Thinking About Non-Terrestrial Life

So, I got roped into watching the movie Alien today.

By roped in I mean that I noticed that it was on and immediately turned to the channel while bouncing up and down in my seat. I love the Xenomorphs from the Alien series (although I don’t necessarily love all of the movies).

A bit of history to explain. I was afraid of the titular Alien before I even saw the first Alien movie. My best friend growing up had an older brother. Older brother had the upstairs attic bedroom. In the upstairs attic bedroom he had a lot of cool posters and stuff. One of these was a life sized (around 7 feet tall) cardboard standee of a Xenomorph that glowed under black light. For a while it was in his closet/crawl space. To access this you had to remove a panel from the wall and kind of duck walk in. It wasn’t until after I had seen Captain Dallas doing exactly that in
Alien that I understood why he set it there. All I knew was that it was creepy as Hell. After he realized how scared we were of it, he moved it to the top of the stairs. I think this was an effort to keep us out of his room and his comic book collection.

Anyhoo, all of this has got me thinking about life beyond our planet and the books, movies, and television programs (especially the latter two) in which we have vicariously encountered (pun intended) them. I have always been interested in space exploration. I even went so far as to want to be an astronaut (a dream that was quashed when I discovered how much
math was involved). I learned astronomy and got really good at picking out the stellar objects which I could make out in the light polluted area in which we lived.

At some point in my life my mental wanderings migrated towards conspiracy theories. I have always loved the infinitely regressive argument which arises when people discuss Area 51/Groom Lake/Dreamland. One person will say that the entire UFO phenomenon was created as a governmental cover-up to hide their advanced weapons and vehicle programs. They will quickly point out that the triangle shapes seen in the sky by many observers turned out to be the B-2 Bomber, the F-117 Nighthawk, and the F-22 Raptor. The flying wing design of the stealth aircraft, the opposing individual will argue, is obviously reverse-engineered alien technology. The military experiments, are actually the cover-up for what is really going on, experiments using captured alien technology or tech which was made readily available to us by aliens which the government is in cahoots with.

But I digress. All I am trying to point out is that I have been interested in the possibility of being visited by non-terrestrial life for quite a while. Whether or not those life forms would prove friendly is another story.

Earlier today I posted a question on the
Zukerberg Experiment. I asked what people thought the ratio of friendly to indifferent to hostile aliens in the movies and TV was. My first inclination is to say that most movie aliens are hostile. Either they are pissed at us for moving into their territory or they come to earth because they want our precious resources.1 However, the more I thought about it, the more I questioned this. If you factor in television, you get a whole slew of extra-terrestrial species who couldn’t give a tinker’s damn about us (Star Trek). Then you have those who are unaware of us, but who upon learning of us decide that it might be kind of cool to take over the planet (Farscape).

Obviously, there are almost as many alien races from movies and television as there are stars in the sky.
2 Which leads naturally to the question of why are they so popular?

I can only answer for myself, but I would have to say that part of it is the allure and the wonder of exploration. At heart I have always wanted to be an explorer of one type or another (other childhood dream jobs were Oceanographer and Archeologist/Paleontologist). The idea of being able to cast off the shackles of the Earth and explore the entire universe is enchanting. If we are being visited, my theory went, then that means we might be able to accomplish the same thing. All of the movies in which aliens traverse space to reach Earth, even if it was in an attempt to conquer the planet, gave hope to that desire.

Then there is what I will call the zombie factor. I have spoken at length, in this blog and at conventions, about how one of the benefits of using the undead as characters is that they can be a stand in for anything which the creators of the piece which to talk about. Before the Romero zombies hit the scene, there are aliens. All manner of things stepped off of space craft representing our cold war enemies, our fears of conformity, rampant consumerism, the horror of the atomic age, and our ability to destroy ourselves ten times over. Then there is the action sub-genre. You can kill as many bug eyed aliens (or simply bug aliens) as you wish without raising parental concern too much.

Personally, I see visitors from other planets as probably peaceful. I know that this is uncharacteristically optimistic of me. The way I see it, if the visitors were warmongers they probably would have spent too much time fighting amongst themselves to dedicate time, resources, and effort to space exploration. Granted, I am basing this on the only species that I know of capable of space flight.
3 I am familiar with the Drake equation. I have funded SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence).4

It always used to piss me off when people would say that the human race could not handle contact from another planet. This is often given as the reason for why the government (or whomever) hides all of the previous contact information from the general public. One of my favorite conspiracy theory addendums is that Hollywood, in particular people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, are part of an elite team which is preparing the masses to be able to accept the knowledge that there are creatures
out there. By showing positive images of aliens (in Close Encounters and E.T.), Spielberg is removing the idea that the aliens are threats. The Star Wars films are designed to show us a whole universe of different aliens which operate pretty much like normal society. Granted, Lucas kind of jacked that whole thing up with the prequel movies. Jar Jar Binks alone probably set back the alien acceptance agenda a good 50 years.

This theory states that finding out that we are not alone in the universe would be too much for most people to handle.
5 Religions would crumble. Civilized society would be in ruins. I used to think “Hey, give us a little credit!” I was sure that first contact would be some kind of great unifying experience which would bring the world together.

OK, maybe I watched too many episodes of
Start Trek. I don’t know that I believe that any more. The way things have progressed, it seems that the majority of people are just looking for something that they can disagree with.6 Given the devissive nature of society, I think that aliens landing might just be another one of those things which people would disagree about.

Hmm...maybe we would be better off if the aliens were coming to conquer us. Nothing unifies disseperate groups like a common enemy.

1 Or, in the case of the movie
Signs they come here despite the fact that they are toxiclly allergic to our primary resource. Seriously. You have the technology to cross interstellar space but lack the common sense to not land on the one planet that is 75% covered with something that will kill you. Easily one of the stupidest movie premises ever. At least the aliens in Alien Nation crash landed on Earth.

2 Well, maybe as many as the stars which are visible in the night sky at my house which is a significantly smaller subset of all of the stars.

3 Yep, look around you.

4 I even lent my computer to data analysis. I don’t know if they still have it, but there used to be a program where you could have your computer analyze data from the large telescope array when you weren’t using it (your computer that is).

5 One of the best books I have ever read that deals with a first contact scenario is
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend picking it up.

6 I’m sure many of you think that statement is crap. Thanks for helping me make my point.

7 Sorry about that. I didn’t plan on ending on such a bummer note.