Thursday, November 15, 2007

Women and Children as Aliens

In an earlier post I mentioned the Kuttner-Moore story on which THE LAST MIMZY was based. The original story rested on the theory that children have mental processes fundamentally alien to those of adults. The new film THE MARTIAN CHILD speculates in a similar vein. Based on a book by David Gerrold, a thinly fictionalized account of his own adoption of a difficult little boy, the movie features a widowed writer who becomes the guardian of Dennis, abandoned as an infant. Insisting he comes from Mars, Dennis fears the sun's UV rays (when David first meets him, he spends all his outdoor time inside a large box) and has other peculiar habits, such as taking innumerable Polaroid photos and hoarding common household objects for his "mission." The plot follows this eccentric but highly intelligent kid's experiences in learning to be human. From what I remember of the short story from which the book developed, that version maintained some ambiguity about whether Dennis was really a Martian. The movie's climax, when Dennis proclaims that his mission is finished and runs away to await his rendezvous with the Martian ship, makes it clear that he's a troubled human child who finally becomes able to trust David's love. The closing lines of the script state that all children are aliens, with whom we must learn to communicate. Every one of us must, in a sense, "learn to be human." It's a very moving story; I recommend it. I've requested the book from the public library.

Many decades ago, Dorothy Sayers delivered a lecture titled (ironically, of course) "Are Women Human?" Men, she said, often think and talk about women as if we're some exotic kind of creature. Freud famously asked, "What do women want?"—as Sayers puts it, as if we were potted plants with a simple answer to that question, e.g. "They need lots of phosphates." Nowadays, we've been told men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Linguists still disagree on whether distinct "masculine" and "feminine" styles of speaking exist in American English. I've read somewhere that few women would recognize themselves in the Madonnas and Liliths who inhabit much literature written by men. Although, to be fair, we probably won't find many real-life incarnations of Heathcliff, Mr. Rochester, and Rhett Butler, either. And, come to think of it, why does the dominant critical consensus regard most such books by men as "classics" while relegating those written by women (with notable exceptions such as JANE EYRE and WUTHERING HEIGHTS, which aren't generally considered part of the topmost tier of Victorian literature; they're more like second-level classics) to the category of "popular fiction" or even "trash," even though masculine literature idealizing or demonizing women can't claim any greater degree of "realism" than feminine literature doing similar things with male characters?

If we tend to view the opposite sex or members of younger generations as "aliens," we often find ourselves thinking that way even more so about people from different cultures. The very phrase "illegal alien" emphasizes that natural human tendency to feel suspicious of the Other or, at least, have trouble understanding the Other. Maybe dealing with the Other in our own society—or our own household—if handled wisely, will be good practice for meeting other intelligent species.


  1. I think it boils down to the need to control. The person who needs to control another person is a fearful person. The fearful person is incapable of understanding that which he or she fears. This prevents nations from allying, couples from marrying and staying happily married, and children from being brought up feeling safe and loved.

    I think it's a wonderful concept to explore in any flavor of Science Fiction because it is a universal human weakness.

    I'm hoping to watch the Martian Child too.

  2. Here's the LOCUS website review of the movie, which I just read:

    It discusses the differences between book and film in great detail, making me glad I haven't read the book yet. I was able to enjoy the movie on its own terms (as the LOCUS reviewer recommends). I'm constitutionally incapable of NOT comparing a movie to the book (usually to the film's discredit) if I've read the book first.

  3. Oops. Add .html at the end of that web URL. The comment box boundary apparently cut off some of what I pasted.

  4. Just put the Martian Child book on my library list and DVD on my Blockbuster list! Thanks for the tip.

    P.S. Okay, so secret desire for John Cusack may have also had an effect on the blockbuster thing...