Xenofiction is one of the most interesting sub-genres within science fiction. I have heard it said that science fiction is the most avant-garde of all the genres because it describes concepts and technologies that do not yet exist. Some readers find science fiction to be challenging for that very reason, as they cannot emotionally connect with a story which isn’t a 1-1 match with the world they know. I recall when I first started writing xenofiction that my friends told me it was a bad idea, since no one was likely to be interested in a story about non-humans.
Xenofiction escalates the challenge and the unknown by presenting a narrative from the point of view of a non-human character. Who, or what, that character is differs between stories, as does the level of anthropomorphism present in a given xenofiction narrative. The defining feature which gathers these works together in the genre is simply that they present a non-human viewpoint, but what exactly qualifies as a non-human viewpoint with regards to xenofiction isn’t as clear cut as you might think.
For example, when trying to decide whether a work is xenofiction, some writing resources and the dangerously addictive TV tropes have suggested that authors try to swap out their non-human characters for human characters (possibly with superpowers), to see if the story still works. If the story still functions, then the work is probably not xenofiction. The idea behind this is that if the swap doesn’t affect the narrative, then the non-human elements are purely cosmetic.
The trouble with gatekeeping xenofiction
My view is that xenofiction elements in a story do indeed need to be meaningful in order for a story to qualify in the genre. However, what exactly constitutes a ‘meaningful’ xenofiction element? The trouble with identifying xenofiction based on whether the story could function with a human cast instead is that it is a very rigid (and subjective) way of categorising the narratives.
If the principal characters are too human-like, and therefore disqualified from the xenofiction category, what category do they qualify for? There has to be a reason the characters are presented as non-human (even if they supposedly are like humans in all other respects). Another question: what defines ‘non-human’?
By the standard definition of xenofiction, aesthetics alone are not enough for a story to be xenofiction. The entire cast of the story could be insectoid creatures, but if they act, speak and live in ways that are close to or identical to humans, then according to this understanding of the genre they could easily be swapped out for human. Is this correct, however?
We might be inclined to say that aesthetics alone are not enough to qualify something as non-human in a narrative, but how we interpret a character is highly contingent on how it looks. Simply put: a character which looks non-human, or has some other feature which is visibly non-human, is probably not going to be viewed as human regardless of what they do.
A character who looked exactly like a human could very well exist in a non-human setting and have non-human motivations. Yet, I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that this character would be viewed as anything but human by the reader, regardless of how alien they are supposed to be.
A character who visually looks non-human wouldn’t qualify as a xenofiction POV character because they have (subjective) human psychological traits. Yet, a character who visually looks human but isn’t imbued with any humanity, wouldn’t qualify as a xenofiction POV character either. This makes little sense: if cosmetics don’t matter, then presumably it is the psychology of the character which matters, yet clearly, psychology alone doesn’t either. My experimental game, Act of Mercy, actually takes place in a non-human setting. The characters are not human. Yet, they look human. To date, no one has identified that clearly the story is taking place on a completely different planet.
You could create a character with a completely alien morality system, yet if it looks human, no one really is going to accept it as being a non-human POV. Funnily enough, this shows that appearances actually DO matter! A reader is most definitely not going to empathise with a character who looks non-human the same way they would a character who looks like anyone walking down the street.
What is the answer here? It would seem that what would qualify a story as xenofiction is contingent on a POV character who is both psychologically non-human AND cosmetically non-human, as well.
This seems straightforward to me, and yet what qualifies a character as psychologically non-human is totally subjective. Human beings run the gamut in terms of experiences and emotional profiles, so defining this behaviour or that behaviour as exclusively human seems not only pretty rigid but speciest as well. We get in the territory of thinking that concepts like love, friendship, anger, humor and more are exclusively human provinces. There is no way of conclusively proving this, so creating these artificial boundaries about what is and is not exotic enough seems like an exercise in futility.
Another way to define xenofiction
Rather than defining xenofiction based on whether is is speculative enough (according to an arbitrary standard), I prefer to think that works of xenofiction exist on a continuum of sorts.
Now, as the baseline, the POV characters in xenofiction really do have to be a) biologically non-human and b) identify as being non-human or apart from humanity such that they have mindsets and experiences that set them apart from a regular human protagonist. The extent to which characters in xenofiction express these things may differ.
The graph above charts various characters or projects according to their expression of non-human appearance and non-human psychology. To explain some items on this graph:
Cthulhu and Azathoth, alien beings from H. P. Lovecraft’s works, are both non-humanoid in appearance and are objects of terror in Lovecraft’s work precisely because they are unfathomable to the human mind. On the opposite side of the coin we have the video game ‘Night in the Woods’, which features a cast of anthropomorphized animal characters.
Despite the fact the cast are all cats, dogs, bears and more, they act indistinguishably from Human beings and live in a world that operates identically to our own. Below them we of course have Superman, Clark Kent, himself. Kryptonians look exactly like human beings, and Clark Kent was raised by humans on a farm. Not only does he physically look like any other man (albeit an absurdly well-built one!), his heart and soul are completely human as well.
Across from Clark you will see I have put the various fairies or fair folk of Irish folklore on the right. Much of the time, the fae are said to look like beautiful humans, but have alien values. There is a tabletop game by White Wolf called ‘Changeling: The Lost’ which covers exactly how strange and threatening the fae can be. It will surprise some to see the Thing appear on the chart. It, or rather, they, have been placed where they are courtesy of their ability to take human form (which they do much of the time) and their incomprehensible motives.
I believe thinking about xenofiction in terms of a continuum will be helpful to any author who is aiming to write from any non-human perspective. I have seen some readers strongly object to any work labeling itself as xenofiction when it doesn’t meet a certain standard of speculation. For these readers, I think thinking about xenofiction in terms of a spectrum is also helpful because it will enable them to better analyse works in this genre.
There really isn’t any need to gatekeep xenofiction too much; as long as the POV is non-human then it should qualify. The extent to which that POV departs from our understanding of human-ness will depend on the author, their vision, and how well they execute upon it.