Recently I tried to watch Babylon 5. I never saw it when it was on the air in the mid- to late-90s, even though many of my friends were big fans. So, way late, I figured I’d give it a go. I’ve always been impressed by the fact that Straczynski apparently created a real 5 season-long story arc, without succumbing to the X-Files Effect (that is, getting hopelessly lost in the storytelling and ultimately jumping the shark). So I convinced Y, got the pilot from Netflix… and I could barely make it through those 90 minutes, the writing and acting was so bad. The aliens were pretty interesting, and Straczynski had clearly done some solid world-building (galaxy-building?). But, well, the writing and acting was just terrible. Afterwards, twenty minutes on Wikipedia reading about the show satisfied my curiosity about all the questions that the pilot raised. So that’s that then; I won’t be watching more Bab5.

Watching the Bab5 pilot got me thinking about one of my favorite topics: aliens. Specifically, TV and movie aliens. Why are all aliens in TV and movie SF basically people with prosthetic foreheads? And I don’t mean the costuming, either. CG exists, so we can create whatever damn creature we want on screen, and yet most movie and TV aliens are people in costume. Even aliens that are entirely CG (I submit to you Avatar) might as well be people in costume. But I’m willing to overlook that. What I want is a really alien alien: an alien with alien motivations. Not an alien that’s basically a human personality trait taken to the extreme (think Spock). In Bab5, the aliens were basically humans, with human motivations: a declining empire struggling to remain influential on the galactic stage, a civilization recently freed from oppression with a chip on its shoulder, a more advanced civilization whose technology is indistinguishable from magic. Interesting, but hardly original.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, as he so often does, totally nails it in this video. In it, he says:

You know what the best Hollywood alien movie has been in my list? The Blob, the old Steve McQueen movie from the ’50s, The Blob. That didn’t have a face, did it? It was just this creature. And you didn’t know what made it work, but it loved your blood. Even though it was a B-movie they did well.

In my opinion, this is one of the things that makes Tyson so good at presenting popular science: he’s really got his cultural referents down. Typically, my favorite alien is more obscure. For my money, the best alien in all of science fiction — and I mean it, in the entire corpus of SF from the beginning of the genre — is the ocean from Solaris. I mean the original Stanislaw Lem novel, not the Tarkovsky film, and definitely not the George Clooney remake.

Solaris is brilliant on a number of levels. But one aspect of the story in particular that I’ve always appreciated is that Lem creates an alien that is well and truly alien. I mean, really, what would we have to talk about with a planet-sized ocean? There is a chapter in the novel in which Lem describes the history of human discovery of Solaris. Part of this was that it took humans a long time to even recognize that the sea was alive and had volition. A major theme of the novel is the question of whether the sea is sentient, and if so, what does that mean for the definition of sentience?

Existentialism has dealt with the issue of the Other for a long time. The Other is fundamentally unknowable to the Self. This is both horrible and wonderful. (I’m pretty happy that Y can still surprise me, after being together for over a decade.) But let’s face it, no matter how alienated we are from our fellow human beings, both they and we are human beings, and so there will always be a lot of common ground. Cultural differences, experiential differences, gender differences, fine. But both you and I have the same sensorium. We’re evolved from the same common ancestor shrew. We’ve spent our whole lives breathing oxygen, eating carbon-based foods, drinking H2O. On the other hand, what do you and I share in common with a planet-sized ocean that single-handedly maintains its planet in a stable orbit in a multiple star system and can produce human avatars? Sweet FA, that’s what.

Why can’t we have decent aliens in TV and movie SF? The George Clooney remake of Solaris was actually ok, but it wasn’t about the ocean, it was about the relationship between Kelvin and Rheya. Which is, of course, rather complicated by the fact that Rheya isn’t human at all, she’s an avatar of the ocean. And she comes to realize this slowly, and it messes with her head. That in itself is an interesting story, and it’s a subplot of the Lem novel. But — and let me repeat this — the movie is not about the ocean. Why not? Because an inscrutable planet-sized ocean doesn’t make for very good movie-watching. Even if the filmmaker did show us some mimoids, it would just be good CG work. And so what? Avatar had good CG work, so I hear… I never saw it, and I don’t care to. Again with the lame aliens.

Why was the show Firefly so good? Well, good writing, good acting, good world-building. So, hard to go wrong there. But fundamentally, it was a Western. It was Wagon Train to the Stars, as Roddenberry supposedly pitched Star Trek originally. Firefly was SF with no aliens, only humans. It was about people being people. (Even the Reavers were people, in the end… people irreparably broken by other people.) And why is this good SF? Because people being people makes for good storytelling, no matter what the genre.

I believe there must be a middle ground between Firefly and Solaris. And it’s not Spock (though I love Spock) and it’s not Worf and it’s not Yoda. The Alien is close… the Alien is good, but fundamentally the Alien is just a killing machine. It’s a weapon of war. So, fairly simple motivation there. The Predator, as much as I like the Predator movies, is just a prosthetic forehead: it’s a hunter, and we’re the prey. Simple. There’s something nicely visceral to stories about people not being at the top of the food chain (think Jaws), but the Predator is not, fundamentally, alien. I mean, think about if the roles were reversed: a human lands on an alien planet and starts to hunt the natives? Not too far-fetched really: just replace “on an alien planet” with “in an alien land.” Like, say, the Americas, circa the 15- through 1700s. Or reverse the roles in another way: replace the Predator with something that humans actually hunt, a deer perhaps. You get a Far Side cartoon.

Neil deGrasse Tyson talks in that video about the Blob. But as much as I like the Blob, again, it’s just a killing machine. Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Maybe. What’s the motivation of the Pods? We don’t know. What would happen if they succeeded in replacing everyone on Earth? Would they just go about their business (our business, really), or would they suddenly launch into some new and previously hidden agenda? We don’t know. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has always worked for me on two levels: the inherent creepiness and paranoia of everyone around you slowly being replaced, and the further paranoia of the underlying hint of a hidden agenda.

And speaking of hidden agendas… for my money, another great alien is the Targive from Future Boston, a book so obscure that, according to WorldCat, fewer than 200 libraries in the world own a copy. As far as I know, I own the only copy in private hands in the world. The Targive are always hidden, you never see one. Indeed, it’s not even clear if the Targive are individuals like us. All you ever see is the Targive Citadel, a constantly shape-shifting structure made of, apparently, beetle chitin. (The Targive are genetic engineers.) People go in, and come out genetically changed. How did these people make their requests? We don’t know. Targive-created products are all over the place in the book. How did they get to market? We don’t know. What motivates the Targive? We don’t know. They seem to be interested in collecting DNA. But what for? We don’t know.

And so, once again, we return to inscrutability as the characteristic that makes the alien most alien. And perhaps that’s where we have to leave it. If an alien had truly alien motivations, would we be able to relate, to empathize? What does an octopus want? What is it like to be a bat? This is probably unknowable. And so the truly alien alien would be inscrutable, by definition.

But that’s really unsatisfying, as an avid SF reader. I challenge someone to write an alien, motivated by truly alien motivations, and not have that character be inscrutable.