Extraterrestrials? You’ve heard this story before, says Professor Regents Lisa Yaszek
Posted on July 15, 2021
Admit it: When you saw those twisted, spinning, and darting shapes captured on video by Navy fighter pilots or read the recent US government report on “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena”, your mind quickly skimmed through a list. of films of the arrival of extraterrestrials. Independence Day. Pacific Rim. The last star hunter. War of the Worlds.
There’s a reason for that, says Lisa Yaszek, Regents Professor of Science Fiction Studies in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Ivan Allen College. Whether UFOs are aliens or not, what we see in the sky is heavily influenced by the sci-fi trends of the day.
“One of the most fascinating parts of the Pentagon report is this exploration of video footage of these unidentified flying objects,” Yaszek said. “They look very, very familiar to us because they look like the way we see spaceships move in science fiction. And I think it’s not surprising that you can see the similarities as there is a long history of UFO reports that really seem to look a lot like the types of spaceships that people read in stories and watch on the web. big screen.
It’s an association with its modern origins in the 1800s and a series of UFO sightings strangely resembling airships from Jules Verne stories popular at the time.
For example, in 1897, a newspaper in Aurora, Texas published an article about a sizzling airship piloted by a mysterious figure carrying papers written in unknown handwriting. The craft crashed into a windmill owned by a local official, spewing debris across acres – and destroying the official’s flower garden.
A US Army Signals Service officer stationed nearby concluded that the severely disfigured remains were likely those of a Martian, the newspaper reported.
Later, cigar-shaped boats reminiscent of those of the Flash Gordon soap operas began to take hold, followed by classic post-WWII flying saucers, inspired by years of such a craft on the covers of popular science fiction magazines. And what did we start to see in the late 70s, after Star wars stormed the popular imagination? “UFOs populated by little assistant robots that looked terribly like R2D2,” Yaszek said.
The role of science and politics in science fiction
While science fiction bears much of the responsibility for shaping our imaginations when it comes to aliens and UFOs, science and even politics contribute to that as well, Yaszek said.
“A lot of ancient stories are very interested in Darwinian ideas of competition between apex or predator species,” Yaszek said. “And so they always imagine that humans and aliens will automatically go to war over scarce resources, which usually means water and women.”
With the end of World War II, a huge global enterprise that required unprecedented international collaboration, the themes began to turn to cooperation.
“The day the earth stood still is a wonderful example. It’s a warning about what happens when you shoot first and ask questions later, ”Yaszek said (spoiler alert: you are kicked out of the intergalactic clubhouse).
Science fiction has also had its share of stories influenced by the post-war frenzy about Communist influence in the US government, of course (see Invasion of the Body Thieves).
And in recent years, civil rights, feminist and LGBTQIA + movements have also shaped our perception of aliens, Yaszek said. In 1969, Star Trek addressed racism with the episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”. More recently the film Arrival presented a tension between male military leaders who favored war and a linguist who favored communication, allowing us, says Yaszek, to explore “the conventionally male and female responses with the other stranger.”
And let’s not forget David Bowie and Janelle Monae, who presented themselves as aliens, using sci-fi iconography to explore their queer and, in Monae’s case, black and female identities.
“We love these stories because aliens are mirrors to ourselves. And when we tell stories about aliens and the vehicles they travel in, just like we travel in vehicles, it allows us to explore not only what we might do if we encountered truly different beings from other worlds, but also how to behave as we encounter aliens every day, in our own lives within our own families, within our own nations and in our own world, ”Yaszek said.
The fate of science fiction in a post-contact world
Yaszek isn’t sure what UFOs are, although if pressed, she’ll tell you that she doesn’t think the objects recorded by Navy pilots are aliens.
“I don’t think we’re going to meet any sensitive aliens anytime soon,” she said.
But she doubts that even if we do, the first contact will leave sci-fi writers stunned, with nothing new or interesting to say.
“A lot of people might think that if we were lucky enough to meet aliens in our lifetime that would be the end of sci-fi stories about UFOs and aliens. But really, if you look at science fiction, that would be the end of sci-fi stories about UFOs and aliens. is really the story of scientific change and technological development, ”Yaszek said.
The first contact, she argues, will only be more fodder for the authors.
In the meantime, the stories they create will help us prepare for that day when we could truly meet beings from another world, she says. It’s just another example of the value of studying science fiction in a place like Georiga Tech.
“Science fiction is a virtual laboratory where we can test ideas in scenarios before putting them into practice in reality. Science fiction has already given us so many different scenarios for understanding aliens and possible alien interactions. We could only profit by looking at these stories and using them as a kind of training ground to think about how we could really, really deal with the unknown.
So while the sober bureaucrats who wrote the UFO report are unlikely to be trying to give us a reason to keep looking, it may be better if they didn’t answer all the questions. that we have – at least not publicly.
“I think it’s really important to note that since the advent of cell phones, the number of UFO and alien sightings has dropped dramatically,” Yaszek said. “I suspect it’s because we don’t want to lose the ability to tell these kinds of stories. We don’t want anything that can prove them and stop us from dreaming.
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