Little Green Men

thin blue line

An Essay About Alien Contact
by Joel Hoekstra

Little green men. Remember them? They usually stopped by during late '30s and '40s just to let us know that mankind was no longer alone in the universe. They drove flying saucers and they always came from another planet, most of them Martians. And the aliens either wanted to make our lives deliriously happy or unbelievably miserable. They would visit the planet Earth because they wanted to give us bits and pieces of marvelous alien technology, or snatch our bodies and duplicate us, or save us from our own folly, or turn us into robot zombies, or lust after our women, or eat our Reeses Pieces and phone home. And we would welcome them with open arms, or mow them down as they stepped off the exit ramps of their flying saucers, or ship them off to the nearest lab where we could study them, or run screaming in terror as alien death rays engulfed our friends and neighbors. And, curiously, these little green terrors always seemed to know where to find us. The planet Earth was apparently well marked on the galactic atlas.

Of course, one must take into account that "canals" had already been discovered on the nearby planet Mars. Back then, the implication of the word "canals" carried a great deal of weight with the public imagination. The aliens who must have built the "canals" probably didn't have too much trouble intercepting Earthling communication signals since the planet Mars was practically next door to ours. Hence, these Martian irrigation engineers probably had a pretty good vantage point for spying on unsuspecting Earthlings. Observing that Earth was ripe for the picking while their own planet was beginning to die out, the Martians had every reason to launch an invasion fleet.

In 1938, Orson Welles caused quite a stir by broadcasting H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds in the guise of a news broadcast. People were whipped up into a frenzied stampede because radio announcers warned them that Martians had landed and were headed their way! After it was revealed that the Martian invasion was only a figment of the American public's paranoid imagination, Welles' infamous "panic broadcast" ended up giving little green men a bad reputation. From that day forward, little green men everywhere lost all hope of ever achieving any sense of respectability.

But for good or for ill, the prospect of encountering little green men from Mars was one of the primary incentives for 20th century science to start seriously exploring the possibility of life on other planets. It wasn't until the late 1800's that people began to anticipate the arrival of alien beings to our world before we managed to visit theirs. In 1898, for instance, H.G. Wells wrote a novella called The War of the Worlds which chronicled a Martian invasion in loving detail. The very next year, near the turn of the century, a scientist named Nikola Tesla went on record as the first person to make a "scientific" attempt at communication with another world. He set up a huge transmitter at Colorado Springs in the hope of contacting Martians. The "strangely regular chirping noises" he picked up were probably radio noises caused by lightning. But by describing the chirping noises as "strangely regular," Tesla had already ignited a spark in the fervent imaginings of the public. I doubt that the extreme over-reaction to Orson Welles' 1938 "panic broadcast" would have been possible if the American people hadn't previously incorporated Martians into their scope of reality.

It wasn't until the '50s and '60s, as man began to orbit the earth and set foot on the moon, that mainstream science began to actively participate in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). During the '70s and '80s, as our understanding of the solar system was expanded by NASA's Viking and Voyager missions, it became fairly clear that if we ever hoped to contact alien life forms, we'd better start searching for them outside our own solar system.

Throughout the '80s, NASA acquired millions of taxpayers' dollars to fund its own "microwave survey" SETI project. An entire staff of people are still employed to just sit around and listen for alien radio signals. They've managed to discover "pulsars" and a few other things they weren't really looking for, but no extraterrestrial transmissions have been detected so far. But this is hardly surprising since the entire scheme is utterly dependant upon the aliens' cooperation. NASA's current approach makes the pretty huge assumption that aliens are already using radio signals in order to communicate, and that they have been doing so for thousands of years in order for the signals to be reaching us by now. While radio waves may be one of the easiest things for us to listen for, microwave energy might not be the best option for aliens to use for interstellar communication. Furthermore, would a truly alien physiology be able to perceive radio signals the same way we do? Would a truly alien intelligence choose to utilize such signals even if it knew how?

Perhaps NASA should be trying to track down bona fide UFOs instead. After all, there is plenty of UFO documentation to go around while the chances at intercepting an alien broadcast are virtually nil. Thousands of relatively sincere Americans claim to have been abducted by small grey creatures with bulbous heads and large black eyes. Through the wonders of regressive hypnosis, we have discovered that these people were wisked away into flying saucers to have their genitals examined and often forced to take part in some sort of alien cross-breeding program (although no one seems to know for sure what the anal probes are for). But on the issue of alien abduction in particular, the scientific community at large has been deafeningly silent. As of yet, it is unclear whether people are being abducted by aliens or merely traumatized by their hypnotists. Meanwhile, science fiction writers are conspicuously absent from the debate.

For the past few decades, the Sci-Fi literary community has been distancing itself from the "UFO Encounter" crowd. Little green men in flying saucers are proverbial skeletons in the closet as far as the Sci-Fi literary elite are concerned. They hope most readers will forgive and forget the literary sins of the past and focus on the here and now. And, to be sure, most aliens have "matured" considerably since the pulp fiction of the '30s and '40s. Throughout the years, science fiction authors have struggled to make aliens more "respectable" than their little green counterparts.

As one pages through a copy of Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, one can't help but admire the complexity of the various imaginary critters that populate classic science fiction literature. These days, if you intend to populate your science fiction novel with extraterrestrials, you might want to provide your aliens with a complete history, culture, ecology, biological evolution, and maybe even a religion or two. Little green men are no longer sufficient. Readers have come to expect more, and so they should, for there are many talented authors in the field who have learned how to create fairly convincing alien life forms.

But for every well-conceived alien, there are at least dozens of others which are poorly done. Some authors still tend to use aliens in their stories when exotic humans would suffice. This results in humans who are merely dressed up as aliens, a problem which has always plagued Star Trek. In the literary field of science fiction, Star Trek has never been able to live down those remarkable absurdities of parallel evolution: Vulcans and Klingons. The Vulcan and Klingon races are essentially human societies which are made up of various elements from other human cultures (past and present), but with elaborate costumes and makeup to gloss them over. I don't mean to imply that the likes of Mr. Spock or Lt. Worf are necessarily dull or shallow characters, I'm just saying that pointy ears and bumpy foreheads do not an "alien" make. This is the same sort of stigma which continues to haunt little green men. Science fictionally speaking, little green men are not only outmoded, they were never very brilliant conceptions of alien life to begin with.

But little green men and UFO abductions notwithstanding, most science fiction readers (and writers) still seem to believe that at least some form of extraterrestrial life exists somewhere out there. It was only just recently that astronomers have been able to verify that other planets actually exist outside our own solar system. An enthusiastic science fictional interpretation of this data would be that in an infinite universe of such planetary systems, one can never rule out the possibility of extraterrestrial neighbors. Some Sci-Fi authors even suggest that, given the tremendous scale of things, the probability of our being all alone in the universe is extremely low. But somehow I find this "we are here, therefore, they must be there" mentality rather tiresome and unconvincing. I suspect that the universe is so diverse that very few places are compliant with the stringent environmental parameters that biological life requires in order to survive.

But despite the fact that we have found no viable evidence of extraterrestrial life whatsoever, many hope that such evidence will eventually be forthcoming and that the nay-sayers will be proven wrong once and for all. Perhaps such enthusiasts envision themselves as some sort of modern day Galileo, hoping to reshape our perceptions of the universe by deflating humanity's self-importance in the grand scheme of things. This would also allow them to conveniently ignore the theological and philosophical implications of being the only intelligent form of life in God's scheme of creation.

But let us suppose that aliens do indeed inhabit the near regions of the galaxy. So what? Even if they did, how would we ever locate them when there are literally billions of star systems to choose from? Let's suppose that UFOs are for real, and that alien life forms have been deliberately searching for us. How did they know were to find us? Outer space is a pretty big place. The radio signals we're sending out now will take centuries to reach most neighboring star systems. If UFOs do exist, I seriously doubt that they come from anywhere outside our own solar system. Just because they ride in flying saucers doesn't necessarily mean that they come from other planets. I would be willing to believe that they're some form of interdimensional demonic activity before I could be persuaded that they travelled interstellar distances just so they could bear our hybrid children.

Even if we eventually travel to another star system and encounter some form of extraterrestrial life, if it were truly "alien," how would we be able to tell if it were "intelligent" or not? What if these alien beings managed to communicate abstract thoughts through smell our touch instead of speech? How would we ever be able to communicate with them? Would they even want to communicate with us if they could? If they were truly "intelligent," wouldn't they try to steer clear of us altogether? The point I'm trying to make is: why do we care if there is any intelligent life out there, especially when our chances at having any sort of meaningful relations are so remote? Why the fascination? Are the enthusiasts really that afraid of being the sole inhabitants the galaxy? And are the detractors really that afraid of having company?

Science fiction has often attempted to fulfill this apparently insatiable curiosity of ours. Some stories portray aliens as the saviors of mankind, others depict them as the deadliest of enemies. But for the most part, both science fiction authors and their audiences seem to look forward to any form of alien contact, if only to satisfy their curiosity. But have we forgotten what curiosity did to the cat?

What if our initial alien visitors turned out to be a cellular absorption monstrosity as in John Campbell's Who Goes There? What if they turned out to be a germ warfare holocaust as in Michael Cricton's Andromeda Strain? What if they turned out to be one of H.R. Giger's Aliens which implant embryos in the digestive tracts of living beings and use humans for baby food? What if they turned out to be clones of Elvis who have finally escaped from their alien abductors? What if they simply turned out to be (GASP!) Little Green Men!

In the introduction to his famous novel about alien intervention in human affairs, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke assures us that, come what may, "the truth, as always, will be far stranger." I wonder if Clarke would consider the possibility of mankind being all alone in the universe to be within the realm of 'far stranger' truth. I doubt it. On the other hand, if the human race were the only intelligent form of life in the entire universe, wouldn't that be the strangest possible truth of all? As one of the NASA officials presiding over the SETI project once observed, "Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Either case is mind-boggling." Which is true enough, I suppose, but I wouldn't lose any sleep over it if I were you.

Works Cited

Andrews, Arlan / Beason, Doug / Landis, Geoffrey. Science Fiction Age. "Science: The Search For Alien Intelligence May Alter What It Means To Be Human." Sept. 1993. pp. 24-28, 34-35.

Barlowe, Wayne and Summers, Ian. Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrrestrials. Workman Publishing. New York:1979.

Cantril, Hadley. The Invasion From Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. Harper & Row. New York: 1940.

Clarke, Arthur. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Signet. New York: 1968.

Hopkins, Budd. Intruders. Random House. New York: 1987.

Huyghe, Patrick. Omni. "The Great High-Rise Abduction." Apr. 1994. pp. 60-67, 96, 99.

Koch, Howard. The Panic Broadcast. Manheim Fox Enterprises, Inc. Canada: 1970.

Ordway, Frederick and Lieberman, Randy. Blueprint for Space: Science Fiction to Science Fact. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington: 1992.

Randles, Jenny and Warrington, Peter. Science and the UFOs. Basil Blackwell. New York: 1985.

Rawlings, Maurice. To Hell and Back. Thomas Nelson Publishers. Nashville: 1993.

The Science Fiction Writers of America. Writing and Selling Science Fiction. Writer's Digest Books. Cincinnati: 1976.

Von Braun, Whernher and Ordway, Fredrick. Space Travel: A History. Harper & Row. New York: 1985.