ARRIVAL And The Conceptual Context Of The Space Alien

Stories of superior extraterrestrial life reveal the way we see ourselves

Arrival finally hits theaters this week (you can buy your tickets here). In celebration, we have a collection of great articles inspired by the film.

Arrival is the story of Earth being visited by a race of aliens so sophisticated that merely understanding their language is a daunting task for the brightest minds on Earth. Its premise wrings fresh suspense from one of science fiction's most familiar scenarios. From War of the Worlds to The Day the Earth Stood Still to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the meeting of modern-day Earthlings and advanced extraterrestrials is seemingly a story for every season. That's a testament to the enduringly human concerns at the core of the concept, because the fable of first contact is as much about the way humans relate to themselves and each other as the way we Earthlings might relate to extraterrestrial life.

As John Rieder explains in his book Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction, the concept of the space alien is rooted in the doctrines of evolution and anthropology. If humans evolved from simpler lifeforms and some human communities are more technologically complex than others, Victorian Europe reasoned that civilization "evolves" just as living things do, and technologically simpler cultures are simply obsolete. This philosophy "gave the globe a geography of ... stages of human development," and effectively "made space into time," establishing a conceptual precedent to imagine humanity's future existing somewhere alongside its industrialized present and indigenous past.

The space alien, possessing technology we might someday invent, science we might someday understand, and physical abilities we might someday develop, is that imagined future of humankind which co-exists with our present. The space alien represents the awareness -- and the fear -- that just as realm of the past exists at the mercy of the present, so too can the present exist at the mercy of the future. Rieder notes that in the original novel version of The War of the Worlds, "Wells asks his English readers to compare the Martian invasion of Earth with the Europeans' genocidal invasion of the Tasmanians, thus demanding that the colonizers imagine themselves as the colonized."

But these narratives of time-as-space and the future's dominion over the past do not apply only to aliens who come to give us a taste of our own medicine. Just as indigenous "primitives" throughout history have been benevolently educated in the ways of their "modern" neighbors, so too can aliens bless present-day humans with the providence of progress. Aliens can use their advantages over humans to to punish, aid or merely confound (as with the complex language of the aliens in Arrival). The constant is that those advantages are considered "advancements" -- desirable cultural changes and inventions that humans might one day achieve, but not in the foreseeable future. It is often said that aliens not only come from far away, but are "ahead" of humans by the number of years it would take for Earthlings to achieve the aliens' technological or cultural conditions. In this way, aliens are distanced from humans not only in space, but in time.

Whether the space alien among humans is enslaver or savior, they reflect the way we perceive ourselves: our attitudes about competition and progress, time and space, tolerance and cruelty.