Extraterrestrials are a significant part of science fiction, both in literature and on screen.
Using other creatures’ (besides human beings) bad qualities can reflect human qualities and reveal either negative or positive characteristics of human nature to inspire change in either behavior and thinking or things like the environment and politics. Note: it’s usually bad qualities.
Aliens are also used, mainly in film, as a means of initiating the end of the world. Reasons for this may be the fear people have of things outside their knowledge and comprehension. Being clueless as to stopping the invaders is terrifying, and yet, it can also be seen as humans using outside forces as an excuse for not taking the blame for their own destruction. This is oftentimes solved by the aliens having a mighty good reason for invading--or in fact a selfish one. Oil reserves, for instance.
Doctor Who is another wonderful choice for this topic. I discussed it in the time travel post, but I think it has more to do with space than time. The Doctor comes from the planet Gallifrey, which had been in a war with the Daleks until the Doctor ended it, becoming the last Time Lord in existence. The Daleks are not natural creatures, however; they are genetically engineered to be emotionless and xenophobic, mindlessly continuing the existence of their race with no regard for other creatures’ desires. The main purpose of the Daleks is to take a stance of juxtaposition to the human race, who the Doctor considers to be the most special species in the universe because of their capacity for emotion. To contradict his own viewpoint (or to add another) the Doctor appears to house more emotion in his brain than any other human in the show. At over 900 years old, and the last member of his species, he is incredibly lonely, which adds so much more meaning to his actions. While this show is basically made just for entertainment, the main theme that runs through the show is the connection between people (and between aliens).
The novels of Ursula K. le Guin are excellent examples of aliens used effectively in literature. Her novel The Left Hand of Darkness documents the journey of Genly Ai of the planet Terra to the planet Gethen, where he falls in love with Estraven. The beings of Gethen are androgynous, cycling through a mating season and only taking the form of one sex during their “kemmer.” Genly Ai, who is 100% male 100% of the time, is conflicted over his feelings for Estraven. This book, while about aliens, comments on the human right of equality between men and women. It is considered a feminist work. Le Guin’s other works that I have read include The Dispossessed (which discusses anarchy) and The Lathe of Heaven (which isn’t about aliens).
On a quite different side of the literary spectrum from le Guin’s works is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a comedy in which the earth is destroyed to make room for a super-space highway. This premise is a satire on humans destroying homes to make room for roads, on the obvious side, but on the less obvious side, it reveals the naivety (bordering on stupidity) of the human race when faced with things bigger than our current capabilities of knowledge.
Other good examples include the film Contact (with Jodie Foster), War of the Worlds, Super 8 (which is SO GOOD), as well as Star Trek and Star Wars (duh). I have not read many books featuring aliens; can you think of any good ones?
THE REAL SCIENCE BEHIND ALIENS
Many people believe in aliens, claim to have seen them, or even claim to have been abducted. There are hundreds of conspiracy theories, but there is also a lot of real research out there. Photographs pop up on the internet practically every day, though they are probably not authentic. I personally never knock it ‘til I try it, so I’m keeping an open mind considering the existence of extraterrestrials.
But when it comes to the real science, it is a bit tricky. The planet earth is thriving with life. So much life, it’s amazing when you look out at the stars with a closed mind, thinking we are the only one in this vast (expanding) universe. On earth, we are carbon-based beings, meaning we are made of carbon atoms and must consume carbon atoms to survive. We humans breathe oxygen, but other living things on this planet breathe other elements. Trees, for an example of which everyone is aware, take in carbon dioxide. Because a creature does not need to breathe oxygen in order to become life, the opportunities for life in the universe besides on earth is expansive. There could be living beings out there that thrive on methane, for instance.
As a matter of fact, the moon Titan, which circles Saturn, has an atmosphere that contains methane, and it houses methane lakes. This is THE ONLY OTHER OBJECT WE HAVE FOUND SO FAR that contains any type of liquid. Everything else we have observed is either gaseous or completely solid. It has also been suggested that Titan contains solid water, aka ice, and because it is extremely cold there (-290 F, -179 C) this water will remain frozen until the sun becomes a red giant, at which time the earth will be too hot for us to survive. Titan is perhaps our best bet for finding life besides us in the Milky Way. The conditions there are similar to those theorized by scientists as to what the earth was like in its pre-biotic days.
This is an example of the possibility of life other than earth in the universe, and thinking about the moon Titan begs the question: could there be other planets with prebiotic conditions in our galaxy? The chances are quite low, since the sun (and other stars) must be the perfect distance so as to be not too hot and not too cold to sustain life; but the chances that a planet in another galaxy, far across the universe, is suited for life is high. And remember folks, the universe had been around for millions of years before the earth was even formed. Perhaps beings similar to us came around, lived, built cities and spaceships, left their mark in the skies, and came to an end with the burning up of their own sun (or their nuclear bombs) before our galaxy was even born.
When I pick up a book that has aliens in it, I am a bit wary; I have only read a couple books like this. I'm not sure what it is, really, but aliens (except for the Doctor) are kind of a literary turn-off to me. A successful alien story, as I've found in my own reading experience, fits into one of two categories: humor or profundity. The plot and language of the alien story is usually either ridiculously hilarious (as in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or it is harrowing and revealing about humanity (as in the works of Ursula K. Le Guin). The only work of science fiction I have ever witnessed that has a nice balance between these two is Doctor Who. I am currently writing a story that has aliens in it, but it is about the human beings rather than the aliens, revealing how we should be open-minded and peaceful toward extraterrestrial life because they are most likely peaceful. Why else would they come to earth if not to befriend us or teach us? We do not have much space technology, and therefore we are not a threat to the universe, so there is no reason for them to attack us. I believe there is no reason for us to be afraid or hostile.