Alien Contact

How writers explore encounters with extraterrestrials.

H.G. Wells
Story of Your Life

Aliens in science fiction

Since the earliest days of science fiction, writers have wondered whether humans are alone in the universe. It is a question that captivates audiences, and links to important themes.

Johannes Kepler’s *Somnium*, a story written in 1608, was one of the earliest books to explore the possibility of alien life. In the story, a little boy goes on a dream-like journey, where he sees giant aliens living on the surface of the moon.


When aliens and humans interact, in science fiction, it raises questions concerning colonization, cultural exchange, racism, language and identity. In some stories, aliens come to us. In others, we go to them.

Alien invasions


The earliest story about an alien invasion is probably *The War of the Worlds*. This book was published by H.G. Wells in 1898, and describes aggressive Martians coming to Earth after resources on their own planet dwindled.

The story set a precedent for future stories about alien contact, especially the idea of humans finding themselves completely outgunned by a far superior species.

In 1938, the story was adapted into a radio play. Some listeners confused the play for an actual news story, and thought a Martian invasion was genuinely taking place.

Advanced aliens

The idea of advanced aliens, whose level of technology far exceeds us, is common in science fiction. But unlike the Martians in *The War of the Worlds*, these aliens are not always aggressors.

The Russian novel, *Roadside Picnic*, is about the arrival of aliens on Earth. These aliens do not communicate with humans, or even acknowledge we are here. They quickly move on, as though the Earth was just a pit stop on a longer journey, and humans are too primitive to notice.

In Octavia Butler’s *Lilith’s Brood*, the Oankali are an alien species who protect us from a nuclear war. They present themselves as humanity’s saviors, and treat us almost like children.


Stories like these are humbling, and help us to keep our feet on the ground. We may feel advanced on our own planet, but are we advanced in the context of the universe?

Primitive aliens

When aliens visit Earth in science fiction, they are often more advanced than humans. But when humans visit other planets, they sometimes find aliens who are simple, primitive and pure.

C.J. Cherryh’s *Downbelow Station* was published in 1981. This story introduces the Hisa, an indigenous race living on a planet caught between human factions. Their peaceful culture contrasts sharply with the violence of human beings.


A more recent example is James Cameron’s *Avatar*, first released in 2009. In the movie, humans try to colonize a lush, resource-rich planet, violently displacing the alien Na’vi on the way.

Stories like these ask important questions about colonization and greed. If we really encountered a species like the Na’vi, how long would it be before we tried to seize their home?

Alien horror


Alien horror is an important branch of science fiction, with ruthless predators arriving on Earth, or finding their way into a spaceship. These predators might not be as intelligent as humans, but that does not make them less terrifying.

The definitive example is the xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s *Alien* series. The xenomorph has needle-like teeth, acid for blood, and most horrifying of all, it lays its eggs in human beings.

The xenomorph embodies primal fears about the strange, alien unknown. It is frightening to think that human beings are alone in the universe, but the opposite is even scarier: what other species might be lurking out there in the endless, cosmic dark?

Speculative evolution

The xenomorph in *Alien* is meant to be biologically feasible. The designers studied real animals, before trying to invent a convincing organism of their own.

This process is known as speculative evolution. Another famous example is the alien ecosystem in *Avatar*, which teems with flora and fauna. All of these species were carefully designed to feel scientifically realistic.

Speculative evolution lends itself to eye-catching artwork. Wayne Barlowe’s illustrated *Expedition* is one of the most visually striking science fiction books ever created. Looking at one of these alien images is a surefire way to spark curiosity – could these creatures actually exist?


Constructed languages

Constructed languages, or ‘conlangs’, are alien languages invented by science fiction writers to give depth and color to their stories.

A famous example is Klingon, a guttural conlang from the *Star Trek* universe, which was developed by linguist Marc Okrand. The language is full of hard, decisive verbs, to reflect the species’ action-driven culture.

Other writers have explored the idea of an alien language, so strange and unique, that humans barely recognize it as a language. The quintessential story about this is Ted Chiang’s *Story of Your Life*, which was adapted into a film, *Arrival*.

This story introduces heptapods, an alien race with non-linear language – any spoken phrase is a swirl of information, with no clear beginning or end. When a human linguist starts to learn the language, it changes her perception of time.


Aliens in real life

Outside the realms of science fiction, aliens have never been found. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is an ongoing project, but after several decades scanning the skies, we are yet to find so much as an alien amoeba.

Having said that, there is a real-life period of history that certainly felt like alien contact from the perspective of the people involved.

Before the 15th century, the indigenous cultures on the American continent did not know that Europe existed. Then a fleet of ships arrived, and disgorged a strangely alien race of people with advanced weapons and technology.

The European invaders behaved just like the Martians in *The War of the Worlds*. They laid claim to America, killing and repressing the indigenous peoples on the way.


What happens next?


We have not found any aliens yet, but at places like the SETI Institute, they firmly believe that alien contact is only a matter of time.

In the 1960s, astrophysicist Frank Drake drew up the Drake Equation. This formula predicts the number of civilized alien races in our galaxy. It considers factors such as star formation, habitable planets, and the likelihood of life developing.

The Drake Equation is only an estimate, but it suggests that the chances of other civilized races is high. If these races ever put signals out into space, Earth could pick them up.

Closer to home, NASA are hoping to find evidence of alien microbes on Mars. The *Perseverance* rover arrived to collect samples in 2021. The discovery of microbes would be less spectacular than an advanced civilization, but still a monumental moment in history.

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