In Gwyneth Jones’ White Queen, a near future earth is invaded by a handful of aliens, called Aleutians. The Aleutians look almost exactly like humans. This results in confusion. On the one hand, the Aleutians themselves — who all share a kind of genetic consciousness with each other and their ancestors and their tools — assume that humans, too, are part of the one collective, and so are beings exactly themselves. On the other hand, the humans assume that the Aleutians are radically different from themselves — super-powered conqueror-saviors.
In Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, Brian Attebery argues that this split is indicative of, and thematizes, two of science-fictions strongest tendencies. On the one hand, science-fiction projects the self onto the cosmos — it turns space and time, future and past, into human metaphor. At the same time, science-fiction is built out of separating the self and the other, human and alien. The genre is therefore both obsessively totalizing and obsessively binary.
What Attebery does not say, but which seems clear upon reading White Queen, is that the misunderstanding between Aleutian and humans is deliberately replicated in the experience of reader and text. Attebery’s description of the book, his isolating of its metaphors and themes, is very lucid — but reading the book is anything but. Rather, both Aleutians and humans remain, throughout the course of the novel, a mystery, or a riddle, or often a joke. Both Aleutian and human society come into focus to some extent — you realize that Agnes, the first alien we see, is not actually a girl, for example; you learn more or less the nature of Johnny Guglioli’s disease. But is the Aleutian homeworld a ship behind the moon? Does that question even make any sense? Why in the last pages of the book does the human diplomat Ellen but on fake breasts and buttocks when she last meets with Agnes (now named Clavel) and why does he take that as a reprimand? What does happen to Braemar and Johnny after their first faster than light trip? Did they even go on a faster than light trip? What is the deal with the alien’s sanitary pads? And so on and on; like the aliens, or the humans, the book seems to tell you things only to emphasize its unknowability.
Eve Sedgwick argues that realist novels function as a kind of bargain of knowledge and power. The author reveals the world to the reader; in exchange for the reader’s belief in the authors knowledge, the reader is granted the same omniscience, the same sense of knowing. If that’s the case in realist fiction, it seems even more the case in sci-fi. You enter Jones’ novel knowing nothing; your map of the world is useless and even, in terms of the aliens, worse than useless. But as you read you know…and even the not-knowing is a kind of guarantor of knowing, the way that the photograph cut off by the frame is a guarantor or earnest that the rest of the world must be there. The Aleutians are more real because they are strange and you can’t know them; which is to say your not-knowing ensures the worth of what you know. The totalizing experience of the fiction is made more total because of the bifurcated strangeness; or, if you prefer, the bifurcated strangeness is enabled by the illusion of totality.
You can see this mechanism at work, too, in stories with what you might call meta-frames. The film John Carter is one; the hero flies across the cosmos to another body and another world of adventure, leaving behind only a diary to be read by his mousy relation. Octavia Butler’s Kindred is another; a black woman in the 1970s inexplicably finds herself falling backwards in time to the early 1800s, called back to involuntarily help her white slave-owning ancestor. In both these cases, the protagonist’s journey enacts both the immersive experience and the alienating strangeness of narrative; the sense of exhilarating, horrified disconnection (as when John Carter discovers his jumping ability on Mars), and the sense of exhilarated, horrified belonging. (as when Dana realizes she is beginning to think of the slave plantation as home.)
It’s perhaps telling that one of the last things Jones tells us about the aliens in White Queen is that we don’t know how they read.
Whatever the Aleutian did to serve as “reading,” it didn’t work like the human version. Perhaps his eyes sent out little mote to reconstruct, chemically, the ur-hieroglyphics behind the letters: something mind-boggling like that. Their physiology, especially the neurological part, was a bizarre mystery.
The joke (and Jones is almost always joking) perhaps being that human neurology is, also, pretty much a bizarre mystery — in describing their unlikeness to us, she is describing their likeness — and doing it even as we, Aleutians and non, read and understand, and don’t understand our understanding (or, for that matter, our not understanding.)
Not understanding the Aleutians reading is very similar to the way that the humans do not understand the Aleutian telepathy — a telepathy which Jones suggests may be more like non-verbal cues, or plot devices, or watching a silent movie, than like actually reading thoughts. Perhaps, too, as I’ve suggested, telepathy might be like reading, or any other entertainment delivery system, where another’s thoughts become your thoughts in a sharing of the minds. Such sharing can be a radical, totalizing sameness, or a radical recognition of difference and alienation. The two consciousnesses become one, or the unified one recognizes its own internal difference. The alien is recognized as the self, and/or the self is recognized as alienated. Every fiction is an Aleutian, the us that is and isn’t.