The prefix xeno comes from the ancient Greek xénos. Both refer to something that is foreign, and denotes a lack of familiarity. When we are unfamiliar with something, it can often be strange, even frightening. The word xenophobia denotes a fear of that which is alien. This is a common fear, and makes sense given our history. Humans form tight-knit communities as a means of self-preservation, but anyone coming in from the outside could conceivably pose a threat. Luckily, we also have the ability to reason, so many of us do not let xenophobia get the best of us. (Though, in my opinion, there are still far too many people who live with an unfounded fear of those who are different from them.) Xenophilia, a term that one hears less often, refers to a love of that which is foreign. As a science fiction geek, I may have a touch of Xenophilia, but that’s fine with me.
Science fiction, after all, deals in things that are alien. This can mean the presence of an actual alien species, though it can simply be anything that is different. In this day and age, one can be said to be xenophobic if they fear different human cultures, and we’re all part of the same species.
There is plenty that anyone would recognize within science fiction. Humanity is often at the forefront of science fiction stories, and we ride along as the humans in the story engage with whatever forces are threatening them or their way of life. The presence of humanity gives the reader or viewer something with which they can relate. It gives them a foothold so they can enjoy a story that is otherwise replete with the unfamiliar. If everything were strange to the audience, most of them would likely feel alienated and unengaged.
Even things that we are relatively familiar to us can be something we see as “other” in a story. Technology may advance to the point of feeling strange and threatening in a way we never expected. People we know may be changed by an outside influence. This influence can be alien in nature, or it can be a frightening disease that threatens humanity.
Do you have any experiences with xenophobia or xenophilia? What kind of encounters with alienness do you find most frightening? The most intriguing? Why do you think we have both a natural fear and a natural curiosity about the unknown? Which of those natural reactions to the unknown do you think should be embraced? Or are both a good thing, as long as we use reason to guide us?