They Mostly Come At Night, Mostly

This post contains spoilers for ‘Prometheus‘ and ‘Alien: Covenant’.

Many marvelous and beautiful things are mysterious.  We do not need to know something’s source to know its value.   This is particularly true of stories; we love stories in which forces unexplained and irresistible wreak havoc in human affairs: magic, witches, vampires, demons, zombies, these creatures appear again and again in the tales we tell each other.

And, in our most beloved stories, we don’t provide the origin of these supernatural things.  We allow them simply to be, and we spend the energy of our story trying to cope with them.

But, sometimes, the tellers of stories are seized by the urge to demystify their monsters, to write their backstories.  This is usually a mistake (anyone else remember the midichlorians?).  And they are doing this now to that most magnificent of all monsters, the Alien.

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Necronom IV

The Alien, which first appeared in ‘Alien’ in 1979, was based on a 1976 print by the artist H.R. Giger, ‘Necronom IV’.  It is a predatory, eusocial creature with a parasitic stage in a complex life cycle, and, for my money, it is the finest contribution that film has made to science fiction.  It is terrifying, the perfect combination of familiar and bizarre, a scrabbling, insectoid nightmare which communicates menace with every move.

The Alien, according to the original conception, was an alien, which added to its horrifying effect.  Somewhere out in the endless black expanse of space, life had burst forth.  But the same process which made us, the same process o280px-Alien_movie.jpgf selection and evolution, had, in some twisted alien world, produced this thing, this ravening killing machine.  Imagining the world which would have produced the Alien was almost as frightening as the Alien itself.

But, lately, alas, Ridley Scott has turned his attention (and enormous funding) to the creation of an Alien prequel trilogy.  The first of these movies, ‘Prometheus’, was released in 2012 and the second, ‘Alien: Covenant’, released last week*.  These movies reveal (in a not super-coherent way) that the Alien was, in fact, the result of an infection of humans by a malignant extraterrestrial virus orchestrated by a pathologically grandiose droid.  Got that?

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A facehugger

Obviously, this is a stupid plot, but what really bothers me is that it is completely unnecessary.  No one was clamoring to see the specific evolution of the Alien, and, if we wanted to know more about it, it was because we were interested in the ways in which it was unlike us.  We did not want to know that the alien was a human xenomorph all along – that completely ruins the point of it being an alien!

Why must we always do this?  Why are we possessed of this mania for origin stories? I understand why we have it for characters, why we are driven to go back and witness the births of Darth Vader and James Bond and Wolverine.  We know that people have psychologies, that they are informed by their past, that they are products of their upbringing, of their loves and their traumas, and that we can’t understand them without knowing whence they came.

7786379422_la-premiere-affiche-d-alien-covenantBut the Alien isn’t a character; it doesn’t have a psychology (I don’t care what ‘Alien Resurrection’ implies).  The Alien is a force, and forces must be grappled with in the present, whenever and however they find you.

Learning that the Alien comes, in part, from us adds nothing to its narrative power.  It only diminishes the effect your encounter with it will have on you: things which are like us or of us are almost always less frightening than things which are completely, ahem, alien, and things seen clearly are less scary than shapes which move in the darkness.  The Alien was at its best when it came, screaming at us, out of the black, unexpected and incomprehensible.  We were all better off before it was dragged into the light.

*Baffling side note: According to Rottentomatoes, ‘Prometheus’ actually got slightly better reviews (and was better liked by audiences) than ‘Alien: Covenant’, which is confounding, since ‘Prometheus’ a) was terrible and b) has none of the franchise’s most valuable asset, namely, the Alien.

Quislings to All Humanity

Review of ‘The Three-Body Problem‘, by Liu Cixin

Warning: this post contains details of premise which are not revealed until midway through the first novel.

     I suppose there comes a time for every dedicated science fiction reader when they must ask themselves, ‘would I collude with an alien species to destroy the human race?’

The Three-Body Problem Cover     I have just finished the first two books of Liu Cixin’s ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ trilogy, best known to English readers by the title of its first book, ‘The Three-Body Problem’.  ‘The Three-Body Problem’ was nominated for a Nebula for Best Novel and won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel (the first non-English language novel ever to win, I believe, and the award was shared with his translator Ken Liu), and has met enormous acclaim since its publication in English.

     The premise of the trilogy is thought-provoking: during the Cultural Revolution in China, a persecuted physicist discovers, via the Chinese equivalent of the SETI program, evidence of an extraterrestrial civilization.  These aliens live on a planet which is located within the gravitational field of three suns, and since three objects do not form a repeating orbit (the ‘three body problem’ of the title), they are subject to lethal climatic extremes.  The aliens are thus in need of a new planet and the human scientist, who had become convinced that humankind is unable to govern themselves justly, reveals the location and suitability of Earth to them.  The first two novels of the trilogy tell the story of this scientist and the organization she builds to destroy humankind, and, once she is discovered, of humanity’s preparations of for the coming of the alien fleet.

     The best purpose of science fiction is to pose moral problems in a context which, through novelty, clarifies them, and, by that metric, ‘The Three-Body Problem’ is a success.  The problem it poses is a particularly acute one for me.  The scientist at the heart of the premise believes that humans are innately and ineradicably evil – I believe that humans are innately and ineradicably evil.  She believes that, if left to govern themselves, they will always and inevitably turn to murder and wickedness – I believe that as well.  And so when she sees a technologically superior race, she decides to hand over mastery of our lives and world to that race – would I do the same?

     No, of course not.  There are several glaring errors of thought required to reach her conclusion, several unjustified leaps of logic.

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     First, technological superiority does not imply moral superiority.  Simply because aliens are more advanced scientifically does not mean that they are more “advanced” ethically.  You encounter this thinking often in science fiction; the notion is that civilizations which divert resources into constant, intra-species strife lack the resources for the development of interstellar travel.  The conclusion is that, therefore, any extraterrestrials likely to reach us are probably going to be some hippy-dippy, beatific, highly pacifistic race which has “evolved” past war.  

     This is completely bogus.  If human history is any example, war is a great engine of technological progress, not an impediment to it.

     More than that, the fact of the approaching alien fleet almost certainly tells the morality of the approaching alien fleet: any race willing to conquer an alien planet and either enslave or exterminate another intelligent species is not pacifistic.  They are not morally superior to us; they are not better or kinder.  They are, to put it simply, as evil as we are.

     The last problem is this: that you are capable of evil does not mean that you necessarily deserve death.  It does not mean that you are capable only of evil and not capable of good, that evil and evil alone defines you, or that individuals among your population are incapable of living entirely good lives.  A species like ours which carries its capacity for evil within it, innate and unchanging, may also carry a like capacity for good, just as innate and just as ineradicable.  And each generation of that species should be given the chance to choose their own goodness over their own evil.

     So, after much thought, I have decided that, when the time comes, I will not help extraterrestrials exterminate humankind.  It was a tough call, but I’m going to throw my lot in with us.  I still think we’re our own best bet.

The three novels of the ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past‘ trilogy are: ‘The Three-Body Problem‘, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End.

Featured Image:

From the 1996 movie ‘Independence Day

Why Does It Matter If Aliens Are Scary?

Part 2:  Fear Learning

[For Part 1: Biology, see last week’s post]

Besides the sheer biological improbability of humanoid aliens, why do I care whether or not aliens in movies are effectively scary?  

We can learn a great deal from what scares us and what doesn’t.  My original thesis was that the scariest aliens are the most, well, alien, and that we are more frightened by the other than we are of the malignant same.

Which does not necessarily make sense.  We may be frightened of the other, but we are also guarded against it.  We are much more likely to be hurt or killed by someone we know than by a stranger.  We are much more likely to be killed by a fellow human than eaten by animals.  And if that is true on Earth, how much truer it is of the universe as a whole.  To date, there has been no confirmed killing of a human being by an extraterrestrial.  Finding aliens scary is not terribly rational.

But the human fear of the other betrays itself in many corners of our thinking.  Many of humanity’s darker moments involved the demonization and destruction of those we consider alien.  Those behaviors were predicated on the idea that those who are different from us are therefore less safe or less trustworthy than those who are like us.

Of course, neophobia doesn’t belong to human beings alone.  Animals, particularly social animals, display it.  And something which is unknown may present unknown dangers.  But there is a difference between that which is unknown and that which is known but different, and it is a dangerous human error to confuse the two.

It is perhaps a little glib to draw parallels between genocide and space aliens.  But fear distorts our thinking and constrains our lives, and it’s worth giving some thought to what scares us and why.