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Objects of Fear and Worship: The Evolution of Aliens in Literature

Dreamers and readers have always been fascinated with the idea of the otherworldly, the extraterrestrial, the alien. So long as we have been telling stories, those stories have contained life beyond what is seen—be they gods, monsters, or, for the purposes of this essay, aliens.

Some have argued that the scientist Johannes Kepler’s work of fiction—Somnium—published in 1634 is the first work of science fiction that features an alien. In it, a boy named Duracotus is magically transported to the moon by a demon. There is life on the moon and it is described in a scientific manner (apparently—I haven’t read the book). My earliest encounter with an otherworldly lifeform was in The Man in the Moone or the Discovrse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales by the bishop Francis Godwin, published 1638. Godwin begins his tale with a suggestion that a voyage to the moon would be the equivalent of the early explorations into what is now the U.S. A man of means gains favor with a Spanish Duke by committing robbery and murder. A series of unfortunate events leads him to create a flying machine powered by creatures bred to counter the earth’s magnetic field and he finds himself on the moon. The moon people are true aliens—giants.

Micromégas by Voltaire, published in 1752, has pretty much no plot but almost certainly features the first aliens from beyond the moon; indeed, the solar system. They are also the narrators. Micromégas is the main character and an inhabitant of a planet orbiting Sirius. This planet is, Voltaire describes, 21.6 million times greater in circumference than the Earth. Micromégas is, therefore, “twenty-four thousand paces from tip to toe,” or about 20,000 feet tall. Science fiction isn’t about predicting the future, but maybe laying down warnings. However, Voltaire notes, for example, that Mars has 2 moons. Astronomers did not discover Phobos and Deimos until 1877. In this short story, there are also giant aliens on Saturn. The aliens have a better rationale for the direct questioning human philosophy, and Voltaire has a few digs at those who would not live a rational life along the way too, as the aliens debate science and philosophy (bickering over size and distance, for example).

1847 saw the publication fo the intriguing Orrin Lindsay’s Plan Of Aerial Navigation, Edited by J. L. Riddell. M.D. Riddell was American doctor, and this was a story published in a pamphlet that claimed to collect letters received by Riddell from a former student. Despite getting to the moon, Lindsay reports that there aren’t any aliens to be found; the story concludes with a letter again from Lindsay to Riddell suggesting a voyage to Mars. The hunt for aliens is not always successful, but the idea of finding life on other worlds, planets beyond the gaze of humanity, was gaining traction by that time. It wasn’t until The War Of The Worlds (1897) and H.G. Wells that non-humanoid aliens finally made contact. We all know the story. Martians invade earth, or rather, the southeast of England. We all know the subtext: British colonialism. But what Wells did was extraordinary. He thought about the evolution of intelligent creatures on the red planet. As a species, Homo sapiens tends to revolt against real animals that don’t operate in the expected manner: spiders, crabs, octopus. Wells used that to instill additional horror into the alien invasion. Would “the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind” have occurred of the Martians looked like you and me?

Meanwhile, Mars was the planet of choice for many new science-fiction authors, and Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs populated his planet with a range of different aliens. Norman Bean published a serial story from February 1912 through to July that same year. Called Under the Moons of Mars, it was printed in The All-Story. It was later revealed to be A Princess of Mars (1912). Burroughs was addressing race via the use of aliens on Mars: there are green Tharks—a nomadic warrior tribe; the princess is a red Martian; there are brutal, mindless white apes.

A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay features a made-up planet (Tormance) orbiting the real Arcturus, which is a double star system, consisting of stars Branchspell and Alppain

Olaf Stapledon created an entire universe in Star Maker, published in 1937. In it, the narrator is transported out of his body and tours the universe, exploring alien civilizations. One key alien concept explored is a non-humanoid symbiotic species. He pitched his aliens to have evolved in the same manner as life on Earth. Concepts such as collective consciousness are explored, maybe taking the concept of the insect hive-mind to its logical conclusion. Writers make up new species of intelligent life, why not make up who new planets?

It is alleged that C.S. Lewis decided to write Out of the Silent Planet (1938) after reading Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, but must surely also owe a debt Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. Lewis describes a convoluted process in which the protagonist ends up on a planet known as Malacandra. Lewis introduces three distinct intelligent species: the sorns are slender and humanoid and are the scientists and thinkers; the hrossa resemble overstretched otters—and have their love of water—they are poets and musicians; and the pfifltriggi are the builders, looking like insectile frogs. Lewis split characteristics into species in a similar manner to Burrourghs, but like Stapledon made some of them non-humanoid. By then, the idea that human-shaped creatures were the pinnacle of evolution was waning within science fiction. As science and understanding of the natural world advanced and Homo sapiens were accepted as just animals, science-fiction writers seemed to feel more freedom of imagination. Lewis was of course very religious and, as with Stapledon, the question of aliens as religious figures is addressed. A species called Eldila control life in the universe, and appear as vague shafts of light. They are Lewis’s angels.

By now, science-fiction books contained a plethora of alien species, all exploring similar ideas of evolution, religion, consciousness, and humanity’s place in the universe. As humans use and abuse our planet, would superior alien species use and abuse us?

E.E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1946) features a hyper-intelligence with no material existence. Childhood’s End (1953) from the great Arthur C. Clarke features aliens that have benevolently overseen human evolution but have the appearance of Satan. Humans are at war with an intelligent insect species with a super-intelligent queen in Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein.

Science fiction is a common disguise for philosophy. Solaris, published in 1961 by Stanisław Lem, is a treatise on memory and communication. Lem, picking up on some of the ideas of his predecessors that aliens need not be human-shaped or have minds like ours, developed the idea of a sentient ocean. The planet Solaris is studied by scientists, but the planet is studying them back. In less than a century, aliens have evolved from Wells’s trilateral brains to intelligent planets. Whereas the likes of Lewis extrapolated what science knew of biology and evolution, Lem let his imagination run riot; science be damned; they adhere to their own internal logic, even if it is beyond what we believe is possible today.

Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert features giant sandworms and the complex ecology of a desert planet. The aliens, from Gethen, in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. LeGuin are “ambisexual;” having no fixed sex. From the same year, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain sees the aliens as crystalline micro-organisms with no DNA.

Ringworld (1970) by Larry Niven takes imagination and biology to a new level. By now, aliens are all over popular culture, from so-called “real-life” alien abductions to classic science-fiction films such as Children of the Damned and TV series such as Dr. Who. Over the course of the Ringworld novels, Niven develops very definite biology, sociology, political life, and, of course, appearance of his aliens. The Pierson’s Puppeteers are 3-legged and 2-headed creatures. The brain isn’t in the heads, however. Meanwhile, the kzin are cat-like humanoids with a rich warrior-based history.

In the majority of science fiction, aliens and humans interact. The aliens in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) are almost beyond comprehension. Known as Tralfamadorians, they exist out of time, witnessing time the way we witness distance. They also keep humans in a zoo. In Roadside Picnic (1971) by the Russians Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, we don’t meet the aliens, only their detritus. They visited the Earth some time ago and left behind objects that have had a curious effect on anyone who goes into the Zones. The intelligent aliens in Rendezvous with Rama (1973) by Arthur C. Clarke are so unknowable, they don’t even feature—only their space craft and a few non-sentient species and some plants are featured. Meanwhile, the alien Vogons in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) by Douglas Adams are patently so dumb it is hard to imagine them developing space flight in the first place. Contrast them with Adams’s mice, the hyper-intelligent superbeings that built Earth in the first place.

By the late 1970s, once Star Wars entered popular culture, aliens had truly exploded into the cultural consciousness. They continued to work as robust allegories for issues such as cultural suppression, the understanding of language, capitalism, food production, anything the author wanted to tackle. In Doris Lessing’s Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta (1979), empire and evolution are the topics: a benevolent galactic empire accelerates the evolution of a humanoid species. Lessing plots the story so that the natives have a degenerative disease, giving her licence to examine religion, power, and imperialism. Hyperion (1989) by Dan Simmons has similar themes, only with humans as the galactic dominant species. Simmons introduces the time-traveling Shrike, a fierce half-mechanical, half-organic, four-armed alien. It is both an object of fear and worship.

Mary Doria Russell has two intelligent species and a religious expedition in her remarkable The Sparrow (1996)—cultural and religious clashes are examined and their consequences are brutal. The aliens in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin (2000) look like humans and live in Scotland. However, they pick up hitchhikers so they can be processed and sent back to their home world for a huge meat-producing corporation. Matt Haig’s The Humans (2013) also has an alien that takes on human form so he can work in an English university.

From Haig’s “human,” to Becky Chambers’s multi-species crew of the spaceship Wayfarer in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) to Nnedi Okorafor’s jellyfish-like aliens in her Binti series, extra-terrestrials—be they energy, gaseous, insectoids, planetoids, immaterial or microscopic—tackle every aspect of science fiction in every conceivable way. The aliens are here to stay.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Gifting the Human Body: On Karen Russell’s ‘Sleep Donation’ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Heart Goes Last’

1.Standing at the DMV counter for a new license, I grit my teeth against a vivid mental picture of my mangled body being pulled from a car wreck. I am about to check “yes” for organ donor. As pen hits paper, I shudder at images of sharp tools flashing at the accident scene, removing my eyeballs and kidneys. I resist the urge to ask the clerk behind the counter if the medics will absolutely ensure I’m dead before removing my organs. My fear is mitigated by knowing that there is such great need for organs; I’ve recently learned this by teaching bioethics to nursing and premedical students. When the shiny plastic card is handed to me, I look at the tiny blue heart enclosing “Organ Donor” in red and feel a flush of satisfaction: I’ve done the right thing.

Two recent books, Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation and Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, probe our conflicted feelings about giving parts of ourselves to others. Russell’s novella uses the delightfully sly conceit of an insomnia epidemic to dramatize the interpersonal dynamics of donation. Protagonist Trish Edgewater works for Slumber Corps, a nonprofit funded and run by former CEOs Rudy and Jim Storch; she secures sleep donations by telling recruits the heart-wrenching story of her sister who succumbed to fatal sleep deprivation. In Atwood’s novel, a corporation disguised as a collective is secretly euthanizing prisoners and selling their organs.

These two sci-fi tales pose pressing ethical questions that affect us now: What motivates donation? How does donation work in a for-profit health care industry? What are our obligations to others and what are our rights to our organs and tissues? Karen Russell and I discussed these questions over the phone on the day before the election; in the post-election reality, their urgency has intensified.

2.
Anxiety over organ harvesting has a long and ghoulish life in our collective imagination. Historian Katharine Park, in Secrets of Woman, notes the persistent cultural narrative of early dissectionists in Renaissance Italy shunting corpses out of trapdoors in their laboratories when the authorities came around. Mary Shelley was thinking of both public autopsies on executed criminals and the vulture eating Prometheus’s liver when she described Victor Frankenstein assembling human cadaver parts into a new creature. A foreigner draining good English blood from Lucy Westenra — and transfusions from four men — sets off an international vampire hunt in Dracula. In our century, Kazuo Ishiguro in Never Let Me Go imagines an eerily plausible world in which people clone themselves for their own future transplant needs. Private organ and tissue banking is already a thriving industry; only the completion of human cloning technology seems to stand between Ishiguro’s medical dystopia and us.

Sleep Donation is Russell’s first foray into “straight science fiction.” As a young reader, she was influenced by Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, a Cold War era thriller about bioengineered plants that revolt against humans; and Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune. Of the last, she said, “It’s an amazing, prescient epic about ecological fragility, monopolistic guilds, and an interstellar community addicted to ‘spice’ the way we are dependent on fossil fuels. Dune showed me how an alternate universe can hold up a mirror to our own reality.” In her novella, the idea of dream donation “gets at the global transmission of ideas — that accelerated connectivity of the Internet age, and the increasingly porous boundaries of this new world,” Russell said.

3.
While drafting Sleep Donation, Russell researched organ and blood donation and read up on the history of the AIDS epidemic. The novella captures the turbulence of a new disease outbreak. Scientists race to find the cause and develop a cure. Meanwhile, people seek their own solutions. Some “file for dream bankruptcy” and wait to be approved for a sleep donation; others resort to medical tourism — seeking treatment abroad; and a fringe of Night Worlds spring up complete with nostrum sellers and social spots catering to those who are awake all night. In her recruitment, Trish has stumbled across a particularly valuable sleep donor, Baby A. Her pure sleep makes her a universal donor. Trish forms a bond with her mother, Mrs. Harkonnen, who volunteers Baby A to give the maximum amount of sleep to the Corps. The baby’s father, however, resists the unrestricted donation.

The conflict between Mrs. and Mr. Harkonnen raises questions about motives for donation. Like blood donation, sleep donation does not seem to harm the donor; blood and sleep are renewable resources. “What has always felt so beautiful to me about blood donation is that it’s so literal and simple, a very visceral way to give and to receive. You get to participate in the circulatory system of a human community, a communal body,” Russell said. But more murky is the question of manipulating goodwill and consent to secure bodily gifts.

I’ve been able to avoid consenting to post-mortem organ harvesting for most of my adult life because the U.S. follows an opt-in system; those wishing to donate organs after death must give explicit permission via a living will, driver’s license, or donor registry under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act — a piece of legislation that sounds like it could have been invented by Russell or Atwood. Other countries like Austria have an opt-out system, which presumes consent and requires explicit refusal to donate; these countries have about a 90 percent donation rate. In an opt-in system, recruiting donors is paramount, as Sleep Donation dramatizes.

Mrs. Harkonnen insists on donating the maximum amount of sleep from her baby, but her husband’s objections make us consider the limits of our obligations to others. In her meditative essays in On Immunity, Eula Biss recounts her experience of blood loss during labor. She has Type O negative blood, making her a universal donor. Like Baby A, the rarity of her “anatomical gift” exponentially increases its value because it can help anyone, regardless of the recipient’s blood type. At the same time, Biss can only receive Type O negative transfusions. Her understanding, exquisitely woven throughout the essays in this volume, that we are all somatically interdependent — and interdependently vulnerable — motivates her to donate blood. She has benefitted, and so has learned with visceral immediacy what her body has needed to survive from another human body. Her motive, at least in part, is reciprocation.

Biss’s intention seems to be enlightened volunteerism. Sleep Donation, on the other hand, highlights the ethical problem of emotional manipulation for a “good cause.” Trish uses emotional inducements to form relationships with donors by performing the maudlin tale of her sister’s fatal insomnia. She grieves afresh with every pitch — her anguish is genuine, and the Storches exploit her as their most valuable recruiter. Corporate motives of maximizing gain lurk ominously in this gift economy.

4.
The Storches’ Slumber Corps and Atwood’s Orwellian corporation, Consilience, play to our wariness of big business. Of Sleep Donation, Russell said, “I wanted to explore this tension that I think many people feel today between the desire towards openness and generosity, and a mistrust of institutions and corporations, a fear that you will get sapped dry by the for-profit world.” The instincts that Russell and Atwood tap into may be justified in the real-world case of the human tissue industry. Tissues are more easily harvested, stored, and transplanted than whole organs, and unless a donor specifies otherwise, consent to organ donation also permits tissue harvesting.

It is illegal for citizens to buy or sell organs and tissues. The law prohibiting organ and tissue sales by citizens is intended to avoid incentivizing body part sales (other than blood, sperm, and eggs, all legally sold by individuals), which could affect people disproportionately according to income. It could also further reduce donation of biomaterials in our inefficient opt-in system, experts postulate, if people will hold out for the highest bid and/or always expect remuneration. These intentions seem ethical, given the huge economic and health disparities in the U.S.

What donors often don’t know, however, is that the tissue industry is explicitly and legally for-profit — a fact that surprised even Russell in our recent conversation. The industry generates more than $1 billion annually. Corporations such as biotech companies routinely buy organs, tissues, cells, and medical record information from medical centers and government banks in order to develop new treatments for profit. Organ donors are not the only contributors to tissue harvests. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to your blood or tissues removed for regular care or testing, or where your newborn’s umbilical cord went, they all get banked for research and potential sale. At a recent doctor’s appointment, I signed a Notice of Privacy Practices (4 pages of miniscule font), which effectively secures my consent for my tissues and fluids to be banked and used at the facility’s discretion without notifying or compensating me. Every doctor’s office has a similar waiver for patients to sign before being seen, but most patients are unaware of what they are consenting to. We are all unwitting donors.

Perhaps because the reality of profiteering from human parts is already here, in The Heart Goes Last, Atwood bumps the ethics of human body part sales into darker territory. Her corporation, Consilience, bypasses the complicated dance of donation and instead kidnaps people from outside the town, euthanizes them, and sells their organs to a nursing home franchise. Most chillingly, the citizens perform the euthanasia without question because they are hostages to the middle-class comforts provided by Consilience against the lawlessness and poverty that had set in after a realistically-limned economic collapse. Atwood is having a dark laugh at our dependence on capitalist luxuries when Charmaine dutifully carries out what she thinks is the execution of her own husband without knowing that all of her victim’s organs are going to be sold.

5.
I’ve done the right thing, I tell myself to quiet down the gory, TV medical drama-informed mental image of medics harvesting my organs beside my crumpled car. Both the fictional Mrs. Harkonnen and the real Eula Biss offer antidotes to corporate profiteering. They are persuaded to donate for personal reasons — desires to respond to human needs not quantifiable in dollar amounts, to return a life-saving gift. My own decision to donate was based on seeing how many young adults just learning to become healthcare providers had registered themselves as donors. In class, even before we tackled the details of opt-in versus opt-out systems and ethical questions of informed consent, the nursing students had very practical understandings of the egregious organ shortage in the U.S. They didn’t share my fierce attachment to my somatic wholeness after death. (There are prohibitions in some cultures to opening the body before and after death; cultural variation in rules about bodily wholeness must be respected in any donation system). Some of my students explained their reasoning for being such willing donors: if I’m dead, I don’t need my parts, but they could save other lives. Listening to others showed me a new way to think about my dead body as a gift.

We are exposed to new perspectives through live encounters, but imaginary ones may hold even more potential for stimulating ethical deliberation. Russell agrees: “I think fiction is a realm where people can play out different scenarios, engage with these questions in a way where a certain kind of stakes are reduced (‘it’s just fiction’) so it becomes safe to really take a look at the unexamined assumptions that underlie our values and decisions.”

There are individual stakes, and then there are corporate stakes. Russell and Atwood both avenge the sinister business of bioprofiteering in their sci-fi worlds. The Storches sell some of Baby A’s pure samples to Japanese researchers and make a huge profit. Atwood’s corporate creeps are planning to sell infant blood and scale up their sale of prisoner organs to the rich, preparing an empire that will easily flourish in the lawless post-crash climate. And in both novels, the plots are foiled by female whistle-blowers. In Atwood’s dystopia, corporate vampirism is stopped — but only for one corporation. The novel leaves open the possibility that it could happen with other companies because the conditions are still there.

The ending of Sleep Donation is ambiguous. Russell said, “My original desire was simply to tell a story, the story of this particular character, Trish Edgewater, who is confronted with a terrible dilemma, and the questions arose as I drafted forward. [For the ending,] I wanted to leave open both possibilities, that Trish brings down the Storches, and that Trish ends up getting scapegoated. ‘Rewarding’ that move with a happy ending (or a happier one than Trish going to prison), or ‘punishing’ it by showing that Trish loses everything [including her friendship with Mrs. Harkonnen] — either of those moves would have felt somehow reductive to me, as if I were only writing this to show people the ‘right’ thing to do, making it a blunt moral fable, instead of a world to explore those questions about giving and receiving that haunt me still (and that I hope will haunt the reader).”

Despite the ambiguity of Russell’s ending, both novels’ revolutionary endings give us hope; they offer an antidote to what Russell described in an email the day after the election as the “corrosive cynicism that causes people to feel justified in ‘opting out’ of caring, trying. What a shame it is,” she added, “when our best impulses, the deep and genuine desire to give to one another, cannot find an outlet that we trust.”

Storytelling is perhaps our best inoculation against a donation dystopia of selfishness and unwitting complicity in a market of human parts; Russell emphasized that although she did research, she “wanted to be careful that the parallel between sleep donation and organ donation did not feel too one-to-one because sleep donation also felt analogous to storytelling generally. When you read or receive a story, you embody that author’s dream. Stories and novels have always given me a perch in an alternate world that lets me see something that was invisible to me when I was zipped into my own tight-fitting skin, pursuing my own interests.” Sleep Donation and The Heart Goes Last let us see ethical questions taking shape around bodily ownership and gifting, questions with enormous stakes that are often invisible in everyday cultural narratives about health and healthcare.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Year in Reading: The Book Report

Welcome to a very special episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! In this episode, Janet and Mike get into the holiday spirit by discussing their literary regrets. Also, check out their Christmas trees!

Discussed in this episode: “My Way” by Paul Anka, Festivus, Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dune by Frank Herbert (which still sucks), Dune (dir. David Lynch), unearned positive reviews, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo, book critic detectives, The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, Elena Ferrante.

Cut for time from this episode: We riffed on Dune for a good 15 minutes.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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The Book Report: Episode 28: ‘As I Lay Dying’ and ‘The Scarlet Letter’

Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike present the second installment of Back 2 School, in which they read books they never got around to reading in high school. This time, Janet slogs through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and Mike has a much better time with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Discussed in this episode: pet names, dark humor, the Coen Brothers, unembalmed corpses, Weekend at Bernie’s (dir. Ted Kotcheff), Dune by Frank Herbert, boring-ass love affairs, pale trembling men, sex scenes, Hester Prynne, pastors, The Martian by Andy Weir, Colin Dickey.

Discussed in this episode but cut for time: Mike making fun of Colin Dickey for 47 straight minutes. Don’t worry. It’ll be an extra on the DVD.

The Book Report: Episode 25: We Hate ‘Dune’

Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike discuss Dune, both the Frank Herbert novel and the David Lynch film adaptation. They are not terribly impressed!

Discussed in this episode: Dune by Frank Herbert, Dune (dir. David Lynch), people sitting around tables talking about crap, sand worms, genre fiction, Kyle MacLachlan, the Kwisatz Haderach, Patrick Stewart, pugs.

Cut for time from this episode: about 45 minutes of Janet and Mike bitterly complaining about having to read this book and watch this movie, sharply negative comments about Sting’s acting ability or lack thereof, the increasingly uncomfortable look on Dean Stockwell’s face as he slowly realized that he signed up for this trainwreck of a movie, David Foster Wallace’s thoughts on Kyle MacLachlan.

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