“Who you are has always had to make room for what you are.” John Scalzi, Zoe’s Tale
“‘If that’s true, then the thing’s been using you all this time, Mr. Holloway,’ Soltan said. […] ‘It doesn’t bother you?”
“‘Not really,’ [Holloway said].” -John Scalzi, Fuzzy Nation
In Zoe’s Tale, the alien Obin have intelligence but no consciousness. (The Obin were created by the Consu, a species so advanced that they sometimes act like gods and almost never wait around to explain anything). The Obin can make space ships, but they don’t enjoy (or fear) flying. They can communicate, but they don’t have that much to say to each other. They don’t mind living, or dying. If a mind means a framework of preferences, values, and relationships, they don’t seem to have minds at all.
Somehow they feel that they’re lacking something, and they set out to find it. At their insistence, a human scientist creates devices that allow Obin brains to have consciousness. As a species they flip the switch, and then realize they have a lot of learning to do. They don’t know how to deal with thinking, and feeling, and caring. So the entire species turns to Zoe, the young daughter of the human scientist, as a kind of Goddess-Guide-Child. Two Obin caretakers live with Zoe (and her human adopted parents), and record their experiences with her. They share those recordings with the entire species, and the entire species learns how to feel, how to care, love, hate, be hurt, and heal by “growing up” with Zoe.
A big part of Zoe’s Tale is about the pressure and demand of growing up for a whole species as well as for yourself. It’s about the responsibilities that land on Zoe because of what she is: the Obin’s symbol for consciousness, and their leader in learning what it is to be alive. Scalzi sets up tension between that and who she is: her own wants, her own perspectives. While most of us might not have the Obin beside us, we all do have responsibilities because of what we are: responsibilities because we’re a father, or a son, a teacher, a lawyer, or a cook. To Zoe, who’s often wise and kind, these responsibilities feel heavy.
In Fuzzy Nation, the adorable cat-monkey Fuzzies don’t have a chance against the humans who are destroying their plant. They can’t even get the humans to recognize that Fuzzies are conscious creatures–until “Papa” Fuzzy uses a man named Holloway to understand more about humanity, and to push humanity to understand more about the Fuzzies. Papa is using Holloway from their first interaction; after a while, Papa likes Holloway, and he keeps using him. Papa has a planet to protect, a species to save. When Holloway figures out he’s being used, he does something wonderful. He understands, and doesn’t mind, and keeps on trying to help.
Sometimes we’re in a place to help something larger than ourselves. Come to think of it, we’re always in that place. It’s a good place to be. I was just talking to a student, and he said it’s strange how we always tell young people to “look inside” and “find their passion.” He doesn’t know what his passion is–at least, he doesn’t have some overriding dream. But he doesn’t think he needs one. Instead of looking inside to find this “passion,” he wants to look around: he wants to see who’s struggling, and what kind of help they need. He wants to look for what he can do that the world needs, and then he wants to do it.
I think it’s important to remember ourselves, respect ourselves, and value our own talents. And I think that “living for yourself,” even if it becomes the catchphrase of a culture, can lead toward sadness and loneliness for you and uncaring disconnection for the community. So I’ll live for me–for me, for you. And when who I am (my wants, my preferences) had to take a back seat for what I am (a person with jumper cables when the other guy’s battery is dead; a teacher; a brother), I’ll smile.
It doesn’t bother me. It’s good work if you can get it.