Aliens in Fiction: Literary and Movie Representations

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: REDEFINING REALITY: THE INTELLECTUAL IMPLICATIONS OF MODERN SCIENCE

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D.Gettysburg College

If we find that we’re not alone in the universe, it will force us to re-examine our perspective,and to enlarge our view of being. Scientists are dedicating resources to the search and there are some promising leads, but artists have been on the case even longer.

Illustration of an alien spacecraft.
Both films and novels have explored encounters with aliens. (Image: Marko Aliaksandr/Shutterstock)

The First Aggressive Aliens of Fiction

The portrayals of extraterrestrial life tend to come in four varieties: aggressive, exploratory, cooperative, and transcendental. The aggressive version is the central plot device of perhaps the first great extraterrestrial life novel, H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds in which Martians invade earth with the intent of seizing control. Wells’ Martians were armed with heat rays and black smoke—physical and chemical weapons against which humanity had no defenses, and no equal with which to fight back.

In War of the Worlds, Martians kill and feed upon their inferior earthling adversaries. Ultimately, they’re undone, not by human ingenuity, but by the simplest of beings. Microbes, against which they have no natural immunity, infect the Martians and kill them.

These were days of cultural angst. The world was on pins and needles with the Nazis taking over Austria, the Japanese invading China, and concern about the Soviet Union and the spread of communism in the west. The Second World War was not far away, and the possibility of invasion of those considered other was not far from the cultural mind.

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Aliens in Film

But not all portrayals of alien life are aggressive. Some see the extraterrestrials as exploratory and benign. Director Steven Spielberg gave us two such representations in 1977 and 1982, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. In both films, scientists are not only looking for extraterrestrial life, but the aliens who come to visit are themselves scientists. They’ve come to study and learn about us, not to conquer us.

We have a completely different social context giving rise to these films. Produced in the waning years of the Cold War, there’s an implicit hopefulness that those who seem different can come to understand each other and coexist in mutual acceptance. In Close Encounters the aliens figure out how to communicate with humans through music. Through rhythmic ordering of sounds, humans and aliens realized that they could live together in harmony in this enlarged universe. In E.T., we not only see the aliens as non-threatening, we see them as humane, as relatable, as vulnerable, and as adorable.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern ScienceWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Cooperative Aliens in Film

This theme is extended in other films portraying alien life as cooperative. This is the central concept behind the television series, and sequels, and movies of the Star Trek franchise: “To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” But all of it must be done in accord with the prime directive, that is, not to interfere with the development of those cultures.

There’s a fear of the sort of aggressiveness against the intergalactically vulnerable.

In Star Trek, there’s a governmental structure that prohibits it—this rule was even applied to humans. In the first Star Trek: The Next Generation feature film, Star Trek: First Contact, it’s not until humanity develops the warp drive that the rest of the universe’s life forms consider showing themselves to us and inviting us into the club. 

Now the result in the film is that the discovery of life beyond our own world creates peace on Earth, that is, as soon as we find ourselves to be part of a great cosmic society, we turn into a global community.

spaceships in space
In fiction, once intergalactic travel begins, humans quickly encounter alien life. (Image: delcarmat/Shutterstock)

Discovering Alien Life and the Unification of Humanity

The instant we conceive of ourselves as part of a larger collective of life forms throughout the universe, the differences between peoples on Earth shrink away and we see the human race as being homogeneous. The discovery of extraterrestrial life is the cause of world peace, global cooperation, and human harmony. Scientific development led to a unified human race and then we go out in order to conduct more scientific research.

We see the same sort of narrative in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 stories. The first visitation of the aliens through their monolith helped spark human evolution, leading to the development of consciousness. Once the human species discovers the other monoliths placed around our solar system, the aliens open a portal to another spatial dimension, giving us a second sun. As with Star Trek, the undeniable evidence of extraterrestrial life forces us to see intercontinental and geopolitical differences as tiny, leading to world peace.

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The Universality of Intelligence

If Star Trek and 2001 fold us into the plans of the rest of the universe, Carl Sagan’s Contact takes us a step farther by portraying the transcendental. When humans make contact with beings from another planet, we’re given plans for a machine whose function we don’t know. When the machine is activated, it takes its passengers through wormholes to meet these more intelligent beings.

The wormholes are intergalactic bypasses, created by beings even more intelligent than those whom we have just contacted. Our newfound alien interlocutors tell us that they have found evidence of these advanced beings in the irrational number pi. After returning to Earth the protagonist sets a powerful computer to examine pi. The computer finds a pattern, symbolic of an intelligence—not intelligent beings, but a universal intelligence.

Carl Sagan artistically makes the move we’ve seen implicit in the development of science over the generations. We start with reality as a set of individuals. First, we think of humans as the only life. Then we see ourselves as just one life form in a universe with others. Finally, we see that the entirety itself is the only thing that’s real. The individuals are not just elements, they’re modes of some larger sense. Similarly, in Contact, it’s not that intelligent life is here and there but that the universe is an intelligence and we’re an aspect of it.

Common Questions about Aliens in Fiction

Q. What are the different perspectives about aliens in fiction?

The portrayals of extraterrestrial life in fiction, such as film and novels, tend to come in four varieties: aggressive, exploratory, cooperative, and transcendental.

Q. What was the first work of fiction to portray aliens?

The first work of fiction to portray aliens was the novel The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. The novel was later adapted for both radio as well as film.

Q. How did Spielberg’s films depict aliens?

Director Steven Spielberg’s films Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. see the extraterrestrials as exploratory and benign. In both films, the aliens who come to visit are themselves scientists. They’ve come to study and learn about us, not to conquer us.

Q. In most fiction, how does the discovery of alien life change the perceptions of humanity?

In most fiction, as soon as we find ourselves to be part of a great cosmic society, we turn into a global community. We see the human race as being homogeneous. The discovery of alien life is the cause of world peace, global cooperation, and human harmony.

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