What is the theme of “The Wretched and the Beautiful” by E. Lily Yu?

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The primary theme of "The Wretched and the Beautiful" concerns human rights violations and atrocities committed against the vulnerable. In this science fiction story following the plight of alien refugees, its author examines how human beings, both individually and collectively, become complicit in enabling and perpetrating atrocities. These two alien species could easily be substituted with real-world examples, and the story's core message would remain intact.

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In the science fiction short story "The Wretched and the Beautiful" by E. Lily Yu, an alien spaceship lands on a popular tourist beach. Inside are strangely shaped alien refugees (the wretched) who claim that they are fleeing for their lives from "a cleansing in their star system." They want...

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peace, a place to rest, and a power source for their translator. Human reaction is mixed, but most people see them as an inconvenience and a burden. The narrator represents the human viewpoint in blaming the aliens for spoiling their vacations. When the aliens are relocated (split up instead of kept together as they request), they are criticized and envied for being taken care of by governments.

When other aliens arrive in sleek silver ships, they are nothing like these refugees. Their shapes become human—only more beautiful. Their obvious physical superiority to the refugee aliens causes humans to believe them when they claim that these supposed refugees are actually escaped criminals that need to be apprehended and returned. The humans comply, as they are glad to be relieved of the burden of their care.

This story is an allegory that is meant to deliver a message about our real world and its attitude towards helpless refugees. This is evident in the introduction to the original magazine appearance of the story in Terraform, in which it is announced that the writer, the artist, and the editor are all donating their fees for the story to the International Rescue Committee, an organization founded in 1933 to assist refugees.

The primary theme of this story is the importance of compassion for those less fortunate. Accompanying this theme is another theme of the inherent selfish nature of humankind; the author clearly brings out how easy it is to ignore the plights of others when we are caught up in our own selfishness. In the story, only a very few people are willing to stand up for the wretched aliens and attempt to unselfishly help them, especially when their physically beautiful oppressors are so smooth and convincing.

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The theme of "The Wretched and the Beautiful" is the plight of refugees. Seeking refuge is given a fictional slant by the fact that the refugees in this story are aliens, who have arrived amid a group of holidaymakers. As tends to be the case when dealing with any refugees, the humans react to them with fear and without generosity. The aliens have escaped from some sort of cleansing operation, and there is a marked lack of humanity in the way in which the people deal with the newcomers.

The parallels with how various governments around the world have handled the refugee crisis are remarkable. Politicians decide that the aliens will be sent to live in the poorest countries of the world, while the technology that they have brought with them is put to use for the advancement of humans.

The aliens, or refugees, are portrayed as voiceless and powerless, entirely at the mercy of the decisions made by the people around them. I would argue that any refugee who has arrived in a new country would be able to identify with the feelings of othering and lack of welcome experienced by the aliens. The fact that one of the police's initial reactions was to fire live rounds at the spacecraft is indicative of the violence faced by refugees in various parts of the world.

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E. Lily Yu's "The Wretched and the Beautiful" describes the plight of alien refugees who have crashed on a beach, and their eventual, violent extermination. In the process it examines how human beings (both individually and collectively) are ultimately complicit with atrocities.

In this story, there are actually two alien species. The initial refugees are described as crablike and in poor health. They are targets of mistrust and resentment by the humans around them and become victims of prejudice and abuse. This first species will be followed by a second alien species, which is described as possessing and representing an almost idealized image of what human beings desperately wish they could be.

This story's title clearly refers to the two alien species, and on the surface, one might easily identify the first species as "the wretched" and the second as "the beautiful." Yet, on a deeper reading, these identifications would be reversed. The refugees, while vulnerable, are ultimately non-hostile and benevolent, but the newcomers, beneath their beauty, show a far more sinister reality, seeking the extermination of this species that has escaped to Earth requesting aid. The humans, already prejudiced against the refugees, willingly hand the aliens over. In this, they are complicit in the atrocity that follows.

While this is a science fiction story, I'd suggest that it should be read metaphorically as a stand-in for the very real human rights abuses and atrocities that exist within the real world. Indeed, it is notable that when the second race of aliens communicates with Earth, the only dissension comes from a woman in Berlin (a detail that invokes Germany's own history with Nazism and the lasting scars that remain). At the same time, we see reflected in this story the variety of mindsets and motives that can lead human beings as individuals within a society to become complicit in enabling or perpetrating monstrous acts.

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