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I Can See Your House From Here v 2.46
© Kenn McCracken
August 01, 2002

"If this translation is right, this alien sounds like an idiot."
"That's something to consider—a stupid alien. Well, they must have them."
­ Sphere (1998)

Why is it that the little green guys never get their fair share of time on Star Trek? The little gray guys, too. I think they've been kinda shafted, myself. Here you have the most accepted popular vision of alien life in the history of civilization (Western, at least), and they are nowhere to be found on the longest running science fiction television franchise. Why?

Not that I necessarily think the little green men are the right idea behind extraterrestrial life forms. I don't even really see ETs as being particularly humanoid, even though movies and television seem convinced that any alien that we ever have contact with will have some combination of arms, legs, eyes, a mouth, ears, and so on and so forth. That's such an egocentric thought process; just because we humans stand atop the food chain on our planet, backwoods as it probably is in the universal scheme of things, we automatically assume that aliens will look like us, or at least require the same life-support elements that we do.

Why is it, though, that the skinny green (or gray, depending) asexual things with big eyes and no noses are the dominant ideation of alien life? Obviously, these days, it's thanks to the widespread sharing of knowledge like the Internet, film, and television. Between Whitley Streiber's accounts of abduction and that stupid, stupid, stupid Alien Autopsy video, there's probably only one guy somewhere on a deserted Pacific island who hasn't been exposed to the idea of that particular alien. Before that—well, chalk it up to egocentrism, a lack of imagination, or a literal translation of a really poorly done cave painting.

Of course, there's always the idea of some sort of collective memory of the beings that dropped our ancestors off all those millennia ago. That's certainly one of the more appealing theories of extraterrestrial visitation that I can imagine. There's plenty of weird evidence, like the Egyptian pyramids and tales of lost cities and the Mayan calendar, that would all be explained if we knew civilization had existed before we currently accept (even if it was civilization on another world). It would also explain the humanoid appearance of aliens as we imagine them. And it would give them a reason to come here—to explore, perhaps, like Columbus or Lewis and Clark, or as a last chance for a dying race. Then again, maybe the aliens needed somewhere to put all their criminals—imagine Earth as a really big Australia. It certainly would explain a lot of seemingly inborn violent behavior.

Scientists—and I know somewhere, there's someone who is laughing at my use of that word—say that aliens would look like the little green men because that's what evolutionary theories suggest. You know—big eyes, because it's darker out there in space, and long, thin appendages because . . . well, because astronaut food isn't very nourishing. And big heads, because aliens must be smart to get here from wherever (ignoring the fact that fish, with brains the size of peas, can get from America to England . . . without the aid of a boat!). See, it's not egocentric. It's nature at work.

So aliens are proof that everything evolves from humans. Great. Right back where we started, eh?

What about aliens as completely unrecognizable? Hell, in inner space we have more than enough of those—squid, eels, rays, and all sorts of nasty looking things under our very own oceans. And who knows what lurks so far down that we can't send cameras, much less go ourselves? Does anyone reading this understand the evolution of that muck? I know there are things without eyes, because there's no light, and the physiologies are entirely different than what we think of commonly—no sunlight, tremendous atmospheric pressures, temperature differences, and a different food chain will do that to you.

Oh, wait. All those differences in living conditions cause all those differences in physicality? I may be on to something here. So why aren't the writers following nature's lead? Surely, if a couple of thousand leagues can make such a drastic difference, then a couple of light years would do—well, who knows what?

I'm sure that, as I don't read enough science fiction to know better, more writers do this. I know Crichton played with the idea in Sphere, and horrormeister H. P. Lovecraft certainly had a grasp of it. But what was brilliant about Lovecraft's Old Ones was that, by simply facing one of these creatures, the viewer was apt to go utterly insane. How cool is that—a living creature so different from us that we can't even begin to grasp its existence, even when we're face to whatever you call it with one?

And perhaps that's why, in the end, we settle for little green men. Aliens that are too different from humans are too hard for the average fan (much less person on the street) to grasp. Not just physically, either; you always hear about aliens acting with distinct human traits. They're warlike, or scavengers, or simply trying to establish contact. When they come in peace, we mistrust them, and invariably make some horrible misstep that sets us on a path to war; when they're looking for a new planet to live on because they used all their resources, they're thoughtless and inconsiderate, and must pay.

Of course, we tend to forget that, when our sun burns out or our oil fields run dry and we've no more energy to mine, we're hoping to have the means to move to another planet, too. But hey—we're only human, right?

A lot of my dissatisfaction with the simplistic depiction of aliens goes back to my umbrella complaint with science fiction as a whole—at least the cinematic kind. It seems to me that the genre has gotten lazy, finding that space battles with nifty ships and a little romance in the middle sells. Hey, I'm all for making money, but what about The Matrix? New ground, tons of cash. Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison regularly push the envelope with new (and really hard to grasp, I might add) concepts, and they're two of the most in-demand writers in comics today. Sure, Independence Day and Star Wars make tons of money, so you might as well keep on rolling along (although at least Lucas and Co. have taken the time to craft a few distinctly non-human critters here and there). But isn't anyone out there interested in pushing the boundaries of our collective imagination a little further? Take the time to imagine evolution from nothing on a planet with no water, an atmosphere composed of sulfur and aluminum, and no sunlight for half its year, and then create the logical outcome.

And then you can have it come to Earth to raid our resources and probe our butts. Because, if I'm a higher life form, I'm thinking I've got nothing better to do that go around sticking things up other species' butts. Hey, it's a cosmic joke. Why not?


RevSF comics editor Kenn McCracken: To meet him once is to go utterly insane from pondering his existence.

 
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