It's irritating enough that entertainment is configured for consumption by the masses, what's more painful to swallow for the science fiction aficionado is that popular science fiction relies on the structure of populist fairy tales told long, long ago, not in a galaxy far, far, away, but around the campfire, by our ancestors, as they used their molars to crush bones for the nutritious marrow. All good stories use easily recognisable communal reference points and characters, which serves as junctures in the narrative for the audience to burp, scratch their arses, and nod in unison.
But, like it or love it, in the time we are allocated to entertain ourselves, we need entertainment that is mass produced and therefore mass digestible, because it gives us something to talk about.
Now when daring to venture on the subject of aliens coming to earth with a useful agenda (vaporising us with ray guns is not an agenda; perhaps a jolly sport), one of the first, almost primal instincts is to fear the worst. All fictional aliens seem to have suspect motives – and who can blame them, we must be easy to fool, and hunt down as our two skinny legs propel us through suburbia or jungle.
A real point of concern though, is the strange probability that we might meet our sci-fi masters of evil and galactic domination. They might actually exist. They might have invaded the dreams of science fiction novelists, script-writers, and producers and said, “Here's a sketch of me on a good day, put me on your puny two dimensional screens and make me look lean, mean and dangerous. If I’m unhappy with your work, I’ll subtly increase the temperature of your blue planet by 1 degree every decade until your children’s children with be boiled alive! There! Now you’re scared!”
The probability of meeting characters from science fiction is actually higher rather than lower; we are only of value to alien species that value what we value. Good and evil exists, so do laser guns, worm holes, and thanks to the supposedly infinite nature of the universe, if we’re capable of imagining something it should rightfully exist, either in the past, the now, or the future, but in a galaxy far, far away.
So what happens if we meet our worst fictional fears, and what are the chances that it will actually happen? Well there's one way to determine the chance of bad ass aliens coming to earth, and that's to see how they scored at the Box Office. Think of the most famous sci-fi scenarios and the collective belief in fiction just might make it real.Top Grossing Science Fiction Movies 1977 - 2011 Note: Adjusted for Ticket Price Inflation (not that you care).
Rank, Movie, Date, Released, Inflation-Adjusted
1, Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope, 1977, $1,284,600,464
2, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, 1982, $1,060,155,772
3, Avatar, 2009, $778,817,600
4, Star Wars Ep. V: The Empire Strikes Back 1980, $761,835,156
5, Star Wars Ep. VI: Return of the Jedi, 1983, $733,586,163
6, Star Wars Ep. I: The Phantom Menace, 1999, $669,453,553
7, Jurassic Park, 1993, $668,021,841
8, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977, $587,327,355
9, Independence Day, 1996, $546,452,224
10, Ghostbusters, 1984, $518,616,036
11, Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith, 2005, $468,061,089
12, Back to the Future, 1985, $443,824,169
13, Men in Black, 1997, $429,990,822
14, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, 2009, $423,021,687
15, Star Wars Ep. II: Attack of the Clones, 2002, $410,363,011
16, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, 1997, $393,768,629
17, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991, $378,305,349
18, The Matrix Reloaded, 2003, $368,401,095
19, Transformers, 2007, $365,912,289
20, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, $341,498,475
21, Signs, 2002, $309,556,860
22, Inception, 2010, $292,576,223
23, I am Legend, 2007, $291,623,655
24, Austin Powers in Goldmember, 2002, $289,362,239
25, The War of the Worlds, 2005, $288,369,109
Of course there’s more science fiction out there than on that list, but it gives a good idea of where to start from and in which direction to continue.
The maxim of the Romans when conquering all before them was 'divide and conquer' and Darth Vader and his evil empire seem to have the same stratagem surgically implanted in their heads. On the plus side, all empires need to trade. No trade, no empire. So if/when earth falls under the shadow of Darth Vader's Empire, we should be prepared to offer something, other than resistance. Naturally home grown Human Rights Campaigners, Anarchists, Lefties and the United States, will probably rebel and join Luke Skywalker and the resistance for lofty reasons, but let's be serious: The evils committed by Darth Vader need never concern you because you probably won't know of them, until of course it is way too late. Besides, earthlings don't have the technology to resist. Therefore, join the wining team, offer something of value. Open earth into a repair shop for Star Destroyers and give Jabba the Hut a second home in the Sahara Desert. For industrious countries and multinationals, open up a factory pumping out cloned storm troopers. Become a vital trading partner, and on the side, open a few inter-galactic brothels too. The Romans would be proud.
An alien botanist is too slow to get back to his ship before it takes off and is chased by fighter jets. Life for an alien botanist is no walk in the grass. ET has to make a friend, build a contraption that he can call home with (get the ship back) and not die. He’s probably not the first strange alien botanist on a strange alien planet to have to go through these trials. You’d expect it to be part of their training.
Apart from the heart-warming aspect of ET, the reality is quite plausible: Who should come from the stars but seekers of knowledge, and the most basic and readily available knowledge are of course plants. The biodiversity of the jungles would seem to offer a lot more avenues for discovery than the woods around outer suburbia (where ET was set, mainly to get suburbanites to see it) so if you or anyone else makes contact with alien botanists, make them feel at home. Send them to the far corners of the earth to discover things we haven’t discovered yet.
Somewhere in the future, us nasty earthlings are upsetting some lesser species on a world far, far away, all for commercial gain! This slight role reversal which forms the backdrop to Avatar is none other than a rehashing of chastising colonialism but in a space age when we actually made it far, far from our cosy Solar System. Well done earthlings.
The most thought provoking diplomatic point of view, is how are we really to present ourselves should we find intelligent life out there? Because we’re hundreds, if not at least a thousand years, away from escaping our Solar System and making it somewhere that could possibly sustain life long enough to let billions of years take its course, we don’t have to dwell too much on how we’d project our form of diplomacy on lesser aliens. In that respect, we don’t have to grow up. We can be the invader, the conqueror, and the protector of other worlds.
Again, like ET, an easy to digest story is hugely successful: We want to believe, but we also want mysteries solved. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the alien mother ship is coming, the world is facing a new reality, and the aliens are returning (among other things) missing planes into a desert, and then later on the pilots (who haven’t aged a bit since their disappearance decades earlier) and are communicating through light and sound to government scientists.
And they’re taking some of us away with them. Naturally we’d want the mother ship to stick around, besides, time cannot possibly be a problem to them, but that would ruin a good story and closing scenes. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is actually quite helpful in priming the masses for the complexities of any alien contact and therefore diplomacy: There is a hell of a lot of basic connecting to accomplish before we can do any meaningful talking.
The nasty aliens bent on exterminating mankind are the most potent symbol of an alien invasion. There is no sentiment, no communication, not even blood lust. It appears they want to turn us into fertiliser for our planet. And yes, the funny thing is they may have deemed our feeble resistance laughable, but miscalculated the germs of our planet, which ultimately kills them off. What a plot spoiler! Imagine the Commander of the Invasion Force penning an email (or a tweet) to headquarters on Mars of wherever, the look on his face as he minces his words: “Dear Sirs, tried our best to take earth, met heavy resistance from evil microbe things that killed my best troops. Yours sincerely, Earth Invasion Commander. PS I resign. Time for an honourable suicide.”
The reality is that any alien race that comes to exterminate us can and probably will. Therefore, there can be no diplomacy, it's a fight to the death. Now that we’ve accepted our destiny, it’s worth noting that an invasion fleet is hurtling to us, 10 light years away, and closing in.
The classic and probably the most astute: Some super aliens have left markers in our Solar System for us to stumble over. The trouble is, we have to find them, and maybe they’ll help us find our way. If there is a lesson about 2001: A Space Odyssey is that once a species is upright, walking and talking, and over fighting, space exploration will reward you, as long as you can get out there and do not trust your onboard HAL artificially intelligent and malevolent computer to do all your thinking for you. You can’t really have a Space Age unless you have your Digital Age under control.
Space opera is a grand genre in written science fiction that combines the raciness of Flash Gordon and Shakespearian monologues. You’ll find space opera in many sci-fi books, however books are fast becoming superseded by new technology like tablets. But, nothing will ever replace a good book, because nothing beats a good opera. The story of an opera is a spaghetti bowl full of characters; heroes, villains, heroines, alpha bitches, the unfortunate, the miserable, jokers and witches, kings and peasants. Space opera as a genre is an improvement on standard ‘us’ versus ‘them’ science fiction and certainly adds more social dimensions to the space time fabric. The question coming now is, what are we in the great space operas? Are we the hermit in the forgotten forest staring pleasantly at the sky? Are we the mute blind man stumbling around the country side the space opera heroes look upon with pity, and the space opera villains pass us by as not worth robbing? Our part in the space opera can only be found by getting out there.
Men in Black (MIB) is a top-secret agency that monitors alien activity on earth; earth is a "neutral zone" for alien refugees, and MIB answer to no government yet their funding comes from their interesting patents (much confiscated from aliens) Velcro, microwave ovens, and liposuction. The setting of the film (and the comic which came first) is the wet-dream of every alien believer: Not only are we not alone, but we’re part of the action! Yes, we’re part of the big screen action. If earth is part of the inter-galactic actions, the annoying cone of secrecy surrounding it should be broken down. Earth will be united when we see the diversity of species out there, looking down at us.
With the nasty warrior creatures in Predator, it's always a fight to the death. According to the Predator movies, they like to hunt humans as a sport. They create game reserves and throw in some top hunters from all around the galaxy and hunt them down. So what happens if a motley crew of Predators turns up? Well, appease them with a theme-park. Turn an island into a little experiment for the Predators to run around in. Earth can dispose of its most potent criminals and fervent terrorists: if they want to go out in a ball of flames, let them try it against our new inter-galactic friends the Predators. Create live feeds of the action and get a cut from syndication deals that include Earth Rights, and Predator Species Rights – where ever and whoever they really are. Throw in some acid-blooded creature from Aliens too. Everyone needs a fighting chance.
Pretty much the same premise of the War of the Worlds: Aliens come, they want to exterminate humans, and if not stopped will get their way. The plot spoiler for Independence Day is that some clever humans insert a clever computer virus into the evil alien mother ship! Of all the cheap plot devices to close an expensive story into a happy ending, this takes the cake.
In all fairness to an invading alien species, they should and would have all their bases covered. They would know their own weaknesses from past experience of wiping out species on other pretty little planets. They would have a pre-invasion checklist and stick to it rigorously.
One. Confuse the Earthlings: Make them think an external hostile act comes from within, e.g. a geographic dispute not to be ignored (like unfair trade tariffs) that leads to World War Three or Four or Five or whenever we get there.
Two. Blind the Earthlings: Whatever technology they employ to see beyond their own belly buttons should be disabled and make it look like the work of some naturally occurring events, like a solar storm. Knock out all their satellites. Flip their magnetic poles around and see how their internet works.
Three. Divide the Earthlings: Again back to the first point, get them fighting themselves first. If they’re united, they might actually enjoy mustering up the courage to repelling our Star Cruisers with their puny little nuclear weapons. Divide them by favouring some, pitting them against others, and then reversing the process.
Four. Liquidate the Earthlings: Concoct some nano-viral-creature that spreads via social butterfly air kisses around the world, lies dormant for a few months, and then causes a human to drown in its own mucus as it uncontrollably wets its pants, thereby inducing suffocation and shame to stop it from calling for help.
Five. Eradicate Human Existence: Wipe the face of the Earth clean with energy efficient solar-powered lasers: Destroy all buildings, infrastructure and human objects. Be careful not to injure any other animals, that would break the Universal Laws on Appropriate Genocide of Intelligent Yet Annoying Life forms (Chapter 2, Clause 5, section 3).
Six. Impregnate the cleansed earth with one’s own experiment. Yes, this has been what’s always been going on, but this time bring back the dinosaurs – they were more interesting to watch and more sporting to try and duel one-to-one.
Mass market movies offer limited scope for Alien Diplomacy: It’s all 90 minutes of fear and shoot outs. The artists (writers, actors and producers) have to earn a living, and serving up your worst fears of the future is like money for jam. Filling the intellectual void is of course a television series, allowing the artists to stretch a concept, and therefore their (employment) contract, much further, and really probe deep into space and our place out there.
The X-Files gave viewers odd alien creatures and a government conspiracy to hide them. Slogans like “The Truth Is Out There” and “I Want to Believe” plus a renewed mistrust of secretive governments permeated into the mainstream culture. It is progress, so you may want to believe, but where the hell are these aliens?
Plot spoiler / reality check: We have to improve our chances of being worthwhile of contact, and then we can begin some diplomatic course that lifts us off this planet into a new enlightenment.
Star Trek is more television series than movies, so moving on the concept is simple: We get out there. We get so far out there with the Enterprise that we put on the cop uniform and with Captain Kirk keep peace in the universe. Boldly captivating science fiction, mixing frontier mentality with laser shoot outs, Star Trek keeps the baddies (the Klingons) in balance with the bio-diversity of the universe; all those odd looking aliens (not only do the writers get to work overtime, but the make-up artists too) making appearances. Star Trek is dreamy, because by the time we get out there, dealing with such complicated situations, artificial intelligence would be vastly more capable than Captain Kirk and his human-Vulcan sidekick Dr. Spock. Star Trek is drama, but hopefully one day we will be out there, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Battlestar Gallactica was first a one-series wonder in the 1980s and then re-done as several TV series with tie-in movies. The premise of Battlestar Gallactica is that humans on twelve colonies are wiped out by their own creation: Smart ass artificial intelligence Cylons. Some humans survive, and led by the Battlestar Gallactica, their motley crew of space craft escape into the deep vacuum of space to begin the search for a new place to call home: the fabled Earth. While eerily reminiscent of the Old Testament where feuding tribes of Jews are expelled and forced to wander the wastelands in search of the land of milk and honey, and escape the clutches of their Arab mates, Battlestar Gallactica plays on a primal notion that someone is looking for us, some lost tribe will one day be re-united with us. However, if some friends suddenly rock up in our orbit in a Battlestar, the first question we have to ask is, “Is anyone following you?”
Plot spoiler: When weary refugees eventually do find earth, they find it a nuked-out wasteland. However, they eventually find a nicer blue jewel, which is actually our earth, and mix with the hunter and gatherer natives, and form the basis of our race. So, we ‘half’ came from the stars.
Copyright 2014 Simon Drake
Simon Drake.com contains information about my science fiction and non-fiction, (including where to paperbacks and ebooks), plus some short fiction.