Arts/Literature

Aliens and the Imagination

What is an alien? Someone not of my own species? Of my own country (cue political flatulence)? Of my own neighborhood? How about of my own planet? How have governments used UFOs? All of these were subject to lively (but short) series of talks this evening at the British Library, where tonight’s talks focused on Aliens and the Imagination. We had a pretty good line-up—fantastic, in fact: Gwyneth Jones, one of my all time favorite SF writers; David Clarke, who among other things is the UFO consultant to the National Archives here; biologist and mathematician (and science and SF writers) Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart; film director Gareth Edwards, who brought us Monsters; and writer Mark Pilkington, who also helps run the Strange Attractor blog. As usual, I thought the problem was too many people and not enough time—but these are all really interesting people, and I could have sat there all evening. Too bad there was no time at the end for the speakers to ask each other questions, or for questions from the audience.

There were several strands. The first–from Clarke and Pilkington–concerned aliens, UFOs and the myths that grow up around them, and how governments try to control the memes for various reasons of their own. The most obvious example is the portrayal of aliens and UFOs in American films of the 1950s when anti-communist hysteria was running high. UFOs didn’t start figuring in the popular consciousness until the Cold War, when sightings started, and then abductions. Clarke had a clever chart showing the number of abduction claims over time, and they spike during years when major alien films are released–Close Encounters, ET, Independence Day. Pilkington’s work, especially in his book Mirage Men, relates to the use of the UFO story by governments, which they did in spades. Clarke, who has had access to the Ministry of Defence files on UFOs (which now reside at the National Archives), provided an entertaining history of aliens in popular culture from the cold war up to now–there’s a lot there. What he didn’t mention in much detail, probably because of time, is the continued overwhelming popularity aliens have had, and continued to have, in the visual media–films and TV shows in particular. Take a look at the top movies of all time (to date, anyway)–there’s a whole lot of fantasy and SF in there, and quite a few about aliens, friendly or otherwise.

Cohen and Stewart stole the evening, however, with a double act they clearly enjoy giving on the evolution of life in the universe. We’re thinking about it all wrong, they said–humans are the anomaly, and we shouldn’t be using ourselves as a standard for anything biological. Their thought experiment is if you rerun life on earth, would you get humans? No, pretty emphatically–in fact, you’re unlikely even to get vertebrates. If you look at life on earth, you find certain aspects of life recurring over and over again, independently–flight, for example, or fur, or sexual reproduction. Other things, like bipedalism, arise only once. So what you’d be looking for if you were looking for life elsewhere is those universal aspects of life. And humans aren’t likely to be one of them–so we should give up thinking that intelligent life out there would look anything like humans, and start thinking about what we can infer about what life might really look like. Intelligence (or exelligence, in their term, referring to intelligence that that extends itself artificially–and so far, we’re the only example of that) is likely to exist somewhere else too, given the many examples that we find on earth. In fact, they happily concede that earth is full of animals that manifest intelligence–just not exelligence. But that may exist elsewhere, and there’s no reason that it needs to derive from a life form anything like humans.

Edwards, who was the draw of the evening given the relatively younger age of the audience, had a great time telling us all how he made Monsters. And he had lots of film clips showing how he put it all together. It was a small operation, apparently, from what I can remember of the reviews when it came out–Edwards pretty much did all the CGI himself, and boy, does it look neat. Everyone loved this movie, and now I think I understand why. The aliens, who look like a cross between an octopus and a crab, look great. I have to see this movie. For those of you who have seen it, those waving tentacles at the gas station? Think of a rope in a weightless environment–that’s what he used. Edwards said he started out wanting to make a movie in which the aliens really did look like nothing else that had been on the screen–and he failed. At one point, he even wanted to release the film without showing what the aliens looked like, but then he realized that that was a really stupid idea. Gotta see this film.

Jones was late, sadly, because a lightning strike stalled her train from Brighton, but she did get there eventually, and did a reading from a human/alien sex scene from her great book White Queen. Much of Jones’s work concerns not just how humans deal with alien contact, but how the aliens do as well. Her trilogy on aliens arriving on earth–White Queen, North Wind, and Phoenix Cafe–deal with the Aleutians (as they are called for reason too complicated to explain here) and their impact, as do many books on alien visitation. Jones does something very few writers succeed at, though, and that’s making the aliens characters of comparable depth and importance throughout the series. It’s an amazing set of books.

Aliens have been a recurring theme in the science fiction of the post-war decades, and like other memes, often represent the political and cultural world that surrounds their literary or celluloid creation. We see ourselves in them–how can we not? But sometimes–as in Jones’ work, or what Edwards has come up with on film–they move beyond that, into the realm of the near mystical. That’s not right, of course, because their being alien to us means nothing, really–like us, they derive from the particular construct of the worlds they evolved in in the first place. Otherworldly is a better term. And they show us ourselves in a new light, as they’re meant to from a literary standpoint. Let’s hope that when we run into them for real, we’re a bit more mature as a species than we seem to be at the moment. As Clarke mentioned, in popular culture aliens are here to either enslave us or to save us–but life is always more complicated, and if we ever really do meet aliens, they will be too.

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