Crisis and Transformation: The Aftermath of First Contact in Mid-20th Century Science Fiction
Keywords:Cultural Evolution, Literary Darwinism, Science Fiction, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Syuzhet, Post humanism, Tropes
First contact scenarios or hypothetical encounters between humans and alien civilizations have been a hallmark of science fiction since the inception of the genre. Despite the fluidity of this trope, in the middle of the twentieth century it briefly stabilized into a distinct shape that found its way into some of the most popular sci-fi novels of the period. Its main feature is that first contact always follows a great crisis with existential consequences. Critical analyses have long neglected the uniqueness of these first contact narratives – especially their clear “mentorship-like” rather than “invasion-like” nature and the invariable transformation of humanity that follows the event. Moreover, this trope has been ignored by proponents of cultural evolution and theoretical paradigms that fit under the “cognitive” moniker, despite its potential to shed light on the interaction of nature and nurture in the creation and reception of such narratives. This paper attempts to fill this gap in the research on this topic, by comparing how the aftermath of first contact is treated in novels by the “Big Three” of science fiction – Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood's End), Isaac Asimov (The Gods Themselves), and Robert A. Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land). The paper argues that the structure of first contact in these narratives is deliberately crafted to pander to contemporary cultural (mainly Cold War related) anxieties. Moreover, the success of these narratives hinges on the depiction of a post humanist perspective, focusing either on aliens or on “altered” humans, which acts as an MCI (minimally counterintuitive) bias that enhances the ability of the respective narratives to capture the readers’ attention. The result of the transformation is always change towards the likeness of the aliens and hyper-sociality – for better or worse (hyper-sociality can be viewed in a positive or negative light depending on the context, due to aporic attitudes towards communality and individualism that relate back to the nature vs. nurture debate).
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