Friday, April 15, 2011

Monsters vs. Aliens

A question begs at my consciousness: What is the difference between a sci-fi "alien" and a fantasy "monster"? In creating the various monsters, beasties, and cross-Realm critters for The City of Lives, I have, as I am wont to do, recycled ideas from abandoned projects. And yet I have encountered a problem in doing so: some of my creatures, generally the ones brought over from science-fiction worlds, didn't fit. But why? You may remember my struggles with the Shertasi and Ma'ar -- alien monsters constantly at war, who had wandered from one half-formed universe to another for quite some time before I tried to give them a new home in the City. As I documented, they just don't work right in the City -- and I can't explicate exactly why. One thing I do know is that it's got something to do with the difference between fantasy and science-fiction.

So let's do some research. A Google search gives me mostly links to recent B-movie Monsters vs. Aliens and not much else, but I also found this intriguing article: Aside from misspelling "versus" in his title, Adam Dickstein offers up some interesting ideas. He states the fundamental difference as twofold: a monster is not understood, and foreign to its environment; an alien is understood (or at least understandable), and native to its environment. It's an interesting definition -- he notes that most mythic monsters, foreign and terrifying in their original contexts, have been stripped of their scariness by being understood and killed for treasure in modern D&D and its ilk. I like his ideas, but there's something in it that doesn't work for the purposes of our exploration: he states the possibility of fantasy "aliens" (Faeries are his example) and sci-fi "monsters" (he doesn't provide an example, but I think the titular Alien is an excellent one) -- for my question, there can't be such a thing as a fantasy alien.

So let's take a piece of Mr. Dickstein's analysis that jumped out at me -- "A Monster is a creature of myth and folklore that represents humanity's fears, brings to light a trait in the human character or otherwise illustrates a lesson or failing in our collective experience." -- and jump off from there. I like the idea of the monster as symbolic, representational rather than mundanely real. However, the rest of the definition is needlessly restrictive -- I want to explore fantasy creatures beyond fears, and into hopes and loves and all the rest of the human soul. Let's examine the Fae. The fae (Fair Folk, Faeries, Lords and Ladies, what have you) are, according to this definition, not alien, but definitely monsters. They represent what we cannot have -- they are more beautiful than we are, more graceful, more intelligent, more magical. But they are also more elemental than us -- they are flighty, and capricious, and cruel. They are fundamentally foreign to our experience, but also recognizable as just beyond our understanding.

I think we've found a couple things here. First is the question of understanding -- I think it definitely helps a fantasy creature to be mysterious. But is it necessary? I think we understand the "orc" just about as well as it is possible to understand a fantasy race -- from Tolkien to Blizzard, we've got a full rundown on them. And, Warhammer 40K aside, there isn't anything that screams fantasy more than an orc. So then the symbolism -- that seems fundamental, and we'll hold that in mind. Last is the idea of "elemental." That may be the key. The goal in all science-fiction worldbuilding is verisimilitude -- it must appear to be as complex and realistic as our own reality. But is that necessary -- is it even desirous -- in fantasy?

I will try to answer this question next time, folks!