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Imagining and Understanding the Alien: Insects in Science Fiction


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Imagining and Understanding the Alien: Insects in Science Fiction


Published on April 25, 2022

A still life study of insects by Jan van Kessel, 1653
A still life study of insects by Jan van Kessel, 1653

Insects have fascinated writers and readers of SF ever since the genre’s early days, when Earthlings battled bug-eyed monsters in pulp magazines and low-budget B-movies. Insects provide the perfect template for alien biology. Companion animals tend to be mammals like us—we generally find it quite easy to relate to our cat and dog, so whilst cats and dogs have frequently served as templates for alien creatures, as an audience we are more ready to humanise them, to find them cute.

Insects are just so radically different from us. If eyes are the window to the soul, the soul of the insect is obscured by its compound eyes, vast complex organs that look out on to a very different world from the one we and our mammal friends see. Their whole body plan is so drastically different from ours, with too many limbs and bodies that are segmented into head, thorax, and abdomen. Insects have complex life cycles, undergoing miraculous metamorphoses, with the larval stages often looking nothing like the adults. They have complex social lives, from armies of ants to hives of bees, which remind us of our own complicated social structures as seen through a distorted mirror. They communicate with each other, but via pheromones and chemicals or physical movement, in ways that might seem to have nothing remotely in common with the speech which we frequently see as a marker of intelligence in ourselves and other animals.

They have complex and sometimes frightening interactions with other species—many insects are parasitic, feeding on other life forms in ways that evoke the utmost body horror. All of these differences serve to drive home the fact that insects are clearly living beings, some of them capable of remarkable feats of communication and coordination, yet utterly alien to how we conceive of ourselves as people and as human animals. Plus, they just look cool.

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A Half-Built Garden
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A Half-Built Garden

This makes insects ideal candidates for SF writers who want to invent an alien species rooted in believable biological science as we understand it, but with a real sense of the alien as a radically different life form from humans. Some of the most striking and terrifying alien designs of all time were inspired by insects, from the parasitic wasp whose lifecycle inspired the iconic Xenomorph and its grisly chest-bursting antics in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) to Star Trek’s nightmarish hive collective the Borg, with their drones ruled by the Borg Queen. My personal fascination with insects led me to a career in entomology, but it also led me to study for a PhD in science fiction studies, as I found  myself asking, why are we so afraid of insects that their image can be used to invoke fear and disgust so readily? And what does it say about our relationship to the Other that our immediate reaction to encountering a being so different from ourselves is fear and disgust? What does that mean for how we treat people we Other? How does that shape our relationship with the non-human world we are a part of yet, so readily damage or destroy? What would that mean if we ever were to really encounter a truly alien intelligence, whether extraterrestrial, artificial, or living alongside us on our own planet? Science fiction, with its fascination with imagining different ways of being, is the perfect genre for asking these difficult questions.

It’s true that much SF uses insects as a way to make aliens frightening but also utterly disposable. The giant bugs that humanity is at war with in Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) are vicious monsters that the space marines can shoot up without compunction, the ultimate faceless enemy. Many writers of military SF have used Heinlein’s novel as a kind of jumping-off point, notably Orson Scott Card in Ender’s Game (1985) and its sequels, in which humanity fails to recognise that the insectile antagonists are a sentient species, leading to tragedy and genocide. C. J. Cherryh provides an interesting inversion of the trope in her 1980 Alliance-Union novel Serpent’s Reach, in which protagonist Raen a Sul hant Meth-maren enters into a maternal relationship with the Queen of the blue hive of the Majat, giant ant-like aliens who take Raen in and shelter her after her entire family is murdered by a rival sept.

With the advent of science fiction’s New Wave in the 1960s and ’70s, SF began to play with the idea of insectile aliens in interesting ways, and to question the assumptions that Golden Age stories of bug-eyed monsters terrorising humanity are built on. Insects feature heavily in the stories of James Tiptree, Jr, aka Alice Sheldon, whose complex short fiction interrogates assumptions about gender and biological imperative. Tiptree’s stories frequently use insects as a metaphor to explore the experience of the Other, rather than employing them as faceless adversaries. In one of her most memorable stories, “Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death” (1973), there are no human characters at all. The narrative focuses on the charming insectile Moggadeet and Lililoo, two alien beings with metamorphic life cycles who are struggling against the biological drive that says that their love must end in destruction.

In “The Screwfly Solution” (1977, published under the pen name Raccoona Sheldon), humanity takes the place of the insects. Humanity is wiped out by aliens using a form of biological control similar to those which humans use to control pest insect populations—they manipulate the human sex drive by disrupting the link between sex and violence, causing the men to murder all the women. Lisa Tuttle’s short story ‘Wives’ (1979) subverts the invasion fantasy of Jack Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) by showing the eponymous, spider-like alien wives not as an invasion force threatening humanity, but as indigenous aliens forced into the shape of human women against their will to please the colonising force of Earth’s invading military men. The wives are portrayed sympathetically, and Tuttle explores the performative aspects of gender and critiques the conventional image of the ’50s housewife who lives to please her husband.

Perhaps the most radical exploration of the insect and everything it symbolises in SF occurs in the work of Octavia E. Butler. Butler wrote the short story “Bloodchild” (1984) to confront her disgust of parasitic botflies. The story explores a human boy and the insectile alien Tlic, who lay their eggs in human flesh as the price of humans living on their planet, and their struggle to maintain a loving relationship in the face of the power differential between their species. The Xenogenesis trilogy, comprising Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989), expands on similar thematic ground, exploring the relationship between the invertebrate-like Oankali—who have three sexes, undergo metamorphosis, and need to interbreed with other intelligent species, including the human survivors of a nuclear war—and the resulting Oankali-human hybrid children. These remarkable works show how Butler uses insect biology as a template for constructing alien biology, but also how it allows her to subvert and deconstruct ideas surrounding gender and sexuality and colonialism.

The New Wave was followed by cyberpunk, another strain of SF that draws a surprising amount from insects. Cyberpunk returns again and again to the insect hive as an image for posthuman evolution, where it frequently exists in collectivised, feminized opposition to the individualist male hacker protagonist. In William Gibson’s genre-defining Neuromancer (1984), the decadent Tessier-Ashpool family corporation is symbolised by a wasp hive in Case’s recurring nightmares. In “Swarm” (1982), one of Bruce Sterling’s stories set in his Schismatrix universe, Captain-Doctor Simon Afriel is assimilated by insectoid aliens. In both stories, insects represent fears of human individualism falling to advanced disseminated artificial intelligences.

Post-cyberpunk depictions of hives have been more optimistic. In Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Nanotech Quartet, beginning with Queen City Jazz (1994), giant bees disseminate thought itself through the augmented Flower City of Cincinnati, using pheromonal communication to bring genetically engineered humans, the giant flowers, and the buildings themselves into a multi-species posthuman ecosystem. The Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins in Steve Baxter’s Coalescent (2003) and the Forged in Justina Robson’s Natural History (2003) acting as vibrant feminist alternatives to the stagnation of the patriarchal culture of unmodified humans.

Insects reared their heads again with the emergence of The New Weird, a genre that revels in the bizarre, strange, and grotesque. Writers such as Jeff VanderMeer and China Miéville have embraced the opportunity afforded by insects, fungi, and other thoroughly nonhuman life forms to celebrate a wide diversity of life and a vision of the world without humanity placed firmly at its centre. VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy (2014) breaks down the barriers between the human and nonhuman, dream and reality, nature and culture, to force the reader to confront the nonhuman environment as something with agency. In Mieville’s Bas Lag novels Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002) and The Iron Council (2004), the insectile Khepri and Anophilii merge elements of human and insect and are part of the vibrant culture that makes the world of the novels so compelling. In Steph Swainston’s Castle series, starting with The Year of Our War (2004), the giant insects which threaten the Fantasy world of the Fourlands represent a disruptive force unbeholden to human notions of boundaries, maps, or dream and reality.

Beyond the New Weird and into the present, insects continue to be a source of inspiration for the SF imagination, and increasingly a site for empathy and sympathy. Insects in modern speculative fiction frequently serve to question humanity’s relationship with the natural world. A wonderful example of this occurs in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Children of Time (2015). Tchaikovsky sympathetically and plausibly imagines an uplifted spider society in impressive biological and social detail, echoing Vernor Vinge’s treatment of alien spiders in A Deepness in the Sky (1999)—and yes, I’m grouping arachnids in with insects, here, since I think they’re equally relevant to the conversation. The interactions between the less sympathetically portrayed human colonists and the spiders allows him to both draw upon and subvert our B-movie-inspired fear of giant spiders. The heroic struggles of Tchaikovsky’s spider civilisation are imagined with depth and nuance that far outweighs that of the human colonists, so that even readers with particularly strong arachnophobia may find themselves rooting for the spiders over the humans by the end.

Other works return to motifs of insect reproduction and parasitism, previously such a potent source of body horror, and recontextualise and subvert them in order to examine our own relationships with concepts of gender and with our own bodies. This is shown in works like Kij Johnson’s striking short story “Mantis Wives” (2012), which uses the sexual behaviour of praying mantises to decode gendered behavioural norms. Increasingly in SF there is a turn toward the fungal, which is of course a separate thing from insects but I’m going to briefly talk about it a little here because fungi, like insects, are fascinating, alien, and a little bit scary. Modern SF works like Aliya Whiteley’s The Beauty (2014) portrays a society in which the women are killed by a parasitic fungal infection, which then goes on to impregnate the surviving men, allowing her to use models of parasitic interactions to talk about gender. Meanwhile Tade Thompson’s award-winning Rosewater (2016) and its sequels explore ideas around colonialism and the erasure of indigenous cultures via a planetwide network of alien psychic fungi. These works show how SF continues to find empathy and resonance in alien and bizarre forms of life.

SF has travelled with insects since its early days, and the genre has a long and varied history of how and why it has used insects. Over the course of the genre’s history, I see a movement from being afraid of insects because of their differences from us to being fascinated with their different ways of being in the world, and what that tells us about how we relate to ourselves and our environment. The evolution of our perspective on insects reflects the development and maturation of SF as a genre. Through my research, I hope to better understand what we can learn from insects about ourselves, about our world, and about how we interact with the alien. Perhaps looking at how we have imagined the alien through the insect will help prepare us for some day in the future when we genuinely encounter the alien, and allow us to focus on empathy and communication in our interactions, instead of defaulting to fear and ignorance.

Jonathan Thornton has written for the websites The Fantasy Hive, Fantasy Faction, and Gingernuts of Horror. He works with mosquitoes and is working on a PhD on the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction.

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