Review of Enemy Mine by Barry B. Longyear
by Barry B. Longyear
Like some of the other entries in this anthology, Enemy Mine feels like a prototype that defines the mould for an entire subgenre of science fiction. In this case, Barry Longyear uses the plight of two individuals to highlight the folly of the blind hatred taught to them by their respective species. With a human and a Drac soldier stranded together on an inhospitable world in the middle of a war, they must work together to survive. When the Drac reproduces (asexually) and then soon dies, Davidge is left to care for its offspring and raise it into the Drac culture, which he has come to respect and appreciate in a way no other human has.
There’s a lot to like about Enemy Mine. It moves at a good pace. And it’s a textbook case of character development, as Davidge goes from being a good Drac-hating soldier to a thoughtful, introspective student of Drac culture and history. (I loved the bit at the beginning when Jeriba attempts to enrage Davidge by insulting Mickey Mouse.) The conflict within the story works on two levels, with both the visceral, environmental dangers of trying to survive on the planet as well as the higher, emotional dangers of Davidge’s attempts to raise Zammis.
I’d argue, however, that it’s Longyear’s depiction of the inevitable close-mindedness of both cultures after Davidge and Zammis get off the planet that makes Enemy Mine truly great. This isn’t just a story about two enemy soldiers surviving together and coming to respect one another as people rather than monsters from the other side. Instead, Davidge and Zammis attempt to build a bridge between their two peoples—dragging both, kicking and screaming, towards mutual respect. It’s so chilling to watch both humans and Drac obstruct Davidge’s quest to find Zammis again and present him for his recitation of the Jeriba line.
Enemy Mine, therefore, does exactly what a great science-fiction story should do: it uses strange settings to explore a potent idea that is nevertheless relevant to the time in which it was written. It’s often said that the ability to wage war is an attribute unique to humans, a defining characteristic of our species. Yet our effectiveness in war tends to be proportional to the amount to which we can dehumanize ourselves and our enemy: we switch off those emotions that complicate the act of killing, and we build up this idea in our minds of an implacable foe who is somehow less than human. These phenomena repeat throughout history in every war.
It is difficult to deal with how this happens on the scale of entire societies, though. In restricting himself to an individual, Longyear is able to explore how propaganda and misunderstanding allows one person to develop such a distorted view of the enemy. It’s easier for Davidge to kill Dracs when he believes they are terrible monsters. When he actually gets to know one, the thought of going back to the war and killing more Dracs sickens him.
In war, empathy for one’s enemy is a weakness. It was true then, and it is true now. Propaganda of the kind the human authorities spread about Drac for purposes of imperialist expansion is still in use today, making Enemy Mine no less relevant, or less interesting, for another generation.
Read as part of The Mammoth Book of Short Science Fiction Novels.