Aliens on book covers: Jeremy Sheldon dissects some of the very human fears that we transfer onto our depictions of the extraterrestrial.
The end of Alan Moore’s famous graphic novel Watchmen has its megalomanic superhero, Ozymandias, attempting to end escalating hostilities between Earth’s superpowers by teleporting the carcass of a genetically-engineered organism into the middle of New York. Ozymandias’s crazed hope is that the materialization of a beast the size of several city blocks and the resulting ‘psionic wave’ that kills millions of people will convince humanity that it is suffering a botched extraterrestrial attack. The idea is that we humans can be encouraged to transcend our localized, earth-bound differences if we are presented with a sufficiently tangible threat from ‘out there’ in the cosmos against which we can unite.
Frame from the final scenes of Watchmen.
This astonishing finale yokes two themes running through much of the portion of Western literature that concerns humanity’s encounters with extraterrestrial life and the imagery directly associated with it:
1) It will almost always be ugly; when it’s beautiful, this beauty will invariably mask evil intention. (In Watchmen, the beast is a gigantic, multi-tentacled super-brain complete with clitoral eye and vaginal mouth. We will return to this last detail.)
2) It will be dangerous.
That we should fear extraterrestrial beings in real life makes perfect sense. Consider that for this first face-to-face contact to take place, it will require either ‘them’ or ‘us’ (or both) to have travelled astronomical distances: several tens of light years at the very least, if not considerably farther. If one remembers that a space shuttle at top speed currently travels at only one two-thousandth the speed of light, the terrifying nature of such an encounter becomes clear: if they can get to us before we can get to them, it’s a certainty that they will be technologically vastly superior to us and that we will be at the mercy of whatever moral imperatives they have. Stephen Spielberg certainly communicated this sense of human powerlessness in the face of an extraterrestrial war machine in his 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. But a look at the covers of various editions of the novel show that our effortless destruction has been just as effortlessly visualized for over a century. The simple, almost playful malice exuded by the monochrome robots on the cover an 1899 Dutch edition finds similar expression in the cartoon lines of a 1962 Penguin edition(1). An Irish edition from 1934 sits somewhere in between, with its regimented onslaught of Tripods grinding through the cartoon flames of a destroyed landscape.
No wonder, then, given the danger extraterrestrial life probably presents to us, that the human space travellers of our narratives are so often portrayed as warrior heroes and heroines. The visual representation of this ‘heroism’ on the covers of extraterrestrial literature has often been robust, the artists given to focusing on the more gung-ho aspects of the characters and storylines they seek to represent: tooled-up ‘badasses’ ready to ‘take it’ to the alien races of space. Yet, a more abstract view of the same heroic impulse has proliferated at the same time – for every cover bearing a body-armoured space grunt wielding some stupendous energy rifle, there seems to be a more elegant counterpart.
Consider the cover of the 1952 Penguin edition of John Wyndham’s The Outward Urge(2), its vision of space-flight a pair of crisp, two-dimensional shapes set against murky three-dimensional nebulae as dark and stormy as the souls of the damned. This is an ubiquitous motif across different eras of science fiction publishing. There is the 1980 Panther cover for Philip K. Dick’s A Handful of Darkness, for instance, or John Berkey’s artwork for Glen Cook’s The Dragon Never Sleeps (2008): both evoke the fantasy of clean lines propelling our heroes into the void at the speed of light and beyond.
Perhaps these covers with their offering of space as the ultimate ‘unknown’ propel us readers towards a truth that underpins the genre: that the aliens we fear so much ‘out there’ can only be projections of what we fear about and within our earthly selves. Space may not so much be a void of nothingness as a void of nothing: nothing that we can adequately foresee, or for which we can adequately prepare. As the critic Ziauddin Sadar has suggested, the lifeforms and lifestyles we anticipate existing among the constellations in the night sky are really ‘constellations of Western thought and history’ projected ‘on a pan-galactic scale’.
‘Difference and otherness are the essence of aliens’, writes Sadar, but what do the writers and artists working in science fiction do with this essential otherness? In many cases, the alien horde is portrayed as smooth-skinned, hairless and bug-eyed (see the vibrant cover to Lee Sheldon’s Doomed Planet). But is this conception of the alien the result of some primitive fear of the reptilian and amphibious, or yet more myth-making around the white man’s subjugation of indigens beyond the (final) frontier?
Looking at the covers of various novels, it’s not hard to spot what the critic Timothy Beal calls a ‘public rite of exorcism in which our looming sense of unease is projected in the form of a monster and then blown away’.
A 2009 edition of Haldeman’s The Forever War does nothing to camouflage the story’s connections to America’s anti-Communist war in Vietnam. Chris Foss’ haunting artwork for the 1980 French edition of Samuel Delany’s Babel 17 more or less depicts a B-29 Stratofortress (the type of bomber that dropped the atom bombs on Japan) crashed on the surface of an alien planet. Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade brazenly posits Sir Roger de Tourneville, a crusading Medieval knight preparing to neutralize a horde of alien invaders. His ultimate ambition is to hijack their technology and bring English steel (and laser pistols, if they can only work out how to use ‘em) to the heathens of the Holy Lands. Perhaps Sir Roger has met the trooper on the cover of a 1979 edition of Robert A Heinlein’s Starship Troopers who sports the black sallet and bevor of German knights of yore (a fashion statement that Darth Vader would soon come to make his own). Note that in Starship Troopers, as in so many other science fiction novels, brave soldiers who look like ‘us’ go off to fight against a greasy-skinned ‘hive mind’. Perhaps ‘bug-eyed’ in these contexts really does mean ‘slant-eyed Communists’.
As with phobias, our nightmarish visions of the extraterrestrial and the futuristic might have some foundation in logical fact but are, to a large extent, governed by the force of displaced fears whose origins are far closer to home. Foreigners, technology, government control: our imagined journeys at the speed of light seem only to bring us back to the most familiar paranoias. And so, of course, sex gets its slippery look-in. Consider the vagina dentata at the heart of Watchmen’s psionic beast, the giant ‘Mother Bugs’ in Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 adaptation of Starship Troopers and the narratives of extraterrestrial rape that populate the Alien myth both on screen and on the pages of books and graphic novels.
Some of the most arresting science-fiction covers (see editions of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers or Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth) emphasize that fear of the human that is at the heart of our fears of space, the future and the truths the future holds. The twenty-first century covers for works such as A Clockwork Orange and The Midwich Cuckoos eschew even the decoration of this core principle and instead present it with the minimum of artifice. The icy monochrome of a glass of milk; a baby’s face.
As with Ulysse Merou, protagonist of Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet and forerunner of Charlton Heston’s character in the 1968 film, our picture of alien life merely takes us back to ourselves. ■
(1) This cover also neatly contextualizes George Lucas’ admission that the AT-AT Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back were inspired by Wells’ creation.
(2) Co-author Lucas Parkes was Wyndham’s mischievous pseudonym.
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