JANE: Last week, when we were talking about my fascination with non-human characters, it occurred to me that I’m far from alone in that. Don’t you have a fascination with triffids?
ALAN: Indeed I do – I was nicknamed “The Bearded Triffid” many years ago by a friend who was amused by my fanaticism about SF. The nickname stuck and I’ve used it proudly for forty years…
JANE: So what was it about the triffids that caught your fancy?
ALAN: It’s all my mother’s fault. One day she mentioned that she’d just read a book that she thought I might enjoy. The book was The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham and I read it with jaw-dropping amazement. It was the book that turned me into a science fiction fan in the first place.
Triffids were mobile plants equipped with a vicious sting which could kill with a single lash. They were not a threat until the world’s population fell blind from the glare of a comet’s light, giving the triffids a serious advantage in the struggle.
The novel was a huge best seller in England and the word “triffid” entered the language. A whole generation of British children grew up convinced that any plant they were unable to identify must be a triffid, and that given the least bit of encouragement, it would chase after them and sting them to death…
JANE: I wonder, would this make the kids more eager to eat their vegetables or less? I could see a skillful parent convincing the kids that they’re vanquishing monsters when they eat their broccoli.
ALAN: Not if the broccoli eats them first; a very real possibility.
JANE: But I don’t quite understand why triffids are so fascinating? Can you elaborate?
ALAN: Yes, I think I can. Every child knows that delicious feeling of helpless terror when the monster under the bed creeps out at night. Triffids are just a personification of that imaginary monster – a peril that we are helpless to combat. They speak directly to our deepest fears. I suspect that’s exactly why the novel was such a huge success
JANE: That’s a good point… The blindness caused by the comet could be taken as an allegorical representation of the darkness when the parents turn out the light and leave you in the dark. And what could be scarier than a moving plant? Compared to animals, plants are safe. They stay in one place, they don’t have teeth, but triffids move and they “bite.”
It strikes me that the triffids belong to a larger subsection of creatures in SF, one with a very distinguished pedigree that reaches all the way back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – stories about “aliens” that we ourselves have created.
ALAN: Indeed they do. Both the triffids and Frankenstein’s monster were created by humans in the laboratory. It is that very act of creation (and the fact that eventually we lose control of our creations) that gives them their power as literary devices.
In terms of detail, the two of them quickly part company – the triffids are just monsters pure and simple. However (despite what Hollywood would have us believe), Dr. Frankenstein’s creation was a sensitive, sophisticated and intelligent being who had to learn how to be a monster (in our terms) from the reactions of those around him.
But when Frankenstein refuses to create a mate for him, the monster goes on a rampage in which Frankenstein’s wife and daughter are killed. So Frankenstein’s creation does have his bad aspects…
It is that central act of creation and subsequent loss of control which remains such a striking image that writers return to it again and again, though usually the creations are closer to the “intelligent monster” of Dr. Frankenstein than they are to the rather dumb and simple-minded triffids.
JANE: You definitely understand where I’m coming from… It seems to me that the SF cautionary tale evolved hand and hand with the rise of science.
Another good example is The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells. Here the science in question is vivisection – the scientific practice of cutting into living creatures in an attempt to learn something about how they work. (This is as opposed to doing it for no real reason, when it’s just called “torture.”)
Moreau is trying to create human-like creatures from animals. Short version: It doesn’t work.
ALAN: I enjoyed the Wells novel when I read it in my teens, but the term “vivisection” always bothered me. I think of vivisection as a destructive act rather than as a constructive one – taking a biological object apart to see how it works, rather than putting one together to turn it into something else. I think Wells chose the wrong word and given that he was trained as a scientist, he probably should have known better. I’ve often wondered why he used that word.
JANE: I think it was because Moreau is cutting apart living creatures to adapt them. I don’t think he’s in Dr. Frankenstein’s camp and using dead bodies. From what I recall, Wells’ novel came out at a time when the scientific community was feeling uncomfortable about the ethicality of vivisection. Wells wrote the novel as a way of bringing the practice to the attention of a larger community.
SF has a long tradition of using “what if” as a means of providing a dramatic wake-up call through entertainment. The current trend of “cli-fi,” or SF dealing with various aspects of climate change, is a more current example.
ALAN: That’s true. It’s always important to consider a book as a product of its times and to make allowances when some phrasing sounds odd to you.
JANE: David Brin updated and expanded the “Moreau” concept in his various “Uplift” novels, in which humanity has “uplifted” chimpanzees and dolphins to human or nearly human levels of intelligence.
However, “stress atavism” can occur, usually with unfortunate consequences for all involved.
ALAN: Brin’s uplift universe was an utterly brilliant concept. The novels assume a moral imperative for sapient species to uplift pre-sapients. These uplifted species then become clients of their patrons (and provide service to their patrons for some several thousand years). Clients themselves will become patrons to other species, and so the wheel keeps turning. All sapient species can trace their patronage back to an original progenitor species.
However, humans are an anomaly. They appear to have no patrons, though they themselves do have clients (dolphins, chimpanzees, gorillas and possibly dogs). It is not clear whether humans did actually evolve independently or whether they were abandoned long ago by an unknown patron. The subject is controversial and causes much debate among the patrons and the humans.
Your mention of the idea of uplifting species to sapiency also reminds me of Cordwainer Smith. The creation and eventual emancipation of the biologically engineered underpeople is a central theme in Smith’s stories about the Instrumentality of Mankind.
JANE: Hmm… I agree that it’s a “central theme,” no problem there, but the “underpeople” are far more than Moreau’s monsters – or even Brin’s “Uplifted” creatures. The underpeople are, in their own way, sophisticated, even gentle…
If the “moral of the story” in stories like “Frankenstein,” “Moreau,” and even “Uplift” is “Beware of what you create,” Cordwainer Smith’s focus is close to that of the Civil Rights movement – the awareness that shape and color and origin have nothing to do with the value of a person. That a Person is a Person – not an “underperson.”
ALAN: More importantly, a Person is a Person irrespective of species. Robert Heinlein addressed this very problem in a short story called “Jerry was a Man” in which a genetically modified chimpanzee attempts to argue that legally he should be considered human, and that he should have all the human and legal rights that that implies. Just a few months ago, a case like this was actually considered by a court in New York. As far as I can tell, no verdict has yet been announced, so the point remains moot.
I suppose all these stories are asking what makes a person. In 1920, the Czechoslovakian playwright Karel Capek came up with an intriguing answer in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). It describes the plight of artificial beings grown in vats as mass-produced slaves. These “robots” (as he called them in the play) eventually acquire souls, and go on to conquer their makers. But have they become human themselves?
JANE: I’m sure there are plenty of other examples of the interesting “human-created” aliens, but I’d love to take a look at the Real Aliens, creatures from Out There, in all their infinite variety. How about next time?