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.

How to Monitor Your Psychic Meltdown By the Culture You Consume:

A Love Note to Melvyn Bragg

imgres-3The past year and a half have been stressful.  Like many Americans, of many political persuasions, the nomination and election of Donald Trump to the Presidency showed me that I had badly misunderstood my country.  I
learned that I was wrong about the way the world worked, and I don’t think I’m alone in finding that realization desolating.

I used to be an active and engaged consumer of news, but I find now that my appetite for it is diminishing.  I am able to spend less time reading the daily news without becoming sad and apathetic, and so I have limited my intake.  The void left by news-reading has been filled with a series of other activities, psychic life-rafts I’ve reached for and discarded when they proved unable to adequately absorb my agitation.

When Trump received the Republican nomination, I went on a science fiction binge.  I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars Trilogy‘; Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash and ‘Seveneves‘; Cixin Liu’s ‘The Three-Body Trilogy.  Science fiction has the quality of being both escapist and morally relevant, and, for a while, I found it helped to inhabit the problems of worlds other than my own.

The day after Donald Trump was elected, when I walked into my lab, my labmates and I, all women, locked eyes and started to weep, and I found that my passion for dystopia had vanished.

Houghton_EC65.M6427P.1667aa_-_Paradise_Lost,_1667Escapism no longer seemed a viable option; reality felt urgent but overwhelming, and I needed something which would help me cope with the repulsion I felt towards the world around me.  I’m no optimist, and I especially wasn’t one this past winter, but I wVergilanted something hopeful.  So I started re-reading the old epics: ‘The Aeneid’, ‘The Inferno’, ‘Paradise Lost’.  There was something reassuring about the scope of these poems, their grandeur and their vintage.  They reminded me that civilizations may rise and fall, but that great monuments endure.  They broadened my perspective, and reduced the troubles of my country to the status of a mere chapter in humanity’s story.


images-1Eventually, though, the cycles of suffering and war which characterize epics started to make everything seem futile: so many men fight, so many die.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  I started to feel again that we are all doomed to the endless repetitions of violence which have characterized every human epoch.  Apathy came creeping back.

And then, in the past two weeks, when the House voted to replace a 58%-popular ACA with a 17%-popular AHCA, and the President fired the FBI director for investigating his ties to Russia, and then dashed off to a private photo shoot with a Russian spy, and North Korea threw a missile as high as it could into the air, and the whole world seemed too venal and stupid to be borne, and I was nearly lost in an apathetic stupor, I found my way back to Melvyn Bragg.

Once a week, Melvyn Bragg hosts a discussion on BBC Radio 4 called ‘In Our Time’, in which he and three relevantly-credentialed academics spend 45 minutes talking about…something.  These somethings are broadly classified into the categories ‘Science’, ‘History’, ‘Philosophy’, ‘Culture’, and ‘Religion’.  Since it first aired in 1998, it has covered topics as far-ranging as Japan’s Sakoku Period, Lyrical Ballads, Conductors and Semiconductors, The Baroque, Guilt, Antimatter, and Fermat’s Lost Theorem.

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Melvyn Bragg on the occasion of the 500th episode of ‘In Our Time’, from the Telegraph,

Melvyn Bragg is a mellow, dry host, and he leads his academics in measured dissections of subjects both universal and abstruse.  He is at turns funny and serious, and the allegiance of everyone is, at all times, to the subject at hand.  These people are here to nerd out.

Though I am not normally susceptible to the allure of the English accent (Hugh Grant’s popularity baffles me), there is something about a round-table of dry, British academics earnestly discussing, say, whether Cleopatra was carried into Caesar’s tent in a carpet, or a bag, or a carpeted-bag, which makes the world seem sensible and good.  And I have not yet found anything else as effectively (and endlessly) distracting as this two-decades-old labyrinth of esoterica.  Melvyn has provided me not so much with an escape, but with a reminder that the world contains multitudes, vast stores of history and knowledge which I can never exhaust and which will never stop delighting me.  I need this right now; I need the world to be larger than my own dysfunctional corner of it.  His show is very popular in Britain, and so I doubt that it will give Baron Bragg an enormous thrill to know that he has rescued the sanity of one desperate American, but it is true nonetheless.

So I have this recommendation for Americans who are, like me, lost: download ‘In Our Time’.  Find a comfortable place to sit or recline (I have taken to lying, flat on my back, on the rug in my living room, in my sweatpants – as I said, it’s been a stressful time), put in your headphones, and let Melvin help.

Melvyn Bragg on the occasion of the 500th episode of ‘In Our Time’, from the Telegraph,

Why Does It Matter If Aliens Are Scary?

Part 1: Biology

I wrote a few weeks ago about movie aliens, about which ones were scary and which ones weren’t.

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Alien: scary.

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A colonist from ‘X-Files’: not scary.

My thesis was that movie aliens don’t achieve scariness unless they first achieve un-humanity.  Humanoid aliens aren’t only uniformly unfrightening, they are also products of intellectual and creative laziness, and we should stop making movies about them.

Who cares?  Movies, famously, little resemble real life – that’s part of why we watch them.  Aliens, at least so far, don’t figure in real life at all, so why am I so upset about how they appear in movies?

For two reasons.  The first, let’s call ‘Biology’.  The second, about which more next week, we’ll call ‘Fear Learning’.

Biology:  

Put simply, the evolutionary thinking behind humanoid aliens is, well, nonexistent.

It’s a safe assumption that whatever planet aliens evolve on will be, in some way or another, different than Earth.  It may be bigger or smaller, and therefore exert greater or lesser gravitational force.  The chemical composition of the atmosphere may different.  It may be further away from or closer to a big star, which would change the amount of heat or light the surface of the planet gets.  Whatever the difference, the environmental conditions on this alien planet aren’t going to be identical to the environmental conditions here on Earth.  Therefore, the chances that an alien species would evolve to exactly resemble human are slim indeed.

Even if we hew religiously to the anthropic principle, that the universe is necessarily conducive to the evolution of life like ours (as evidenced by our life), the odds are overwhelming that extraterrestrials won’t look like us.  Even if we accept the common hand-wave, that aliens have come to to disrupt our planet because it is so like their own, it is still unlikely that they will look like us.

Look around.  All life on Earth evolved under Earth-like conditions (obviously), and very few of our fellow-earthlings look like us.  In fact, there really aren’t any animals that look as much like humans as the aliens from ‘Signs’ do.  Honestly, which do you more closely resemble, the little green men from the X-Files, or a gorilla?  Tell the truth – it’s a close call.  And if other humanoids haven’t evolved here on Earth, what are the odds that they evolved somewhere else?

The idea that interstellar aliens, even if they evolved under similar conditions, would be cephalated, binocular, bipedal, and hairless, is preposterous.  To portray them thusly is so lazy, requires so little mental effort, as to be offensive.  We probably aren’t going to guess accurately how the aliens we meet, if we ever do, will look, but we should at least try.