Watch The Skies!

by limebirddennis

There has always been a place for the ‘other’ in stories; whether that be in the Talmud where Rava creates a ‘man’ from mud, or the stories of the Middle Ages (“The Golem of Chelm” and “The Golem of Prague”), or perhaps one could look further back to the harpies of Greek mythology. Wherever one looks, there are cautionary tales of creatures beyond the normal experience of the reader; the explanation for those creatures normally being religious or supernatural in some way.

When one moves beyond the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the birthplace of the ‘other’ could be placed within a scientific framework. In many cases, aliens from other worlds were seen as something terrible waiting to pounce. In the words of H. G. Wells in “The War of the Worlds” (1898) “across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.” Not only were their motives inimical to mankind, but their form was almost too horrible to contemplate. In “The War of the Worlds” the Martians were described as having “huge round bodies–or, rather, heads–about four feet in diameter, each body having in front of it a face.

This face had no nostrils–indeed, the Martians do not seem to have had any sense of smell, but it had a pair of very large dark-coloured eyes, and just beneath this a kind of fleshy beak. In the back of this head or body–I scarcely know how to speak of it–was the single tight tympanic surface, since known to be anatomically an ear, though it must have been almost useless in our dense air. In a group round the mouth were sixteen slender, almost whiplike tentacles, arranged in two bunches of eight each.”

“The War of the Worlds” became the template for many (too numerous to talk about here) books (and films) where the villain of the piece was some sort of terrible alien. However, a key turning point in this trend came in 1953 with the release of the seminal movie “It Came from Outer Space”, the screenplay written by the legendary Ray Bradbury. He had offered two outlines to the studio, one with malicious aliens, the other with benign aliens and he said that “I wanted to treat the invaders as beings who were not dangerous, and that was very unusual. The studio picked the right concept, and I stayed on.”

Since then, while there have obviously been classics where the aliens were a threat (and you must read Peter Watts’s 2011 Hugo nominated short story “The Things” (both text and audio can be found at Escape Pod ), aliens have been treated more even-handedly…

In Fredric Brown’s 1955 novel “Martians, Go Home” the author plays with the ideas that had grown up around Martians and, in this case, they are literally ‘little green men’. Annoying ones that cause chaos.

In “Little Fuzzy” by H. Beam Piper (1962) the question is asked, how do we define sapience, what are animals and what are thinking creatures? And how should we treat our fellow creatures…

In 1979, Barry B. Longyear reworked the World War II film “Hell in the Pacific” with his novella “Enemy Mine” (which won him the Hugo, the Nebula and, as he was a new writer, the John W. Campbell award!). Where we meet the archetypal lizard-like alien Drac, with which the human race is at war. The otherness of the Drac is slowly eaten away as a human and a Drac are forced to live together on an inhospitable planet.

The three examples above use three of the most common archetypes for the alien, small, strange coloured versions of ourselves, cute and cuddly, or humanoid/lizard. Whatever they look like, to the writer aliens can be very useful in highlighting traits within humans and taking those characteristics off in a different direction – or to an exaggerated extent; allowing us to ask questions of ourselves. Shameless plug time… in “Talatu” I have our heroine captured by the six-legged, armadillo-like, JanchuaCrax; their racial memory and connection to a variant of Gaia poses questions about how colonists should treat new worlds (when we have not made such a good job of looking after our own).

What sort of aliens do you like? Ones that scare the pants off of you, or ones that can, after some struggles, become honoured friends?

What books have you enjoyed that feature aliens?

Are you writing about aliens now? How did you go about visualising them?

Oh, and a bonus point (and nothing else) to anyone who can identify the quote which is the title of this article…

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17 Comments to “Watch The Skies!”

  1. Good post! I don’t know if I prefer one over the other… just as long as the alien present makes for a good story- I liked ET, and Independence Day, and both had different types of aliens. I do love me a good story about space / aliens no matter what!
    I’m not writing about aliens right now, but give me a minute or two I probably could be persuaded to haha.

    • Thanks Laura. Me too, I feel that there is room for all types, although I’m a sucker for those uplifting stories that start out worried about the alien, but end up with humans striding out to join the global community…

  2. I tend to go for menacing aliens. While Space Invaders often lack the well-rounded personalities of their sympathetic and cuddly counterparts, their appearance on the scene always brings out the best and worst qualities in human beings.

    And, well, people in crisis fascinate me.

    • Thanks for your comment HLAWF!

      I would say that, in relation to reading I often (but not exclusively) prefer sympathetic aliens. When it comes to the movies – menacing all the way!

  3. I’m of the Star Trekian view of the future and of the universe. There’s something better in moving toward knowledge and enlightenment that transcends the approaches we’ve taken in the past.

    I do dabble with it in one novel, but it isn’t meant to be obvious or a major emphasis of the story. Since I write from a feminist perspective, that generates the overall theme.

    • Thanks for the comment Nelle. While the Federation universe does contain many wonderful cooperative races, there are some great menacing monsters too, so it’s the best of both worlds!

  4. Drac, from Enemy Mine, was a favorite, because of his transformations in the story. I love Ender’s Game, and his aliens are creepy enough that real power arises when he changes his mind. Starship Troopers, (the book, not the movie,) has inimical “aliens”, to us, but I believe we are equally unacceptable aliens to them.

    • Thanks Judith for the comment. I agree that some of the most effective writing about humans/aliens is where both sides could be seen in a positive light depending upon ones viewpoint.

  5. My intelligent aliens (or extraterrestrials, as I prefer to call them) are all carbon-based lifeforms that evolved from DNA similar to what is on Earth; hence they are evolved from avians, lemuriforms, monotreme mammals, and last but definitely not least, termites. I like my ETs friendly! Sometimes they are more advanced technologically than we are or have qualities that are different (such as being strongly empathic), but sometimes they are less technologically developed. The Shshi (the termite peoples) have the wheel and the pulley but have never tamed fire. Who needs fire when all those bodies within the termitarium are generating heat in the wintertime?

    • Thanks for the comment Lorinda. While I was mainly talking about the consequences of ‘alien attitudes’ above, I am a sucker for a well thought out biology that leads the lifeforms down different routes (and consequently affects their beliefs and society). With my JanchuaCrax I used a viral vector for the transmission of the ‘racial memory’ and, consequently they are appalled by the thought of war; for they are all one people, how could they fight? (The JanchuaCrax also never tamed fire!).

  6. Nice post, Dennis! Aliens have long been a fascination of mine.

    I personally like stories where the aliens are like us, social reflections, if you will. The John Carter series of stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs represents some of my favorites: the “alien” in this case is the Earthman John Carter, who has to navigate his way through the different social and physical environment of warlike Mars. But Carter learns that the Green Men of Mars, for example, are not all evil; like Earthmen, some are good and some are bad. It extends across all the races/species.

    John Carpenter’s film adaptation of “The Thing from Another World” is maybe one of the most pointed alien life stories that shows us the evil within ourselves, as the alien mimics human form and destroys the inhabitants of a remote outpost not only by its own hand but by creating paranoia within the human ranks.

    I think what’s perhaps most important in any alien/foreigner story is how the situation evolves, whether its warlike or peacefully.

    Good luck with your own alien story! Sounds interesting. 🙂

  7. Ooh best of luck with your book Dennis, we’ll watch for word on it here. You got me started reading sci-fi again, and now I can’t get enough of it! I think all aliens are good to read about, after all most of them end up being us by the end. As alien as they can get, they are trying to secure something for their race in most cases. I’m not sure I’ve read any where the aliens were here for destroying only, where there wasn’t something in it for them. Another planet to colonize, water supply, minerals, fuel – something.
    You recommended one to me which was GREAT, “Coyote,” by Allen Steele. In that book, we were the aliens. Also on your recommendation I picked up a copy of “The Voyage of the Space Beagle” and will start it soon. Sci-fi ROCKS! Oh yea, nice post 🙂 lol

    • Thanks Neeks. Glad to have drawn you back into the fold!

      The novel is in that terrible limbo of waiting for a publisher to decide if they want it, but, in the meantime, I’m putting the finishing touches to a collection of short stories, poems, and flash fiction called “The Poring Dark”. The proof should be off for printing by the end of the week and it should be on sale by the end of August. For news on that and sneek previews, you can go to http://www.terrandreamarchive.com

      Glad you enjoyed “Coyote” Allen Steele is a great writer (and with a name like that should have been writing for the pulps in the 30’s!).

  8. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not particularly into sci-fi, wouldn’t generally choose to read it, but would watch it if I believe it to be a good film, and by “good” I’m talking about entertaining Hollywood blockbuster good, rather than sophisticated good if you know what I mean! So, like Laura, I really enjoy films like ET and Independence Day, not that I’m calling Laura unsophisticated..oh dear…anyway, generally though I prefer my aliens to be friendly, or at least come round to being friendly by the end. I always like think that if we were ever in real contact with aliens, it would be a mutually positive experience where we all learn from each other, not one where we all try to kill each other, but then humans can’t seem to even manage that amongst themselves, so I don’t hold out much hope with an alien species…

    • Thanks for the comment Vanessa. Science fiction used to be a ‘niche’ market which was seen as being mainly aimed at certain male readers from perhaps 14 to 30. (A wild generalisation there, but that was the perception.) However, science fiction has now really become mainstream, take a look at the number of science fiction or fantasy movies that are released each year, look at some of the post successful TV series, SF is there. YA fiction is dominated by fantasy first and science fiction second.

      As for contact with real aliens, we have the Fermi Paradox, which asks, if there is a high likelihood of there being many extraterrestrial intelligent races, why haven’t we seen evidence for them? The books are still open on that one.

      There are both optimists and pessimists. Personally, I mentally line up behind Carl Sagan. He felt that self-destructiveness would kill off the crazies before they got offworld. (Again, the jury is still out on that one, we got close to killing this world during the Cuban Missile Crisis. So, hopefully, if we survive long enough to get out there among the stars, those we meet will also be the sensible ones who didn’t blow themselves up!)

      P.S. On The “Cuban Missile Crisis” – that term is evidence that the victors write the history books, why isn’t it called European Missile Crisis, given that the first stage of it was the placement of missiles in the UK, Italy and Turkey? (It is known as the October crisis in Cuba and was called the Caribbean Crisis by the USSR). Here science fiction may be educating some our young to see both sides, in “X-Men: First Class” it is clear that the West placed the missiles in Europe first (although for different motives!) 🙂

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