Alien Theory: The Alien as Archetype in the Science Fiction Short Story
by Patricia Monk
Review by Ernest Lilley
The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0810857464
Date: 28 June, 2006 List Price $49.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
At the outset (and belied in classic SF fashion by the cover art) the author makes it clear that she's not interested in the UFO phenomenon or such aliens as might actually exist, but only ones that have been conceived by SF writers. Since there's a cultural interaction there, she's doomed from the start, but she hews to her avoidance of lights in the sky with conviction.
Along the way to her discussion of Jung's archetype and how it explains the alien, Ms. Monk delivers a wealth of information on literary criticism and the development and discussion of alien form, psyche, and society...all illustrated by references to short stories and articles which will add to the store of even the most knowledgeable reader. The author is an academic, and though the book is intended for reading by scholar and layman alike, the latter will find that it's slow going in spots...but rewarding going as well. By the time I finished the book I found that I was looking at not just aliens in SF with new insight, but the structure of stories as well.
In the end the author arrives where she promises, at a discussion of why aliens are more than just a useful plot device. Humans, she notes, need to create a structure for the universe they live in, and when science makes the possibility of a new class of being possible, we need to fix them in our cosmological view in order to define not so much them, but ourselves.
The reading list for the book is extensive, comprising well over a thousand short stories ranging from 1900 to today, though you'll no doubt find that some of your favorites failed to make the cut, as I did. Of course, my favorites happen to be humorous, and the author sticks largely with serious "sapients" in her discussion. I'm not certain whether it would add to her analysis to include a look at stories like Terry Bisson's "They're Made of Meat", Asimov's "Playboy and the Slime God" (which I'd always thought was titled, "Look What They're Doing Now"), or William Tenn's "The Flat-Eyed Monster", but I think that they have a lot to say about how we see ourselves and the "other".
The good, really good, news is that Alien Theory has a lot of fact and theory to offer which anyone seriously interested in SF would benefit tremendously by. The bad news is that its nearly four hundred pages long and more than a bit of a slog for the lay reader. Fortunately the stories used as examples serve as a bridge for readers who haven't studied literary criticism and as a result the concepts are far more accessible than they would be in a textbook on mainstream criticism. On the other hand, I'd be delighted if Ms. Monk were to turn her hand to an Idiot's Guide to Literary SF Criticism, which would be more my speed.