Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Alien Lessons by @LibbyDoyle9

By Libby Doyle 

Imagine you’re a miner in space, digging ore from the bowels of an inhospitable planet. An alien creature is stalking your fellow miners, burning them to a crisp. You’d want to kill it wouldn’t you? Of course, you would. But suppose it turns out you’re the invader?
All you Trekkies out there may recognize this as the plot of the classic Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark.”
The alien creature turns out to be a horta, a silicon-based life form. The miners had tunneled into the horta’s egg chamber and were callously destroying her progeny. They didn’t know the nodules they’d found were eggs. To make matters worse, the horta was the last of her kind, charged with tending the eggs until a new generation was born. Thanks to Captain Kirk and Spock, who mind-melded with the creature, the humans were able to learn all this before it was too late for the horta. The miners agreed to safeguard the eggs, and the horta agreed to stop incinerating the miners, even to help them.

“The Devil in the Dark,” is one of my favorite Star Trek episodes. I like its lesson – that our hatred of one another often stems from fear, ignorance, and miscommunication. In fact, one of the reasons I adore science fiction is what alien characters can teach us about ourselves.
Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, used its alien characters to hold a mirror up to one of the most vexing (and wonderful) aspects of the human condition: gender.

Human male Genly Ai travels to the planet of Winter to entice its inhabitants—the Karhadians—to become part of the Ekumen, a confederation of planets. The Karhadians are a sexless race. To reproduce, they enter kemmer, which is like estrus in animals. At that time, they can turn either male or female depending on who catches their fancy. If they turn female, they can become a mother. If they turn male, they can father a child. After kemmer, they return to complete androgyny.
I love this bit, when Estraven, a Karhadian, asks Genly about women:

“Are they like a different species?”

“No. Yes. No, of course not, not really. But the difference is very important. I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female. In most societies it determines one’s expectations, activities, outlook, ethics, manners—almost everything. . . . It’s extremely hard to separate the innate differences from the learned ones.”

And this passage isn’t the only one that makes you think. When Genly sends a report back to his superiors, he says: “The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be . . . ‘tied down to childbearing,’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be – psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally[.]”
What a concept! The book is filled with these nuggets.
Now, you may say to me, Libby, this is the Science Fiction Romance Brigade blog, and you haven’t mentioned a romance yet! But I consider Left Hand to be a love story. Estraven and Genly face extreme hardship together, and love grows. When Estraven enters kemmer, there’s a spark of attraction, but their situation precludes romance. It doesn’t matter. This novel is one of the most profound depictions of love I’ve ever read, and Estraven is a total [expletive deleted] hero. Really, it’s beautiful.
The Left Hand of Darkness also touches on another theme near and dear to my heart, which happens to be where it gets its title. A religion described in the book believes in the unity of all living things, expressed in the precept: “Light is the left hand of darkness and darkness the right hand of light.”
I started writing my own books before I read Left Hand, and I was excited to discover this theme. My own Covalent Seriesfeatures the concept of Balance, the equilibrium of light and darkness, order and entropy, love and hate. I was inspired by yin and yang and covalent bonds, which are formed when two atoms share a pair of electrons to create a stable balance of attractive and repulsive forces. 
The hero of The Covalent Series, the alien warrior Barakiel, derives his power from Balance. His powerful enemies mean he needs his hatred. He needs that energy. Lucky for him, he meets the heroine, Zan O’Gara. She’s his left hand, the light that balances his darkness. He’s good for her, as well. His race, the Covalent, view sex as one of life’s great joys, casual or committed. For them, sex is never, ever a source of shame. Through her alien lover, the human Zan learns to throw off the shame of her past.
That’s why I love science fiction romance as a genre. All those opportunities for our cross-species lovers to learn from one another.

Libby Doyle is the author of The Covalent Series. To learn more, visit libbydoyle.com.


  1. What a great article. Thoroughly enjoyed it. I haven't read Left Hand of Darkness - though I've heard of it, of course. I'll make sure I do. Thanks.

  2. Great blog! The Left Hand of Darkness has been on my reading list forever, but like your books, I haven't got to it yet. Now I'm chomping at the bit to read them all sooner. What you highlight is one of the great things about SFR, IMHO--a chance to explore familiar themes in a new light via alien cultures.

    1. Thanks, Laurie! Yep, the exploration of alien cultures is one my favorite things about SFR.

  3. Thanks, glad you enjoyed it! You can’t go wrong with LeGuin.


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