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…