“Can’t you recognize the human in the inhuman?”
Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
No matter if you’re a science-fiction enthusiast or if you’ve only watched a handful of movies about laser battles in outer space because your friends made you do it — if you’re my friend, then probably I made you do it — I’m sure all of us are already acquainted with stories about aliens. We have all heard stories about mysterious sightings, or have been scared to death at night, hiding under our sheets, only waiting for the moment a flying saucer would come down from the sky and abduct us or the ones that we love. We’ve all watched ET the Extraterrestrial, and we’re all well acquainted with Ancient Aliens. No matter your literary tastes, aliens are part of our imaginary, and even exert a certain fascination on us.
It could seem an easy answer at first. We humans understand the world through narratives, since the beginning of time, and these stories are the closest we’ll probably get to peeking into the universe of things we don’t understand: death, life, love, magic, mysteries. Looking up at the starry sky at night can be a beautiful, yet frightening experience. What ‘s up there? Are we alone? What would be more terrifying: knowing that we are all by ourselves in the middle of the infinitude of the universe, or knowing that, somewhere among all of those stars, someone — someone so different from us that we can’t even begin to imagine — is looking back at us at our little blue dot?
But, as everything in life, I’d say that there’s more to it. Yes, our will to explore and to know makes us look at the sky and wonder, just like it made humans who lived centuries ago look at the ocean and wonder what was on the other side of it. But why haven’t our stories changed? Just like the ancient people, who imagined monsters roaming across unknown lands and pictured foreign people as barbarians, almost inhuman, the main portrait of the beings who would live beyond our Solar System is still surrounded by an aura of strangeness — and, often, of an implicit threat.
Think of an alien movie — any movie. Chances are that plot which came to your mind revolves around a mysterious event that later becomes an invasion that threatens the human way of living, and that humankind has to come together and fight against those strange newcomers who don’t look like us, or speak our language, or even think like us.
Now, think about any event in history — big or small, recent or distant — in which two different cultures or civilizations came into touch, and you’ll start to understand what I mean.
Yes, our imagination can take us to wonderful distant places, but there’s always an anchor connecting us to reality. We can’t completely escape the context in which we are immersed, and some of it will always make an appearance in our stories, no matter if it’s the way of telling them, the words we use, a different lesson at the end.
Stories about aliens are no different. The idea of an other has always fascinated us: what would our complete opposite look like? That thought has accompanied us throughout history. If you stop and think, the definitions of who we are are often supported by the idea of who we aren’t. We were born here, we’re not foreigners. We’re civilized, we’re not barbarians. Countries and people have been shaped by these ideas, and it’s not a surprise that they made their way into our fictional imaginary.
The biggest example of it, in my opinion, is (wait for it): Ancient Aliens. I know, it’s funny and all of us, including myself, already had a good laugh with the absurd conspiracy theories. But why are only some civilizations associated with aliens? It’s not a coincidence that these people are seen as strange and different by Western eyes. Why did aliens have to help build Ancient Egypt, but not Ancient Rome? Why “we” could have done it by “ourselves,” but not “them?”
We won’t undo this way of thinking in a few months or years, but I like to think and say that we who enjoy speculative fiction, we have a part of ourselves that insists on believing that another world, filled with other narratives, is possible. A world like the one Becky Chambers has imagined in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (yes, I’ll talk about this book every single time I can), in which the only way out is collaboration and genuine understanding between completely different species and individuals. Or stories like Arrival (2016), in which science is more important than war, in which communicating is more important than fighting. Different ways of seeing space and time are possible. Different ways of seeing ourselves and the others are possible. But for that, we first have to know the ground from where we’re standing.
I still continue to enjoy science-fiction movies about humans exploring outer space. I’ll still read about different planets populated by each writer’s unique imagination of different ways of life. But thinking about the stories we tell ourselves can bring us some of the answers we often ask the stars: who are we? Where do we come from? And where are we going?