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Big little green men


Stills from Spielberg's 'ET' and 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon'. In the Star Wars series aliens have nothing to do with Earth.

How have so many books, movies and songs kept us hooked to the extra-terrestrial?

Dreaming up adversaries for heroes to fight, as any weary storyteller will tell you, is not as easy as it sounds. Largely why filmmakers and writers now rush in where astronomers fear to tread. They've been telling us for a long time now that we're not alone in the universe, that outer space is in fact teeming with all manner of fantastical 'alien' species - who we keep bumping into, bumping uglies with, or just getting bumped off by.

And the best part is that the storyteller doesn't really need to explain - in fiction, on screens, and in song - why such alien baddies have turned hostile. They're just out to get you because, you know, they're aliens.

Even Stephen Hawking agrees, apparently. The world's most famous physicist recently issued dire warnings against making contact with extraterrestrials in the real universe, saying that such 'first contact' might lead to, well, an alien invasion of Earth. Many criticised him for being alarmist, but delighted Hollywood executives, for one, would have merely pointed to their old and hugely lucrative sci-fi and aliens formula.

Consider how three of this year's biggest movie hits, The Avengers, Men in Black 3 and Prometheus, not to mention duds like John Carter and Battleship, feature hostile aliens as antagonists, even if comedy is an important element in these depictions. Four of the world's ten highest grossing films feature aliens too, as do some of the world's most famous novels now. This has as much to do with the very essence of the source material as it does with the history of sci-fi.

All of these movies draw on established traditions of sci-fi and fantastic possibilities that go back to the close of the nineteenth century, when we truly began to look to the stars;and when the sci-fi genre began taking firm root in the Western imagination. Bestselling novels by writers like H G Wells, Jules Verne and, later, the hugely influential Edgar Rice Burroughs, would help establish early conventions that really haven't changed too much.

In fact, almost all conventions about depicting aliens in fiction may be slotted into four well-known scenarios: aliens visit Earth (like in The War of the Worlds) humans visit other worlds and encounter aliens (as seen perhaps in Alien), aliens make non-physical contact with humans through some means of communication (Carl Sagan's Contact, for example), and then, lastly, there's the ultimate one-size-fits-all genre stand-in, stories about aliens with no reference to Earth at all (like the Star Wars films, for instance).

And even if fictional aliens may have come in all shapes, sizes and attributes - humanoid, cuddly, sexy, sinister, grotesque, horrifying, slimy, reptilian, blobby, and even inchoate - all fictional 'close encounters' may essentially be divided up into these four categories with just one more variable added, do they want to kill us or help us? Various shades of sci-fi grey may then be painted in.

Aliens have been imagined as benevolent entities, but usually with ambiguity thrown in. Think of big screen examples like Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, Steven Spielberg's E. T: The Extra Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind;or in countless depictions in fiction, comics or animation - like Superman or the Transformers;or even on the small screen, especially in seminal sci-fi series' like Star Trek and Dr Who. In many of these, aliens lend us a helping hand by either fitting into tropes of the noble savage (Spock, in Star Trek) or goading us along as a species (2001, or in The Day The Earth Stood Still, or even as our probable creators, a well-worn sci-fi clichê last seen in this year's Prometheus).

In addition, the genre has also proved to be remarkably open to the insertion of metaphors, as writers, singers and filmmakers have often infused weighty subtexts into sci-fi works. Aliens have stood in for everything from gods and other supernatural bogeys to 'evil' communists and even war criminals. As James V Hart, a Hollywood screenwriter who co-wrote 1997's Contact explains, "Sci-fi is now the perhaps the fictional genre that works best to convey our collective fears in the real world. Unlike, say the horror genre, which taps into primal fears about dying from the unknown, sci-fi is plugged in to some aspects of what exists or what may come to exist in the future. "

Indeed, the role of the fantastic is vital to understanding how we see aliens in our imagination - it's typically more about the possibilities than about fright. Why, even most songs about extraterrestrials - even if sung by artists as varied as David Bowie, Rush, The Beastie Boys or Ella Fitzgerald - deal mostly with the goggle-eyed wonder of close encounters and knowledge rather than the horror of probable doom.
But, as with most artistic possibilities, the reverse is also true, especially when coming off such a long ET fetish. To paraphrase a writer on the subject, when we finally do encounter extraterrestrials, what will disappoint us more? That they are so much like us? Or that they are so very unlike us?

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