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.
I love Stranger Things, not just because it is pure nostalgia for the films that helped shaped my early childhood, but for the simple fact that in the opening scene, a young child of color is playing Dungeons & Dragons with no shame. It is hard to be a geek more often than not, and when you are a geek who also happens to be a person of color, things only become more complicated.
There is a certain racial coding to geek and/or nerd culture. The required reading of geekdom, whether fantasy (Lord of the Rings, the Cthulu Mythos, or Conan) or science fiction (Hyperion, Dune, or Ender’s Game) are novels that focus on predominately white characters, featuring tokenism at best and downright racial animosity at worst. The canon of fantasy and sci-fi authors is overwhelmingly white.
In the classic early-’90s show, Family Matters, it is easy to see such. The uber-geek extraordinaire Steven Urkel can’t dance, lacks style and panache — he’s the antithesis of cool. When he invents a machine to turn himself into the perfect lover, Steven creates Stefan Urquelle, a suave, handsome, stylish young man who instantly wins hearts. Really, all that happened is that Steve went from a coded “hyper-whiteness,” as Mary Bucholtz puts it, to simply being what audiences expect a young black man to be. His extreme intelligence as Steven is marked as white while his more corporeal attractions as Stefan are marked as black. It is code-switching taken to the extreme.
With the expectation that geekiness is an embrace of whiteness, what happens when you are in fact not white? I am a geek, and I am Chicano. Over the course of my life I have learned to be both things proudly, but this presents a paradox. How can I justify my geek-cred while also maintaining my street-cred? Often, I cannot. I am a geek, and I am a brown man, and this has earned me a lot of shit from both sides.
On the one hand, I can run a D&D campaign about how poorly certain races like half-elves are treated, and my group will rail against the injustice of it all, but if I bring up any real-world situation of inequality, I get the cold shoulder at best or at worst booed down and given “focus on the game” lectures. As Junot Díaz allegedly said: “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3 in Elvish, but put in two lines of Spanish and [white people] think we’re taking over.”
But growing up around my more working-class family, I was teased for reading, and I was especially teased for reading books like Redwall or Lord of the Rings. That fantasy crap was for losers, gueros, and jotos. Some of my family even thought that Dungeons & Dragons was a gateway to Satanism and possession. (This was long before the Harry Potter sensation and attendant pushback.)
In high school in Los Angeles, I had a hard time creating a network of geeks simply because the price of entry into the geek world was too high, or my friends simply did not want to associate themselves with something so clearly “white.” The insults that my small band of geeks endured while we played Magic: The Gathering or discussed Dragon Ball Z were pretty inventive. Even now, some of my students snicker or laugh derisively when I make fantasy or science-fiction references, simply for the fact that, and I quote: “Dragons be for white kids with money.” It’s hard to argue against this reasoning when the most popular fantasy novel and TV series since Lord of the Rings features a platinum-blonde white woman saving thousands of adoring and helpless brown people.
You’d think that when I found geekdom, I’d be welcomed in with open arms, but my ethnic identifiers have often caused friction. One of my favorite geeky pastimes is Warhammer 40K, a tabletop miniatures game. I have played this game off and on since I was about 12, and its sweeping background of grimdark science-fantasy hits a lot of my geek buttons. Some years ago when I was building an army, I wanted to paint my soldiers to be more reflective of me, my family, and my friends. When I asked an employee at a store how I would paint darker skin, he laughed. He both didn’t know how you’d go about doing this because he hadn’t thought about it, and he thought it was silly that I wanted to do it. I have played against armies with not so subtly painted SS symbols on the sides of tanks. When I have spoken Spanish to one of my few Latino gaming friends I have heard in response, “No speaka tha Taco” from a passerby.
After a lot of years, I have met a good number of others like me, but even when gathered together, there is still the underlying restriction of “don’t be too ethnic.” If you want to make an observation about how something was casually or not-so-casually racist or commiserate in some shared experience of prejudice, you have to do that quietly, to the side. That is not something to be brought to the forefront of the conversation in mixed company. To some of my friends or acquaintances in the geek world, I am just too sensitive about these things, or they never really think of me as “Mexican.” I am too educated, too financially secure. If I am a little too loud, have a bit too much sabor at times, it can be awkward. In short, when I violate the codes and tenets of geekdom, I am reminded of my transgression, and in some cases, ostracized for it. And to some of my friends, students, and family, I speak “too white” or “forget where I came from.” I cannot be myself without violating either of these expectations, so I must either switch between personae depending on the situation, or learn to accept the friction. And I am not alone. There are many, many non-white geeks.
A lot of the standard stigma of geekdom is starting to subside as it becomes more and more mainstream and thus marketable, but some stigmas clearly die harder than others. Geekdom is now massively profitable, and so geekdom is expanding because those who profit from it understand that a larger audience is better for the bottom line. There are now celebrity geeks, although they are overwhelmingly white.
But I am not alone, even if it once felt that way. I have seen how much my local game stores and comic shops have changed, and I’ve gone from being the only brownish face in a store to being one of several, and depending on the geek endeavor, one of many. Even games are changing now, and one need only compare the ’70s artwork from Dungeons & Dragons to the artwork released today to see the whole shift in representation, both with women and people of color. There is progress; we now have an unapologetically black super hero series in Luke Cage. There is BlerDCon (Black Nerd), and Blerds (the term is typically inclusive of any non-white nerd) even get a shout-out in a song (thanks Childish Gambino).
Of course, this doesn’t mean everything is awesome, as you can see the pushback against this greater representation, whether it’s Gamergate or the stink over the Hugo awards. There are plenty of voices lamenting that SF and Fantasy are moving away from this paradigm, and most of them pretend that Octavia Butler didn’t write “real” SF or that Ted Chiang is “just ok.” If geekdom was never coded as hyper-white, why then is there such a loud resistance to the inclusion of non-white, non-male, non-binary, and non-heterosexual stories and characters?
Geek culture is changing because its demographics are changing, but work has to come from all sides. We Blerds (or whatever nomenclature you prefer) need to also take an active hand in creating geek culture, especially continuing the increase in authors of color engaging in these genres. This of course is often easier said than done, since access into these worlds has not been smooth. The geek world needs to open its doors to us, giving space and visibility to non-white creators and characters. The geek world needs to stop pretending that it is only a white world. Plenty of properties are starting to do this, but white geeks need to shut their peers down when there is pushback against this inclusion. As people of color, we cannot enforce strictures of racial or cultural credibility through something as simple as our goddamn hobbies, and as geeks, we cannot tacitly accept that being geeky means embracing a rejection of racial or ethnic identity, or allowing others to dictate that non-white cultures are non-normative.
In short, we need to live in the friction. Because we are awesome, even if that’s hard for others to see.
Image Credit: Unsplash/Alperen Yazgı.