You saw it all the time in old science fiction: every alien race had some defining characteristic. The high minded logic seekers. The war mongering brutes. The fanatical ideological zealots. They were our stories, so of course they projected aspects of ourselves.
The reality, once we reached the stars, was not at all what we had envisioned. Each race- just like us- contained variation that averaged out at the larger scale. The most surprising thing about aliens was not how different they all well, it was that they were people too.
Pluck a random being from any one of the thousands of planets that made up galactic society, and you’d find somebody who had hopes and desires. Somebody who was angry or irrational at times, and calm and intelligent at others. Somebody who could be equally selfish or altruistic.
It came as a shock, both to the first human explorers, and the aliens that they meet, that it was humans who broke the mould. We were the ones that every other sentient species could point to and say “That bunch are a little bit odd, you know? They don’t quite fit in.”
The difference? Not one of the other races had a concept approaching fiction. Not a single one. Oh, they groked it on an intellectual level, of course. Reports of things not true, told as if they are. Made up stories. Lies.
It unsettled them. It unsettled us- we were the new kids on the block, and already had a reputation for being deceitful.
“Ambassador, would you care for refreshment?” the attendant asked. The Tygrean were one of the handful of humanoid races in the galaxy. They tended to be smaller than humans, but were strong for their size. This one was smiling in a way that reminded John of a cat.
“Yes please,” he said. It was a straightforward answer, but the attendant still hesitated. Her furred ears twitched uncertainly. The response was something John was finding it hard to get used to.
Of course she had heard the rumors. Humans say things they don’t mean. Constantly. Over seventy-five percent of their planetary media is fabricated. They have entire industries dedicated to the production of such content. At that rate, anything a human told you was more likely false than true.
Ambassador Gilgah saved him. “Water for the both of us, please.” The uncertainty faded from the attendant’s face, and she passed them each a container of clear liquid.
“Thanks,” John said, taking a gulp. It tasted flat.
The Ylarian ambassador put his water down untouched. His race didn’t drink water, as a rule, but absorbed the moisture they needed from their food.
“You see the trouble your deception causes?” Gilgah spoke in a series of clicks and whistles, but a bud in John’s ear translated for him. “Humans would be welcomed into the galactic community with open arms were it not for this ‘fiction’ of yours. Agree to outlaw such things, and I will speak for you at the assembly today.”
“I can’t just ban fiction,” John said. He’d been over this with the ambassadors of some of the other races already. Those that were most likely to be receptive to his arguments. Gilgah was the last on that list. “It’s important to us. Asking us to do that is like me asking you to forbid scientific discovery, or the study of history.”
“Both of those add value to society.” The Ylarian frowned. “Spreading false information only sows the seeds of confusion.”
So much rode on this. If he couldn’t convince Gilgah to speak for humanity then the council would vote against humanity joining galactic society. The space lane to earth would be closed permanently, and humanity would be cut off from the rest of the galaxy. Confined to one tiny corner of the universe where we can tell each other all the lies we like, John thought.
“Our stories teach us much,” John said. “They contain truths that cannot be expressed any other way. They help us to learn things about ourselves we might not otherwise know.”
“Allegory,” Gilgah said awkwardly. The translation matrix struggled with the unfamiliar word. “The practice of using false statements to convey a truth. We find this method error prone and inefficient. Why not simply say what you mean?”
“The message can be more powerful this way. More convincing. A story can have an emotional impact that a mere statement cannot.”
Gilgah considered this. “Deception is more manipulative than truth,” he said at last. “This line of argument does not help you case.”
“That’s not what I meant,” John said.
“It’s what you said,” Gilgah countered. “How can I know what you mean if you do not say it? Is this an example of Allegory?”
They shouldn’t have sent him for this. There had been other candidates; brilliant men and women with the skills to win this argument. But they had sent him.
“Fiction inspires us.” He said, changing tack. “Hundreds of years before we had the ability to leave our planet, we told each other stories about what we might find among the stars. They inspired us to work towards that future, to try and fail, and try again. We imagined rockets before we built them. We imagined that there might be something like the space lanes before we discovered them. I don’t think we would have made it if we didn’t have our imaginations to guide us.”
“Predictions. Forecasts. We have no objections to these things, so long as they are made responsibly. Based on fact, not on speculation.”
This was pointless. How did you explain the need for an imagination to somebody who didn’t have one?
“Gilgah, you have to believe me on this. Humans need fiction. We need to create it, and we need to consume it. Asking us to go without it is like asking you to live your life seeing only in monochrome. It’s like taking music away from a great composer. It will kill our spirit as surely as blocking our space lane.
“Our stories contain joy and sorrow, lessons and Inspiration. It enriches us; makes us better. If we can bring some of what is good about that out into the galaxy with us, then all the better. But we aren’t asking for that. We don’t need that. We’re just asking to be allowed to be who we are. We can’t be any other way.”
“I think I understand,” Gilgah said slowly.
“You’ll speak for us at the assembly?”
“Thank you, Gilgah,” John said. “You have no idea how much this means to me. To all of us.”
“In one hour, I will stand before the assembly. I will say that the Ylarian support the inclusion of the humans into the galactic community. Humanity will be free to spread their stories, both true and false, to all the races on all the worlds.”
John breathed a sigh of relief.
“What did I say that finally convinced you?” Perhaps it would be effective to win over some of the other races too.
The Ylarian twisted his head to one side. A curious gesture that John had not been able to figure out the meaning of.
“I am not convinced,” he said. “I was… creating a fiction. Did it not please you?”