New Left Review analyses world politics, the global economy, state powers and protest movements; contemporary social theory, history, philosophy and culture.
“I suppose,” Verhoeven said, “he was scared that the Jedi would immediately start fucking.”
Since January I’ve been reading Le Guin’s books on Evan's recommendation. I started with The Left Hand of Darkness and can't get enough. I read 15 of her books this year and can't stop wanting to talk about them. I've decided to to make a quick post about some of my favorite books in The Hainish Cycle, which is the common name for her series of loosely connected books about a peaceful allegiance of planets which sends ambassadors to visit and live on new planets to learn about their culture, make reports, and eventually invite them to join their alliance. It's an excellent device for science fiction world-building and makes for some really incredible stories. Although her books are about “alien” cultures on other planets, they all share a common ancestry and are roughly human. The characters in her books are almost exclusively PoC, and always contain some thoughts on gender, feminism, etc.
A bunch of Junot Diaz youtube talks going around on twitter recently, this one is the one I think has some really amazing ideas in it, especially when describing the marionette nature of men writing from a female perspective.
Doctor Who in Marvel (and two). Marvel Premiere #58 cover by Frank Miller; #59 cover by Gene Day; #60 cover by Earl Norem, article by Mary Jo Duffy illustrated by Walter Simonson and pin-up by Walter Simonson (1981).
Doctor Who in Marvel. Marvel Premiere #57 (1981) cover by Walt Simonson, pin-ups by Dave Cockrum and article by Mary Jo Duffy.
The use of extraterrestrials in fiction has changed quite a bit in the last few decades. There are now two schools of thought on the creation of alien races: one having decided that the goal is a kind of verisimilitude, which means having your alien be as alien as possible, with a look and culture as distant from humanity’s as possible; the other, the older of the two, being less concerned with that, focusing on giving the creation an allegorical quality. The ultimate goals of these two philosophies are not wholly separate, and most of the time both strive to represent some aspect of ourselves in an alien creation, but the aesthetic preferences still provide some major differences in how the creature looks and behaves.
The allegorical representation of extraterrestrial life has been in play for many centuries, a linear evolution from the kind of fictional races that had been mainstays of myth and folktales. More importantly, the kinds of ideas of alien life later explored by Voltaire and Irving (which are recounted here) and many of the stories that followed for two hundred years, likely have a direct lineage from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which used the mysteries still left by European exploration to create races that mocked “modern” civilization’s faults. In terms of purpose and conception, is there really much difference between the Lilliputians, Brobdignagians, and Houyhnhnms, all satirical jabs at 18th century England, and the Vulcans, Klingons, and Romulans, which did much the same for international relations during the Cold War? With some exceptions, most of those are portrayed as close to humanity as possible – in the case of Star Trek, likely due to budgetary constraints – which might make their metaphorical qualities a little on the nose, but are nonetheless memorable for those same mirroring qualities. Maybe this is because they are more relatably human, both visually and culturally, with one or more exaggerated characteristics that can be easily read by the audience.
By the time we get to War of the Worlds, aliens begin to look a little stranger, but the central idea remains intact. Wells’ imagination is a little more grotesque, his beaked and tentacled martians likely seen as the stuff of fever dreams and Bosch paintings at the time*; but as noted in the article linked above, by the end of the novel he includes theories that those odd beings once resembled humanity, with their emphasis on intelligence and logic turning them into mobile heads with spindly limbs. Thus, aside from the ironic satirizing of imperialism, the novel becomes a a kind of evolutionary concept piece, which can also be said about Wells’ portrayal of human offshoots in The Time Machine.
Of course, the idea that the universe is full of humans with slight differences in appearance is now seen as kind of hokey and narrow-minded – even the Klingons would be given more make-up in subsequent versions of Star Trek. There’s also the line of reasoning that it has the effect of homogenizing alien fiction – making it seem like space is just full of white westerners from Mars – so by expanding the possibilities, diversity of interpretation can bloom. This leads into the more modern conception of aliens, which seeks to go more in the direction of War of the Worlds, but oftentimes even further – the less human their biology and culture is, the better. This has been especially useful in a horror setting – the creatures in Alien and The Thing are just as rife with symbolism, but both are also terrifying realizations of their central conceits (a phallic parasitoid and a paranoia-inducing viral infection, respectively.) It applies to more comedic interpretations as well – see the plunger-like Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse-Five, whose ridiculousness underscores their ideas about existence.. There are also plenty of examples of half-way points between the old and new – the popular Mass Effect games feature alien races that, while not completely out there, try to be visually and culturally distinctive from the people of Earth.
In general, the design of the alien is meant to reflect not only the greater possibilities of imagination and ability to execute that imagination (something prose and visual mediums like comic books could always do, with film and television more limited to a degree), but also our greater understanding of the the world – biology, physics, and how our own cultures develop. It’s not simply preventing the anglicizing of the universe, then, but of accurately reflecting how we view the universe – with a greater perspective of our place in it, how we got here, and what values really matter to us. Science Fiction is a genre built on how we view ourselves as a species at any given time, and extraterrestrial life is devised to fit that view – constantly shifting, changing with our realizations.
*Yet, despite their detailed and iconic appearance, neither of the major movie adaptations of War of the Worlds has utilized Wells own visualization of the martians. One could surmise that the story’s place as THE archetypal alien invasion story gives the filmmakers some leeway when it comes to how the aliens look – changing their appearance, as with the setting, to fit the era.