Alien monster [boy]friends

2022-03-23 (3/1)

Two books into Lindsay Ellis's Noumena series, and eagerly awaiting the next installment, I'm struck by the special power of problematic alien boyfriends (or alien lovers of other non-feminine-coded gender presentations, or intimate connections of other kinds with alien boys).

The last time I was swept up in this was when I read Octavia E. Butler's Xenogenesis (Lilith's Brood) trilogy, where the toxic entanglement is with a third-sexed alien - not a boy then, but nevertheless from a society that may or may not give elevated social status to individuals of this particular sex, depending on who you ask. And certainly an alien who has power over their human mate. Octavia E. Butler uses the power dynamics at play here to write a compelling commentary on colonialism, and what happens in those moments when the relationship with your oppressor is both oppositional and complicit at the same time. What can mutual understanding and trust do in the context of material inequalities and overwhelming imperial conquest?

Lindsay Ellis is similarly using the monstrous intimacy of a first-contact gothic story to say something nuanced and painful about power. In the Noumena series so far, I've been more conscious of the affects associated with disempowerment than with power. This is a Sara Ahmed thing I think - you don't feel a wall if you can pass right through it, and similarly you don't feel your privilege when it enables you. It's only when you hit a wall that you become aware of the barriers that exist. You could read Axiom's End and Truth of the Divine both as books that ask who is hitting a wall and why, and what happens when you recognise those walls. One of the pivotal moments in Axiom's End is triggered by the recognition of a shared vulnerability - both the human and the alien are each afraid of their own governments, and in both cases, it is difficult to explain in brief why that would be the case. Eventually they are ostensibly trapped by literally the same physical walls, while still separated by the different social and political walls that each faces. Even that turns out to be more complicated than it first seemed - which walls are material and which are social or political is a question that is constantly being revisited.

How to go about searching for more stories like this? Having followed Ellis's video essays, I knew that The Shape of Water and Phantom of the Opera were other stories about monster intimacy that she had done a lot of thinking about, so I recently finally got around to watching The Shape of Water. While I can see that aesthetically Noumena could be read in dialogue with this movie, I didn't see as much at work here to do with power - there are government agencies trying to keep unusual beings behind locked doors, but in true movie fashion, the heroes are able to do their heist, slip through the net, and maybe prevail depending on your interpretation of the ending. The climactic image of water busting through the walls of an apartment is probably particularly resonant here.

Unlike The Shape of Water, Noumena and Xenogenesis both involve situations of at best dubious consent. I think this is important for the stories that they are telling. These are toxic, problematic entanglements with power, where crisis and trauma produce situations where desire and coercion are impossible to pick apart cleanly. I do not say this to normalise consent violations just because a situation is complicated - in real life, if either party cannot tell if they really want something, everyone should just take a rain check. However, these are not morality stories, but novels in which the intimacy is a way of getting at some other issue, bringing the messiness of affect into a conversation that might otherwise be reduced to sterile political calculation.

To put it a little too baldly - we have become accustomed to everyday violations of our consent that, were we to feel them acutely, would cause us intolerable pain. What I like about these stories is that they narrate some of the ways that we can be seduced or anaesthetised. Until we create a society in which everyone's needs are met and coercion is no longer possible, we will need to pay attention to the ways that intolerable injustice can feel normal or even desirable.