs, this is often represented as some extra skills or a bump in versatility. Sometimes it shows up as a variety of bland special edges that give humans mild statistical advantages over their buddies. In general, this one always bothers me because it’s based off of the principle that humans don’t like to lose and adapt themselves so they don’t. This, however, is fairly common with all successful lifeforms, since you don’t survive in the big, bad world without some ability to Outlast/Outplay/Outwit.

Human Ambition

Humans are always striving for more, see? They, above all things, desire power. Dangle a magic ring under their nose, and they grab it. They expand, like a virus, filling up their environment with all the stuff they accumulate and spread across the cosmos like a plague. They’re never satisfied.

This one isn’t bad, but it rather hamstrings the ability for humans to interact with other aliens, doesn’t it? Like, if none of them are as ambitious as us, then don’t they just kinda get pushed aside? In some settings, they do, actually (in my own setting of Alandar, in fact), but to rob all your aliens of the capacity to be equally ambitious makes it easy to either demonize or glorify humanity in a way that makes things unfair. In Avatar, for example, humanity’s ambition is demonized as destructive and cruel. In Star Trek, it’s glorified as the thing that makes us the leaders of the Federation. In both cases, we are seeing human uniqueness being used as a symbol for what the authors think of human behavior, rather than a realistic portrait of those cultural or physical qualities that make us distinct.

Hardy Vermin

One of the other popular ones is to have humans be pervasive, hardy, and numerous. This is an easy trick – humans happen to be physically hardier than other species, or reproduce faster, or what-have-you. I use a version of this myself in The Rubric of All Things, in which humans are extremely tough and disease resistant (we do take our immune system for granted, don’t we?).

Of the three ideas, I prefer this one myself, since it’s the easiest and most plausible. I don’t think it needs to be pigeonholed into humans being ‘hardier’, per se, but if you are inventing aliens, you can pretty easily make them all so physically different that their uniqueness becomes clear. In order to do this, though, you’re going to have to think harder about how your aliens work. So, like, if humans are the only intelligent bipeds around, what does that mean for how all those aliens construct their buildings and castles and spaceships? Stuff is bound to get weird fast (which is how I like it).

So What if We Aren’t That Special…

Ultimately, however, all aliens are going to be versions of ourselves – distorted reflections, if you will – or otherwise will be the unknowable ‘other’. Middle ground is extremely difficult to establish (though I’m trying, believe me!), and is the subject for some really profound and interesting stories. Still using other species as metaphors for aspects of humanity has a long and colorful history, and I can see no good reason to stop, so long as it’s kept fresh.

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on March 26, 2012, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Maybe all the things you mentioned on how create another race with unique qualities is a reflection of us as human. Some of of us are geinuses (pardon the spellling), others are great at art, others are great buisnessmen/woman. We are also stuborn and known for violence. All these one “unique” qualities we make up for these other races or aliens are all forms of us. We are unique because we have all of these qualities and the other races have only one main quality that makes them unique. We are as humans a merging of all these. I’m not going to be as bold as to say we are the best because there is a lot of space out there that has not been explored, including all the places our minds full of imagination can take us. I will say that over long periods of time we can be adaptable to the changes in our lives and in the world.

    • I find it difficult to accept that our special quality is that we are diverse whereas other species aren’t. The reason we are diverse is because we are a sexually reproducing species with a collection of cultural and linguistic groups that educate and posit values through our children differently. This, I feel, would be the case in any environment where there are a variety of climates (which means, in essence, all planets) and a sexually reproducing species (which is inherently designed to create variation).

      I see that idea as kind of an extension of ‘The Human Spirit’ angle. How do you become a successful alien species without cultural and genetic diversity? If anything I’d think that monolithic species would be exceptional rather than common.

      Of course, the only reason I’m saying that is because I’m a human and can’t imagine alien alternatives to our development to be plausible. If such a species as, say, Vulcans were to exist, I think they’d be enormously difficult for us to understand above and beyond as portrayed in Star Trek, simply because their decision-making tree would be something entirely foreign and difficult to rationalize.

  2. Here is another thought to play devils advicate. If I undersood correctly you said that all these other races/species are uniquie because of their one main quality that makes them unique. Us humans have all these qualities and not just one quality that makes us who we are. Us – all qualities, them – 1 quality. At least that is how the artical came across to me. so your saying a race that has less qualities to define them makes them more special and us with diverse amount of qualities makes us common and less. Sorry I don’t buy that. That’s backwards thinking. That was how the article/blog was portrayed to me. Am I missing something? Although I don’t beleive that these other races would have just one quality. They would also be diverse to be able to servive and adapt to the universe. I would think that all the different spieces would be unique just coming from different places in the universe. Like Japan’s just as unique and different as Africans. Sorry I’m not trying to argue with you or make you mad and I’m not good with confintaion but just trying to express a difference of oppinion.

    • You are misunderstanding me, I’m afraid. I agree with you; I find the tendency to pigeonhole other species into being or having one ‘thing’ to be ridiculous. I’m merely pointing out how specfic tends to represent other species, which isn’t so much based off the idea that they’re creating a ‘realistic’ alien species but, rather, that the species is intended to represent some aspect of human experience in the extreme.

  3. BTW nice to meet you. it’s nice having intelligent conversations with others. I live alone so I don’t get that too much. I can’t wait to read more of your blogs. I’m a 15 year rpger from GURPS to Shadowrun, to D and D to White Wolf and have done a few years of LARPing in there as well. I’m not huge into reading sci fi but have read some that I have liked. I prefer Sci fi tv series and movies but fantasy is my favorite. I like gaming of many different types on a PC and am trying to keep up with what’s just come out. I played WOW for 3 years. Okay okay I’m a geek, and I love it.

  4. Some of the most alien-thinking aliens I’ve seen are Gordon R. Dickson’s from _The Alien Way_, which he modeled on the psychology of bears. (The book even contains an accurate citation to a paper that he must have read as background research.) If you’re not familiar, I highly recommend it!

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