Sometimes it’s a wolf, waiting in the shadows. Sometimes it’s an alien life form, unpredictable and deadly. Sometimes it’s a stranger, who speaks or looks different. When The Other surrounds us, our first instinct is to feel alone. The Other takes many shapes, from monstrous to mundane, but its most immediately recognizable forms are found in speculative fiction, where its mysteries can be explored in ways not strictly human: through monsters, aliens, and magic.
The Other is an empty vessel, whose shape changes person to person, culture to culture, and example to example: we fill it with our uncomfortable desires and fears, our wishes and our dreams. At the broadest edges of the spectrum, The Other is everything that isn’t us. In speculative fiction, the human becomes uniquely inhuman, and The Other becomes a metaphor through which we reach a new understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.
The Experience of The Other
In speculative fiction, which includes myths and fairy tales as well as stories of alternate worlds and fantastic kingdoms, The Other adapts to its surroundings to become a wolf at a time when real wolves roam the forest, or an invader – humanoid, but alien – as a way of indirectly addressing the threat of communism. The aliens of the Alien franchise speak to man’s insignificance in the face of an indifferent universe, a brutal rejoinder to the gentle aliens of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, waiting to elevate those willing to listen and understand, or the candy-eating, proxy sibling of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, who befriends us when we’re scared or lonely.
The Other might be tall or short, beautiful or ugly. It might speak, grunt, sing, or say nothing at all. It might be friendly, it might be indifferent, or it might want to destroy us.
The Origins of The Other
The Other originates in the space between self and world. We begin life seeing the world as an extension of ourselves – this is natural: we are at our most vulnerable as children, and what fragile resources we have must be bent towards ensuring survival. As well as being the process of establishing individual identity, maturity is about becoming cognizant of that identity as one among many: realizing that other people exist as entities separate from us.
This process of differentiating between self and not-self is the seed of The Other. That other people exist, like and yet unlike us, is both frightening and intriguing. It’s the frightening aspect that is most often referred to as The Other, as this is the aspect that we hold at arm’s length. As Searle says in in her Tor.com piece, regarding culture shock, “that feeling of being outside, alone, mystified and frustrated by the seemingly incomprehensible traditions of another culture, can easily twist into scorn, distrust, even hatred.” The Other, by being distinct from us, stirs up fears and anxieties that leave it in constant danger of being seen as monstrous.
Learning from The Other
Our obsession with The Other is our fascination with ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. The more we see ourselves in The Other, the less terrifying it becomes. Whether we’re falling in love with it or fleeing from it has to do with how we perceive the foreign elements in our world that it represents at any given moment.
The Other can be readily explored in speculative fiction because of the ease with which the real can be addressed through the imaginary. An imaginary other can be used to speak to the strangeness of different cultures, social structures, and even genders, without directly confronting uncomfortable truths. The Other in speculative fiction can take us by the hand and lead us on an emotional journey that carries all of the power and depth of reality, without the same level of threat. “Science fiction,” says Pat Cadigan, writing for Io9, “is never about the future and/or aliens – it’s about the present and ourselves, as we are at that time.”
The Other shows us ourselves and our world through the lens of magic and future science. Sometimes The Other is presented as another version of ourselves, sometimes as a companion, sometimes an enemy and sometimes a friend, but it always holds the promise of a revelation of self.
The Monstrous Mirror
The true power of The Other is in its ability to help us understand and navigate the gulf between ourselves and that-which-is-not-ourselves. This understanding brings with it the possibility of reconciliation, but its primary value is self-knowledge. Understanding that the fight against the alien aggressor as an allegory for the horrors of war doesn’t mean that war will no longer be necessary: sometimes, The Other appears as the embodiment of violence itself and must be struggled against, even as our own, darker impulses must be resisted. Sometimes, understanding the humanness of the other is as much about protecting ourselves as it is about peace and compromise. Reconciling and differentiating The Other is a way for us to understand who we are in relationship to the rest of the world, so we can make informed decisions based on understanding, rather than denial or fear.
The greatest danger in dealing with The Other in speculative fiction is the tendency to see only the monster, rather than a reflection to be considered, understood, and reconciled. Refusing to think deeply when confronted with The Other is a refusal to look at ourselves – a refusal to grow. We have the ability to see The Other from a mature perspective, rather than through the eyes of a frightened child. When we turn away from that we retreat into ourselves, and through that grow not just smaller, but monstrous.