Aliens I have known and loved

I’ve always loved the fantasy that aliens live among us, and I’ve always wanted to be taken up by aliens into their mothership, just like Shirley MacLaine. Maybe it was the mini-series V, which aired on television when I was in middle school and which suggested that any one of my neighbors or classmates could turn out to be a big old lizard lurking beneath a human costume.

diana -- or liz?

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the same town as Travis Walton, the famous alien abductee, whose story was immortalized first in print and then in the film Fire in the Sky, rather appropriately starring ET’s Elliot, all grown up. (My mom tells the story that as a kid I’d call Walton “The Moon Man” when I saw him in the grocery store.)

Or maybe it was my love for little Kal-El in his spaceship, sent off from Krypton to save his life.

 bye bye baby

Or maybe, just maybe, it was my religious childhood that created so much confidence in beings from outerspace who could come and go at will, shining beams of light and everything, salvation in their wings. Is it any wonder so many humans spend their whole lives trying to get to wherever such majestic beings come from?

oh how lovely was the morning

I’d love to know when the fantasies of interplanetary aliens-among-us originated, but most websites I’ve consulted show how difficult it is to parse out such accounts from older stories about God, the Devil, Wandering Jews, and Bigfoot.

Even more I’d like to know where the metaphor of teenager-as-space alien originated. See, that one’s my favorite of all: the alienated teen, the teen alien. It has so much less to do with waiting to be abducted than it does with the creeping suspicion that you may already be from outerspace — you just can’t remember how you got here.

 max and liz forever!

Hence the premise for my favorite guilty pleasure TV show of the last decade, my beloved Roswell series, which included the pre-Grey’s Anatomy Katherine Heigl. Katherine and her brother and one of their friends were all, it turns out, aliens who had landed in Roswell back in ’49 — but in test-tubes. They gestated rather slowly and emerged, looking like human children, sometime in the ’80s. Raised by normal humans in the small New Mexico town, they eventually become teenagers and — well, you know where this is going — fall in love with human teenagers. Intergalactic calamity ensues, and in the most emotionally and hormonally wrenching ways possible. It’s a shame they didn’t have Smog’s “Teenage Spaceship” on hand to use instead of that awful Dido theme song.

Roswell didn’t invent the trope of course. Nor did Smog.

this is ground control to major tom

How to explain the seemingly universal appeal of the teenage alien motif, even to people who are no longer teenagers? Perhaps it appeals as well to people in the midst of mid-life crises.

Or, perhaps, it’s a feeling fundamental to modernity itself. In grad school I had a crappy two-semester seminar from the sociologist of knowledge Peter Berger, the guy who coined the phrase “The Social Construction of Reality” back in the ’60s. His seminar on modernity was pretty much a waste of time, but I do remember one little nugget that I use all the time in my own teaching. Berger locates the arrival of modernity at the point people started wandering outside their villages and encountering other people in other places — each little village with its own cosmology and customs. The recognition that one’s own way of being in the world is just that — one way among many — is what he considers the fundamental experience of modernity.

The anecdote resonated with my own personal experience on leaving my village in the intermountain west and moving to New Jersey at age 19. It also resonates with another grad school “a ha!” moment, my first encounter with Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, which I had to struggle not to swallow wholecloth in the mode of religious conversion. While defining the category of people he calls “ironists” — people who are “never quite able to take themselves seriously because [they’re] always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change” — he drops this paragraph on page 75, which my 25-year-old self marked in the margin with a great big star:

The ironist spends her time worrying about the possibility that she has been initiated into the wrong tribe, taught to play the wrong language game. She worries that the process of socialization which turned her into a human being by giving her a language may have given her the wrong language, and so turned her into the wrong kind of human being. But she cannot give a criterion of wrongness. So, the more she is driven to articulate her situation in philosophical terms, the more she reminds herself of her rootlessness …

Are Rortyan ironists more prone than others to fantasize about being abducted by aliens? About being an alien oneself, covered with a rubbery mask that could snag at any moment and reveal the green skin beneath?

what, me worry?

I used to think Rorty’s concept related most to losing my religion, a long process that finally climaxed about the same time I first read Contingency. But the feeling he describes runs even deeper that that: it could apply, to some degree at least, to every tribal affiliation, every form of identity I’ve ever known: gender or sexual identity, marital or parental status, vocation. Not that any of these nagging, transient feelings of alienation actually requires the forceful break I took in relation to religious belief and activity. I’m more happy than not as a married American male, the father of two gorgeous and talented daughters, a literature professor at a fine university. Moments of alienation are easily outweighed by what I get back from my tribes. Still, when the nagging comes — think of David Byrne singing “Once in a Lifetime” — I sometimes wonder if a sense of alienation is just fundamental to who I am. Perhaps I’m not a liberal ironist after all, but an alien. A moon man.

Could I possibly be alone?

9 responses to “Aliens I have known and loved”

  1. Scott Godfrey says:

    A couple things:

    Even as a young boy I was super concerned about the environment, perhaps because I grew up in an area known as Cancer Alley; anyway, acid rain freaked me out worst of all. When I first found out about Venus and its climate, the dry ocean beds, the CO2 climate, and the acid rain, it all seemed so clear to me. Humans obviously lived on Venus before migrating to Earth.

    The story goes like this:
    After the ancients messed up Venus as much as they did, they boarded a giant space ark (to borrow Steve Martin’s phrase) and came to Earth. In order to insure that humans wouldn’t fuck up the Earth the way they did Venus, they all made a pact to destroy all the technology they could and just live off the land. These were the so-called cave men.

    Anyway, I’m sure this idea isn’t unique to me, but as a small boy…and to some extent to me today, it makes perfect sense.

    Oh, the other thing is that there’s a strange resemblance between you in that underpants photo and Kal-El. Care to comment?

  2. Dave says:

    Great post, Bryan. I used to talk about similar stuff with a Greek roommate, who had lived in England and was then in America, and who had grown up on the near side of a wickedly sharp generational divide in Greece that alienated him radically from his parents and pretty much anyone older than him in that country. He felt like an exile, I think, and I did too, though my specifics were of course different. My roommate liked to observe that being an exile gives you a perspective you can’t get any other way; it can be a very good thing, although difficult. The world certainly has too much tribalism and not enough people who realize things could be done many other ways.

    I love Rorty, as you know. But I’ve always wondered whether he’s too optimistic about the possiblity of solidarity for ironists. It’s hard to commit yourself to a tribe while remaining aware of the accidental nature of all such affiliations. Your post puts you on the optimistic side, too, I think, and I like hearing that.

  3. Missy says:

    OTT, as soon as you invoke “Once in a Lifetime” in a discussion of postmodern irony, you know many of us will automatically start thinking about Phil Snyder, and wondering if HE thought he was a space alien, or if perhaps he WAS a space alien, and whether or not he still thinks having a favorite Beatle defines one’s personality in some meaningful way, and whether or not he’s still at BYU and if so, WHY, etc. etc. Thanks a lot.

  4. Ruben Mancillas says:

    Bryan, those books you’re mentioning sound too tough for me at the moment but I too fondly remember how V put the fear in me as a kid.

    I particularly remember when the foxy alien disguised as a human gal reveals herself by picking up a guinea pig, suddenly and horribly distending her lower jaw with the best TV special effects money could buy back then, and swallowing that little guy in one deft motion.

    I just looked her up (trust me I didn’t have this one memorized)-Jane Badler played Diana-the lizard who would eat us all!

    I think it was the specificity of that guinea pig that threw me. I mean, not a rabbit, not a dog, nor a cat but a guinea freakin’ pig You just know those alien folk were up to no good.

    Back to Bowie-I remember liking Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth as a kid and thinking how much Bowie fit my conception of what an alien might look like. It only struck me later how silly it was that my visual template of what a being from another planet would probably look like was a skinny androgynous coke fiend rock star.

    I assume that’s why the Martians haven’t made contact yet-they haven’t yet figured out a way to change whatever form they actually take into a more presentable Thin White Duke vibe for us.

  5. ruben — i’m pretty sure my top photo is of diana. i don’t remember the guinea pig — i just remember the whole thing freaked me out and fascinated me all at once. i want to netflix that baby though. also, i wanted to include some youtube clips of bowie in his ziggy stardust getup but i couldn’t figure out how to get them into my post. must learn new tricks. there’s some pretty amazing stuff floating out there.

    missy — i don’t remember phil doing talking heads. it’s funny you mention him and pop music, though, because i almost made an REM/”losing my religion” reference to Portrait of the Artist — and *that’s* one I got from Phil, without a doubt. we must have been riding the same wave.

    dave — yes, we are brothers in rorty. and no, i’m not particularly hopeful about solidarity. i came across as optimistic in this post? i was afraid i sounded a bit down. i was trying to be funny but then i had one of those existential moments. boo hoo.

    scott — i like your scenario. also, of course i liked my shorts superfriends style. haven’t you noticed how every superhero has a nice pair of spandex briefs riding over his or her outfit? hell, in many cases, the spandex brief *is* the outfit.

    like ruben’s, mine came from the sears catalog, i’m sure. i didn’t shop anywhere else until the 8th or 9th grade.

  6. PB says:

    OK, coolest and most relevant post EVER!!! I love every image you mention, the ones I know and the ones you introduce. I too have been obsessed by this alien thing, from the religious allusions to the hotties human and not on Roswell (and Smallville). The pique is the difference but difference that is “special,” unique and gifted among the common natives. Aliens almost always have powers of some kind, even if it is just a change in gravity or peculiar eating habits or superior technology. I stare at the Nazca (sp?) lines in Peru, certainly something bigger and grander than us (venutians?) made these symbols? Just like our ancestors tried to explain why it rained or why the elephant has a trunk, we try and explain our own sense of separation or “alienation” from other people by creating a mythology of difference that is glamorous and even logical (they call it SCIENCE fiction after all). Even if it seems silly to think we are personally aliens, can it be comforting to know that possibility exists?
    The other interesting thought is that the tag line for aliens is “we are not alone,” another “gosling trying to find their real tribe of swans” type of image. We have company, and they might be like you the ironist, they might be better than you and they might eat guinea pigs. We don’t know.
    Great picture of JS btw.

  7. Hey PB — I certainly thought of you while I was writing this last night. Also — you reminded me that the thing that prompted me to write this post in the first place, which I totally left out of the post altogether, is that we started renting the 4400 after Anna’s REPEATED requests. And it’s kind of fun. Have you seen it? Wasn’t it one of Jeremy’s guilty pleasures way back on his trash TV post?

    Max and Liz, TLA and forever. I believe!

  8. Jeremy Zitter says:

    Great post, Bryan. I still haven’t gotten around to Roswell, but I’m glad you reminded me (somehow, it got pushed down my netflix queue). I did mention the 4400 back in my addicted-to-TVDs post because I was planning to become addicted, but I never got into it. Perhaps you’ll have better luck. I can’t recommend Battlestar Gallactica enough, though (thanks to Missy’s comment)…

  9. Rachel says:

    The new season of Battlestar starts this week! It’s so frackin’ exciting I can hardly stand it.