A recent release of sci-film films (Men in Black, Prometheus) has Laura Miller at The New Yorker wondering: what did the first fictional aliens look like?
For all their diversity, these creatures tend to fall into one of two groups: those we can live with and those we can’t. This summer, Hollywood franchises espousing each view will be delivering their newest installments. The genial “Men in Black” movies suggest that freaky-looking extraterrestrials already live among us, undetected by most citizens and overseen by an agency made up of weary bureaucrats and blasé field officers. The films are an extended pun on the alternate meaning of “alien”: immigrant. Far grimmer is “Prometheus,” the latest “Alien” movie; the series features an implacable foe that uses our bodies as nests for its young, and likes to chase us through hideous, dripping corridors while baring its hideous, dripping fangs.
Before the nineteenth century, if authors depicted the inhabitants of other planets the aliens were essentially human. The suave Saturnian described by Voltaire in a satirical 1752 story, “Micromégas,” looks like an earthling, except that he’s six thousand feet tall. (And he has a Continental spirit, keeping a mistress—a “pretty little brunette, barely six hundred and sixty fathoms high.”) The Saturnian’s primary fictional purpose, as he visits our planet, is to marvel at the relative puniness of humankind, whom he examines with a very large microscope.
It’s a very good thought piece, researched extensively.