Content Warning: I’ll be talking about close encounters of the seventh kind, which is the making of half-human, half-alien babies in science fiction. This topic can be super upsetting to certain audiences. If that idea squicks you out, then that’s totally okay, but maybe you’ll be interested in this NPR article about what happened when homo sapiens encountered an “alien” species. There will also be a bunch of spoilers for “Prometheus,” “Ice Planet Barbarians,” “Xenogenesis,” and several other science fiction properties.
The 2012 Ridley Scott film “Prometheus” is not great. Neither the plot nor the characters make much sense, and the movie would have likely fallen into obscurity if not for one particular scene. “Prometheus” is about a group of scientists who travel to a distant planet to learn more about the origins of humanity, led by archaeologist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace). About midway through the movie, Dr. Shaw finds that she’s pregnant with something, despite a previous scene in which she mourned her inability to have a child.
In one of the most horrifying scenes in this movie (and possibly in movie history), Dr. Shaw races to an automated surgery pod and forcibly removes a squid-like being from her womb. Dr. Shaw screams in pain and horror as the machine rips the creature out of her and then staples her abdomen back together. The squid-like creature writhes and shrieks as it enters the world, an unholy abomination that should never have been brought into existence.
I was always kind of disappointed by this scene. While I certainly object to the squid baby’s messed up conception, one that was orchestrated by the evil android, David, I was more disappointed by how it was treated after birth. Dr. Shaw expressed sorrow about her inability to have a child, and yet when the opportunity to have one arose, she reacted with horror and disgust. I mean, on the one hand, that’s fair because the creature that came out of her was a vile monster, but it made me wonder. What if the movie had pivoted in a different direction?
What if Dr. Shaw felt the warm glow of motherly love instead of reacting to her squid baby (who shall henceforth be known as “Squiddly-Diddly”) with dread? What if she told all of the remaining scientists on her voyage to stuff it and then went back to Earth and raised her little Squiddly-Diddly as a single mother?
I could just picture it: There would be a sweet montage set to some kind of song about growing up (this song, “Mothers & Daughters,” seems appropriate). There would be scenes of Dr. Shaw bathing Squiddly-Diddly in the bathtub, and the two would playfully splash water at each other. The next moment, Dr. Shaw sends Squiddly-Diddy off to her first slumber party. Even though Squiddly-Diddly is brave and excited for an evening of fun and snacks, Dr. Shaw is clearly emotional at the thought of her alien child being gone, even for just one night (Squiddly-Diddly would call Dr. Shaw from her slumber party to tell her mom that she loves her).
There would be a scene of Dr. Shaw teaching Squiddly-Diddly how to ride a bike.
Dr. Shaw: [Pushing on the back of the bike] I won’t let go!
Squiddly-Diddly: [Little tentacles wrapped around the bike handles and peddles] Promise you won’t?
Dr. Shaw: I promise!
[She then lets go of the bike, and Squiddly-Diddly rides off all on her own!]
And there would be other moments: Squiddly-Diddly getting braces and feeling nervous about looking silly (she also probably eats the dentist, which is a whole other problem). Squiddly-Diddly going to prom. Squiddly-Diddly getting into Oxford (the same college where Dr. Shaw is an alumnus).
Then maybe they could rejoin the movie and take down the Engineers or something.
It’s been a decade since I watched “Prometheus,” and this idea has stuck with me like a xenomorphic parasite. Not necessarily how “Prometheus” missed out on possibly the greatest mother-daughter story of all time, but the idea of alien hybrid babies. I wanted to know – why did the idea always have to be met with such horror? Especially given Dr. Shaw’s fate in the sequel, I found myself liking my “Dr. Shaw raises Squiddly-Diddly like a daughter and the two live happily ever after” idea a lot more. At the very least, it made Dr. Shaw seem like less of a disposable character.
And then I read a million Ice Planet Barbarian books, and my perspective changed drastically.
A few months back, I had a question. I was curious if reading romance novels could help someone become more empathetic or emotionally intelligent. I think it is a good question that merits additional research, as romance novels are incredibly popular and research on the emotional benefits of reading is somewhat underdone. I did some research on the topic and wrote a blog post about it, but I think the question is far from being answered.
So I think it’s time I tell you why I had this question. Strap in, because this is kind of a dumb story. Yes, even dumber than my idea for the alternate ending to “Prometheus.”
One day, I was trolling Goodreads for reviews of the Ice Planet Barbarians series. For those unaware, I have a strange obsession with this romantic science fiction series and have written several articles about how I think it could be an amazing TV show. The plot is… weird. After a botched alien abduction, a group of human women are stranded on an arctic planet and taken in by the local tribe. To survive the planet’s harsh atmosphere, the women must take a “khui,” a symbiotic thingie that keeps them healthy but also selects a mate for them in a process known as “resonance.” If you and someone else have a “khui,” your chests will start rumbling, and you’ll be overcome with the fierce need to bang it out. And yes, the mating always leads to pregnancy and babies. It is both awkward and hilarious and a whole lot of fun, and is what led me to consume 40+ Ruby Dixon books in two months.
Don’t worry; I hate myself for this.
I do not think the first book is Dixon’s strongest work. The first book in the series touches on several extremely heavy topics, like sexual assault, human trafficking, death, and suicide. Oh, and forced abortion, because why not. The book begins with Liz, arguably the toughest, funniest character in the series, giving Georgie the chilling warning, “Don’t scream.” By the end of the book, the women realize they’re stranded on a frozen planet. They’ll have to kill their own food and sleep in caves for the rest of their lives. The upside? The locals are friendly and starved for female companionship. Oh, and the locals have spurs in special places. Good for them.
I write about this not to criticize Dixon, because clearly, I’m a fan, but rather to remind readers about how bonkers the beginning of the series is. After a wildly traumatic experience, the female characters are rewarded with pregnancy. And a soulmate, but the pregnancy thing is non-negotiable.
Most of the women take this in stride. I have some pet theories about the female characters who are more accepting than others (a.k.a. I think Marlene from “Barbarian’s Seducation,” is a secret cosplay enthusiast and possibly a furry). Still, one of the more popular characters in the series, Josie, embraces the idea of resonance and babies with enthusiasm comparable to Twilight’s Rosalie Hale.
That is, Josie’s on board until it actually happens. In the seventh book in the series, “Barbarian’s Mate,” Josie is horrified to discover that her supposed soulmate is Haeden, a grumpy, terse man whose very presence makes Josie nauseous. Josie desperately wants to love and be loved, and she thought that resonance would be a magic pill that cured all of her of all her past trauma, and she would live happily ever after. She was mistaken. If you’ve read a romance novel and are familiar with the tropes, you can guess where this is going, but I’ll enlighten you anyway.
Hayden reveals that he has no problem mating with Josie, but she refuses. The problem isn’t just that Haeden is a jerk, but also that Josie comes from a rough background. She was put into foster care as a toddler and lived a life of neglect, loneliness, and, unfortunately, sexual abuse. After a difficult life, Josie wanted to break that cycle. She refused to be in a relationship with someone she thought might be abusive and refused to bring a baby into that kind of world.
When I read her line of reasoning, I thought, “fair enough,” and wanted to see how long she could stick it out.
Josie spends almost half of the book curbing Haeden and refusing to give in to resonance, despite the pain it causes them. She even goes so far as to suggest removing their khuis and replacing them so that the two would no longer resonate. Of course, I knew that wasn’t going to happen – this is a romance novel, after all, and the two were bound to fall in love eventually – but I still understood Josie’s motives. Her actions were a little drastic, but I couldn’t blame her for trying to avoid her past trauma.
Obviously, none of her attempts to avoid Haeden actually worked, but it wasn’t until the two sat down and communicated with each other that they were able to move past their initial misunderstandings. Josie was stubborn, but I think that stubbornness suited her character and showed her determination. If anything, I admired her for this.
Not everyone agrees with me on this one. While scrolling through Goodreads reviews for “Barbarian’s Mate,” I noticed a recurring complaint in the 3- and 4-star reviews. Many, many readers found Josie to be unbearably selfish. The reviews all had a similar tone, “Haeden is so great! Why is Josie so mean to him? >:(“
I had a hard time understanding the reactions of these readers. Repeatedly, I saw people use the phrase “you can’t deny resonance,” or something to that effect. As if resonance were a real-life thing and not some made-up plot device. And I saw people say this for other books in which the female characters were less inclined to get their bone-on with the aliens on planet Not-Hoth. Characters like Lila from “Barbarian’s Touch,” Hannah from “Hannah’s Hero,” and Callie from “Callie’s Catastrophe.“
On some level, I understand readers’ frustration with the female characters. “Resonance” is Dixon’s scifi way of saying “soulmate” and couples who resonate are meant to be. All the male characters grew up with the concept of resonance and are more than okay with this process. They’re uncomplicated. As soon as their chests rumble, these dudes are ready to commit themselves to some lucky lady and spend their lives pampering her (as best they can on an ice planet). As readers, we know that once the female character gives in to resonance, she’s in for a great time. We want the character to give in to the resonance because we know it’s the path to her happiness. So, when she doesn’t do that, some readers get frustrated. They feel bad for the male character, who only wants to love the female character the way she deserves.
The problem is that it’s not just a romantic relationship. Resonance is a lifelong commitment that starts with conception and ends with death. The happily ever after includes about seventeen months of pregnancy, culminating in giving birth to a horned baby.
Part of my concern with this narrative, and frankly with these books, is that it creates this idea that the female main character owes the male main character her body (in addition to her love). If one person refuses to give into resonance, then both characters experience horrible pain and distracting horniness that can only be alleviated with pregnancy. If the female character does not want to have a child, then that’s too bad, and she has no choice. Those are the storylines I find most upsetting because no matter how she may feel at the beginning of the book, she’s more than happy to be a boring mom by the end. This is not just typical of the Ice Planet Barbarian books, but of almost all romance novels. Women either want to be mothers, or they need to be convinced. And in the Ice Planet Barbarian books, all women are eventually required to loan out their bodies and subject themselves to the grueling rigors of pregnancy.
Friends, gentle reminder that not every single woman on the planet wants to get pregnant and give birth. I’m one of those women! I especially object to the idea that an unplanned pregnancy is always a blessing. It is a strange trope in all romance novels, not just the science fiction ones, that desperately needs to change. As much as I enjoy a fun alien romance story, that doesn’t mean I want to give birth to a half-alien baby. Unless it looked like the cute little squid thing from the first Men in Black movie. Or maybe a Deanna Troi. Then I might be on board. But blue-horned monsters? I’ll pass on that.
When Josie told Haeden “no” in “Barbarian’s Mate,” I was on her side because, at the end of the day, Josie’s body belongs to herself. She is not a bad person for refusing his junk.
A few years before I’d heard of “Ice Planet Barbarians,” I read Octavia E. Butler‘s “Dawn,” the first book in her Xenogenesis series (otherwise known as “Lilith’s Brood”). A nuclear war has destroyed most of humanity, and the few survivors are picked up by an alien race known as Oankali. Lilith Iyapo is a young woman who had suffered great loss even before the nuclear war destroyed Earth, but then she wakes up on an Oankali ship and is given some… distressing news.
The Oankali informs her that they plan on repopulating the Earth with human/Oankali hybrids. It is posited to Lilith as an equal exchange. The Oankali have made Earth habitable, and in exchange, they have access to human DNA and will interbreed with the human species. Except it isn’t because the Oankali holds almost all of the power.
I highly recommend this book and anything by Octavia E. Butler, but I think fans of aliens romances may want to read this book to get an alternative perspective. In fairness, the situation in Lilith’s Brood is different from most romance novels. For one, the series is far from a romance. The Oankali are vastly different from humans in that they have three sexes (male, female, and Ooloi), and they’re covered in sensory tentacles which allow them to perceive the world. The Ooloi also perform the essential function of genetic engineering, which is a huge part of the book. And no, the Oankali tentacles aren’t exactly “fun” tentacles like the kind you’ll read about in Kindle Unlimited books, though they can serve that function.
Lilith is less than thrilled about reproducing with the Oankali. She’s loyal to humankind and often sees her cooperation with the Oankali as a betrayal. Lilith is a beautifully complicated character because she’s placed in such a difficult position. She rebels against the Oankali and their plans for humanity and doesn’t want to work for them or become the mother of future alien hybrids. But she has no choice. The Oankali aren’t necessarily “bad,” but they don’t give Lilith the ability to say no.
When I read this book, I distinctly remember reading about Lilith’s hesitation to beget a new generation of human/Oankali hybrid babies and thinking, “okay, cool, what’s the problem?”
I feel like I should take a moment and clarify that I had a very bad take on the book and the situation. I missed some of the broader allegories of colonization because my idiot self was too focused on the “alien baby” of it all. Lilith’s choice was taken away from her, and she was rightfully concerned and upset. Even if the Oankali had good reasons for their actions, they still placed their own agenda above the concerns of the humans. I may have been Team Oankali (after all, they literally save what they can of humanity after humanity kills itself with a series of nuclear wars), but you can’t say that their motives are purely altruistic.
(If you are still interested in the Xenogenesis series by Octavia Butler, then I recommend checking out this online comic.)
I’m glad I read “Dawn” before I read so many Ice Planet Barbarian books. I’m glad I also grew up in an environment that encouraged bodily autonomy and the notion that women have a role in life to play beyond motherhood. I feel as though I have only scratched the surface of this surprisingly nuanced issue. I think there is a fascinating discussion worth having about women and their treatment in science fiction, horror, and romance. The first two genres tend to treat women as somewhat disposable. Brilliant Dr. Elizabeth Shaw was the star of Prometheus. Yet, by “Alien: Covenant,” she had been killed off-screen by an android, her body used in his grotesque experiments.
This isn’t the only time a horrible fate awaited a female character in a science fiction show or movie. Veronica Quaife, the main female character from the 1986 film “The Fly” is terrified of what her pregnancy by Seth Brundle might do to her body. She survives the end of that film, but dies in childbirth within the first five minutes of the sequel, giving birth to something that looks like a piece of orange chicken (“The Fly II” is not a good movie and I would advise skipping it). Every female character from the 2001 film “Dagon,” based on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” experiences a horrifying fate, especially poor Barbara (not that it’s much better for the men, but still). “American Horror Story: Double Feature” features a female character who is quite literally turned into an alien-baby-making machine. I don’t like how easy it was for me to think of examples for this.
Meanwhile, romances tend to be popular with women because of how they place the female characters’ dreams and motivations at the forefront of the story. I think that the romance genre has made incredible strides in promoting women’s rights. However, I do still think there is internalized sexism and misogyny within the genre that needs examining.
I have a lot of fun reading about strange close encounters, and I will always idolize hybrid alien characters like Spock. However, maybe science fiction romances should take a little break from this trope. I love a good alien baby story as much as the next person, but I don’t think every female character in a science fiction romance novel should be required to have an alien baby. Maybe we should take more time getting to know the woman outside her role as an alien incubator. Maybe we should also think about why the narrative requires this woman to have an alien baby or if its even necessary. Then, that way, if that woman does decide she wants to raise her own Squiddly-Diddly, we’ll know that it’s her choice, and we’ll be just a little bit happier for her.