Thursday, August 23, 2018

Thought Floating on Different Blood

I've been rereading a couple of Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters novels. Magicians in this series work with one of the classic four elements (air, water, earth, fire). People with those powers can see and talk with elemental creatures (sylphs, salamanders, gnomes, fauns, and many others) invisible to non-magicians. Many elemental entities have human-level intelligence; some are more intelligent and powerful than human mages. Elemental magicians, able to communicate with nonhuman creatures, must surely have a different view of the world from us ordinary mortals. People in ancient times believed in a host of intelligent beings who populated the natural realm, such as nymphs, satyrs, dryads, minor gods of rivers and mountains, dwarfs, faerie folk, trolls, etc. I suspect, however, that few ordinary people ever expected to meet one of those creatures. How different our world would be if such entities existed openly, where any of us (not just magicians) might encounter them in our daily lives.

In C. S. Lewis's PERELANDRA, the protagonist, Professor Ransom, travels to Perelandra (Venus), where he finds three intelligent species (not counting the life-form of pure spirit who rules the planet). One of his Perelandran acquaintances expresses surprise upon learning that Earth's ecosystem has only one sapient species. How can we fully understand ourselves, he wonders, if we can't compare our thoughts to "thought that floats on a different blood"? How would our view of our own species and the world we inhabit change if we weren't alone on our planet?

Although I've often wondered about a hypothetical alternate history in which other human species or subspecies, such as Neanderthals and the "hobbits," had survived to the present day, I sadly suspect that the prevailing attitude toward other races wouldn't be very different. Neanderthals and other hominids, and maybe Yeti if they existed, would look too human. They might well get treated as inferior beings, similar to the way Europeans historically treated other races, only worse, because some anthropologists might classify such hominids as "animals"—a bridge between Homo sapiens and lower species, intelligent enough to be useful but inhuman-looking enough to justify enslaving them.

Demonstrably sapient but clearly nonhuman creatures, on the other hand, would probably evoke a different response. What if we shared Earth with centaurs, merfolk, or intelligent dragons? Or the semi-civilized talking animals of Narnia? Tolkien (in his essay on fairy tales) says animal fantasies satisfy the perennial human yearning to reestablish communication with the natural world from which we've been cut off. Would a common experience of living alongside other sapient species—or extraterrestrial visitors—make human racial differences seem insignificant, as STAR TREK optimistically postulates?

The TV series ALIEN NATION explored this question in thoughtful detail. It portrayed human-on-alien prejudice and hatred, human-alien friendships and love affairs, and the mind-expanding experience of exposure to another species' view of the universe. This series about a shipload of extraterrestrial refugees settling in California, all of whose broadcast seasons and follow-up TV movies are available in DVD format, deserves multiple viewings. Also, a number of tie-in novels were published, most of which I thought were quite good. If nothing else, the fact that the Newcomers have three sexes would give them a different outlook on life from ours. The body and the senses inevitably shape the mind's perceptions of reality. An intriguing spec-fic example of "thought that floats on a different blood."

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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