Editorial – Aug 2014: Like us but not so different.

Like us but not so different.

Hello everyone

The popularity of the various aliens who study humans is always used as an opportunity for the outsider to safely make comment on society without the writer getting into trouble doing so in films and TV. Right back to the days of Klattau in ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ (1951) and his call for peace across nations and even the original ‘Star Trek’, it was seen as Spock making the comment not the scriptwriters. You can follow this trend from the likes of Thomas Jerome Newton in ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ (1976) to the alien in ‘Starman’ (1984), where it was less about comment and more about showing Man’s nature. There is a history or trend and even with the latest ‘Planet Of The Apes’ films, the most common denominator is to show Man at his far worse than at his best. It also enables a look at the human condition as an outsider. We get uncomfortable, recognise it and then seemingly turn it off with a button and go about our normal lives afterwards. We see that a lot in Science Fiction prose but the non-reader who watches the films or TV, this tends to be a new experience. However, don’t expect this to be the same for everyone.

Like us but not so different.
Like us but not so different.

Any real aliens looking at our films, which might well happen considering TV signals are seeping out into the ether and in an eighty light year radius, and hopefully have a similar mindset or technology to interpret it are either going to think we’re self-depreciating or the worse xenophobic species to bump into. After all, we demonstrate intolerance to our own species let alone other species with our cruelty and murderous ways. Hardly the best examples of a nice sentient species you’d want to visit, especially as we show off out bad side so much. I wonder what they’d make of the likes of ‘The War Of The Worlds’ (1953) and ‘The Andromeda Strain’ (1971) and their ilk where we are totalled by viruses? We’ve even shown them our weak spot if they were war-like and wanted an easy cheap option.

Even with films that show some nice humans who rescue or aid the alien, what are they running from? Intolerant humans most of the time! They seem to cause more problems than any alien pursuers. Still not a good indictment for us. As this trend occurs across the films, it’s become a standard trope that film-makers haven’t really bucked the trend and that we’re a nasty lot, even by the filmic aliens who observe us. There is one common theme, though, it’s all demonstrations of American behaviour although I expect an alien life-form would think we’re all the same irrespective, especially when they look at our newscasts. I should point out that doesn’t make we British exempt. One only has to look at, say, ‘Village Of The Damned’ (1960) and its sequel, ‘Children Of The Damned’ (1964) to show we can be equally as bad and treacherous. Mind you that was over sixty years ago and we haven’t dabbled with SF films as much as we could have. It’s enough to make you think military forces have certain protocols to deal with extra-terrestrials.

British TV shows, if anything, have shown a similar theme. Unusually, we actually have one long-lasting SF show, ‘Doctor Who’, where the lead character is an alien, who can stop other alien races in his stride, mostly to help humans. As we have a history of dramatising our history, what would they make of that? Quite why the Time Lord should still help the humans when he’s seen our bad side has never been disclosed. Presumably, we’re been less dangerous than the Daleks or Cybermen! If anything, the Doctor is ensuring we’re spread across the galaxy which would be a worry itself because to outsiders it might well look like an invasion. It might not be all weapons driven but the results would be the same. If the watching aliens think the show is a dramatisation and can’t find traces of any of these TV aliens would they think we or our friendly Time Lord wiped them out? Add that to how intolerant humans must look and it’s no wonder no one is sending intentional messages to Earth. Mind you, if they are broadcasting on wavelengths we can receive, we still have a couple decades before receiving anything.

We are continually showing the worse side of ourselves to anyone who can translate our TV signals. Although I’ve raised similar concerns before in terms of aliens not telling the difference between fact and fiction, one area of this I haven’t discussed is whether aliens can understand metaphor. I mean, if they can understand that the aliens in our films and TV shows are used to look and observe our own society, then is it possible that they do the same themselves and see in context as a demonstration of keeping our worse side under control. Mind you, if they see themselves as being morally whiter than snow, we would have to hope they don’t come for a visit. After all, a species that is violently xenophobic, even to its own kind, would be even more so to outsiders. The non-fiction news would clearly re-enforce it. Humans are not a nice species. Stay away. They’ll kill you the first chance they get and steal your technology. That’s a very clear message in all broadcasts.

As we can often look from an alien perspective, let’s look at this from their point of view. Suppose it was possible for us to pick up the TV transmissions of an alien race that depicted similar acts of violence to other species. Would we have a similar reaction and deem them as worse than ourselves or the transmissions an expression of their own self-loathing or just see them as warriors waiting to pounce? An interesting dilemma. We’re seeing ourselves in a similar spotlight. Would we react any differently? Would we also sigh in relief that they’d be too far away for a visit or extinct by the time we deciphered their signals? Maybe we would we be able to see through that and think that we might have a lot in common with them as they analyse themselves in a similar way and just show their worse side than their more pleasant nature. Maybe. One only has to look at our own across both media and real life reporting that we still show contradictory forgiving and murderous nature. Think how it would look again. We express a fear of the unknown and what scares us. Pure xenophobia. Mind you, they might have better TV programmes with fewer repeats.

Suppose they did beat their more violent nature, such an advanced species even if it had space travel would never visit, no doubt embarrassed by their earlier broadcasts. Could we say the same ourselves as we one day venture out of our star system?

At least distance would mean that no one would be visiting any time soon and unless we signalled back, no one is likely to think they were received. That bit does tend to knock Professor Stephen Hawking’s theory on the head of keeping our radio transmissions quiet somewhat. Well, short of generation starships that is and even they would take a long time to decelerate and for us to realise the implication of first contact. Would such an action get us to act responsible during their visit as in all good diplomatic films or would various countries want what they can get out of the contact?

In any event, a generation starship wouldn’t just silently arrive. If they’ve received our transmissions, then surely they would send their own on approach. Maybe to teach us their language and culture and us theirs. It would cut through a lot of obstacles on arrival of not understanding each other. We’d also know what we were letting ourselves in for.

If both sides are putting on their best manners, how much would we trust it? Look at the amount of lying in our own material. Can we expect anything better back? Would aliens actually see this as our way of communicating? When in Rome and all that. That’s assuming certain mindsets are universal. If they arrived showing guns but not firing, is that any different from how we’ve presented ourselves when modern man discovered the other continents?

Looking at what we are isn’t going to change our mindsets but there has to be an unconscious desire to see us for what we are and even to change what we are. The problem is that other than diversify, we haven’t really changed much in our tribal ways in the past fifty years. If the only times we are self-critical is at remembrances and then go on as before that we haven’t truly changed. When you see the wars currently going on and realise it’s still over tribe, territory or both then can we honestly say things have changed at the same rate as our technology?

In many respects, I doubt if we can change our own nature. Our broadcasts have shown that much of it is genetically deep-rooted. Likewise, the same would be true of any alien species as well in a similar nature. Speaking of which, maybe its nature itself and the expanding universe that will ensure we never meet other alien species. In the meantime, if we can’t stop war amongst ourselves, we have no right to say we’re a peaceful species should we ever have a first contact.


Thank you, take care, good night and here’s to peaceful thinking.


Geoff Willmetts

editor: SFCrowsnest.org.uk


A Zen thought: When is it ever a good day to go out and die?


Observation:  At the end of ‘Terminator Two: Judgement day’, the Terminator allows himself to be lowered into a vat of molten metal. Although director Jim Cameron went for the eye shot showing its destruction, I think he forgot about the nuclear fuel cell in its chest which surely would have reached critical mass as it melted and very likely have blown up the foundry. As revealed in ‘Terminator 3’, each Terminator has two nuclear fuel cells which would certainly have widened the area. If we go back to the first ‘The Terminator’ film, it must make you wonder what happened to its nuclear fuel cell when it was crushed in the press. Logistically, Skynet would have won under all three conditions.


Observation:  Why is it that when someone wants a word what they really mean is a few paragraphs if not a page?



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