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Space Aliens as Metaphor

by Don Webb

Peter Woodruff’s “The Thing in the Pond,” in this issue, reiterates a theme long exploited in literature and film: invasion from outer space. The subgenre has been quite successful mainly because inquiring audiences want to know: “What monster is out to get us this time?”

“The Thing in the Pond” would seem to follow a well-worn track in modern literature. You don’t even have to be a science fiction fan to cite H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, or The Thing From Another World (1951, 1982; based on John W. Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?”), or Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, or Alan Dean Foster’s potboiler Alien, which spawned a truly spooky film series.

1. Take me to your leader. On second thought, don’t bother: I’m your leader.

“Space alien” stories are not all the same. They differ in their cultural preoccupations. And these preoccupations create literary topoi or, in plain English, commonplaces. What is our first topos? Since one can cite any number of titles, let’s take two archetypes: what do War of the Worlds and the 1951 version of The Thing From Another World have in common? Invasion by sentient space aliens intent on taking over the world.

The space aliens are sentient to the extent that one might eventually be able to communicate with them. Since the subject (space aliens) and the object (world conquest) are axiomatic, innovation depends on the means. In War of the Worlds, it’s conventional military action. In The Thing From Another World, it’s infiltration.

In that light, Orson Welles’ 1938 radio version of War of the Worlds reflects preoccupation with World War II; The Thing From Another World — we might also mention Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters — preoccupation with the Cold War.

2. Bang, you’re dead. No, wait: kachoo, you’re dead.

Our second commonplace is defined not by the object (world conquest) but by the subject (the space aliens). The means of conquest depend on what the aliens are. Unlike our other examples, The Andromeda Strain (1969) and Alien (film 1979) feature life forms with which no communication is possible: they are forces of nature. The Andromeda Strain postulates a micro-organism; the 1982 version of The Thing, a larger organism; the Alien series, an insect, presumably a scaled-up wasp.

Monsters from outer space have thus evolved to reflect cultural preoccupations of the second half of the 20th century, in particular, disease.

The historian Barbara Tuchman chose the title of her classic work quite well: A Distant Mirror. The 14th century barely survived — if indeed it did — a double invasion: the Hundred Years War and the Black Death. At that time, both the military and the environmental calamities seemed like invasions from outer space. For all practical purposes, they were.

The 20th century is reflected in that “distant mirror” by earning the name “the century of total war” and by witnessing the rise of plagues such as the Spanish flu, AIDS, and still others that threaten to be intractable. And who knows what havoc as yet unknown will be wrought by heedless pollution and reckless genetic engineering?

In the end, it doesn’t really matter much what the invader is in “The Thing in the Pond”; the operative word is “pond.” The story suggests a future preoccupation of the 21st century: the availability and safety of water.

3. Zap, you’re blacklisted.

One classic film is conspicuously absent among the ones mentioned so far: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). It has some of the ingredients of a type-1 space invasion: a sentient space alien with superior technology lands on Earth in the early years of the Cold War. He’s greeted by panicky, trigger-happy Earthlings.

But at that point the story diverges wildly from all the others. The space alien has a name: Klaatu. His intentions are peaceful: he comes not to take over the world but to turn humanity from its childish ways. The means: science.

Since humanity is no readier than it has ever been to accept a prophet — even one sporting a spaceship and robot — Klaatu goes the infiltration route in human guise under the name “Carpenter.” The rest has been history.

The Biblical allegory is quite faithful: Klaatu’s avowed purpose is to prevent Earthlings from spreading war. The premise of space alien as social physician practically requires a Biblical allegory: the precedent is just too big to get around, and it’s been there for a long time.

The film could hardly have been timelier: it appeared too early for fundamentalists to denounce it as “secular humanist,” which it is, and for Senator Jos. R. McCarthy to have the film blacklisted in Hollywood as “un-American,” which it was for contradicting in advance the Senator’s campaign of political hysteria.

If anything, Cyrano’s The Other World provides a sequel to The Day the Earth Stood Still despite being written three hundred years earlier. In Cyrano’s novel, space travel is so common that you’d think the space lanes would need a traffic controller. And who is the “space invader”? Elijah? Enoch? Cyrano? The Sun-being? It hardly seems to matter.

The fact is that neither The Day the Earth Stood Still nor The Other World is an “invasion” story; they belong to the genre of travel literature, which began in earnest in the Renaissance and flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. That genre — which includes space- and time-travel literature — belongs to an age of exploration and optimism; “invasion” stories belong to the 20th century, which Albert Camus called with some justification “the century of fear.”

Conclusion: three out of four ain’t bad

Science fiction has regularly faced all Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: war, disease, famine, and death. The subgenre of invasion from outer space has concentrated first on war, now on disease. And now it awaits a classic that faces famine — or, in a larger sense, ecological catastrophe. Death? Well, that may be the ultimate invader, but it did not come from outer space.

Where have all the flying saucers gone? Come back, we miss you.

Copyright © 2007 by Don Webb

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