Watch the Skies!

November 6, 2011

The Thing from Another World (1951), is a film that influenced a lot of sci-fi movies that came after it.  I don’t know if there are any similar ones that preceded it, but it surely was the mold for much boring and formulaic stuff that I watched as a boy.  The TV  Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea comes to mind with its standard ‘monster epic’ plotting:  strange, destructive things happen; monster revealed and monster rampages; solution found, monster killed – all is well.  But The Thing, however preposterous it is as a sci-fi story, is a wonderful entertainment because of its characters, pacing, and dialog.

Anyway, just what thing from another world are we talking about?  Men from Mars and women from Venus?  The captain and the fetching assistant in the North Pole station have some romantic missteps from a drunken bar encounter to put behind them:  he suggests that she tie up his wandering hands, and she agrees.  “I’ll bring a rope, ” he says.  He does, and they’re loving it!

The captain’s a crack officer – he leaves off the sexy hijinks to do his duty and check station security.  After a bungled attempt to lift a flying saucer out of the ice – they burned it up by accident – they retrieved the alien pilot from the ice and brought it back to their station.  A negligent guard covered the iced-alien with an electric blanket to hide the ugly sight, but the blanket was on!  Oops again.  The alien broke free as its ice block melted, and proceeded to escape, loosing an arm in the process.

Examining the arm, the chief scientist realizes that the alien is a vegetable.  There’s a metaphor there somewhere.  He is enthralled by the idea of an anthropoid being reproducing with the more efficient botanical method, rather than the messy, chaotic, and uncontrolled sexual technique we inferior humans employ.  “No emotion at all!”  It also turns out that the alien is sustaining itself by drinking the blood of sled dogs it kills.

The characters make many snappy references to army bureaucracy, at one point lampooning the complex and long-winded army regulatory memoranda by which they are supposed to abide, while they repeatedly bungle their work, and the garbled radio messages provide a humorous counterpoint.  A directive to keep the alien prisoner arrives just after it escapes.   At one point, the men point out that according to Army documents, UFOs are simply an illusion, an example of mass hysteria.  Carl Jung agreed.  The men chuckle.

The scientist is a stock character, so wrapped up in his intellectual passion – “It doesn’t matter if we die, we must communicate with it!” that he achieves a sort of comic grandeur.  Of course, his sexual frigidity – the comely assistant is his amanuensis, that’s the only way he uses her – is a funny contrast to her penchant for bondage games with the captain.

How do you kill a vegetable?  The woman supplies the answer:  boil it, steam it, fry it… When will we properly value women’s work as homemakers?  The scientist tries to reason with the green giant, offering himself as disciple to the greater wisdom of the alien.  Mr. Vegetable replies, humor again, with a grunt and a shove.  Then he’s fried, or is he being crucified?

The newsman is finally given permission to broadcast his inspiring scoop to the press, and he concludes with the warning to all Earthlings to “watch the skies.”  Indeed.  The Russians are coming – it’s the Cold War after all, and things are seen in the skies.


SETI – Are We Alone?

November 9, 2007


Nobody talks about Fontenelle these days, but his Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds is a wonderful book. He was a vastly popular author, he lived for a century (1657-1757) and was a best seller for… centuries – how many authors can say that! His Conversations were written in 1686, and provide a popularized discussion of cosmic issues, e.g., man’s place in the universe; the Copernican System; the possibility of life on other planets. One of the arguments he advances through these dialogs is that there probably is life on other planets – it stands to reason with the universe being so large.

Almost as remarkable in this work as the assertion of the likelihood of extraterrestrial life is the fact that the dialog is between a learned gentleman and a woman, a woman who holds her own in the conversation! This was certainly not the usual style of such works, and they don’t even flirt (except, of course, at the most elevated intellectual level.) As for ET, it was simply one more piece of evidence for the essential unimportance of humanity and the earth from the cosmic point of view. We are just beings on a speck of dirt, probably one among millions of such agglomerations of life, so it is nonsense to think we are the center of the universe, ruled over by God or not. Fontenelle even deals with the problem of what we would now call existential angst:

“But,” she replied, “here’s a universe so large that I’m lost, I no longer know where I am, I’m nothing. What, is everything to be divided into vortices…Each star will be the center of a vortex, perhaps as large as ours.? All this immense space which holds our sun and our planets will be merely a small piece of the universe? As many spaces as there are fixed stars? This confounds me — troubles me — terrifies me.”

“And as for me,” I answered, “this puts me at my ease.”

Well, in his day, this assertion of the existence of ET was a radical thrust against the old way of thinking, with the God-Earth-Man at the center of everything, but today, it has become a notion that strikes me as faintly ridiculous and religious. We have the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a program of scientists that links together computers all over the world to search for patterns in the radiowave radiation that reaches the earth. Perhaps, in all of this, there is a detectable structure that would indicate that some intelligent life, somewhere, is producing the signals.

I beg to differ. The great biologist, Ernst Mayr, in his superb book What Evolution Is dispatches this point of view rather neatly.

  • The conditions for life to arise on a planet are rather special, and not met by most bodies in space.
  • Still, there are billions of stars, so it’s likely that some of them have planet systems that contain a planet or two with the right conditions, atmosphere, distance from the central star, etc. to support life.
  • So, we can conclude that it is quite probable that life does exist elsewhere in the universe, however, after the simplest life did appear on earth, there was nothing by prokaryotes for one billion years. “Highly intelligent life originated about 300,000 years ago, in only a single one of the more than 1 billion species that had arisen on Earth. These are indeed long odds.” [emphasis added]
  • Even if such life has arisen somewhere else in the universe, we must consider the chance that we will be able to communicate with it as virtually zero.

I might add that the chances of it being near enough to Earth to make it practical to communicate are also virtually zero. You can fantasize all you like about how these ET might have developed a way around space and time, but the chances are still virtually zero.