Visual Trope: the Alien Encounter

On this snowbound Solstice weekend in New England, I happened to be reading reviews of The Day The Earth Stood Still remake, and pondering the ways in which humans have envisioned our first contact with alien life forms. Without going too heavily into the subject, I pondered the range of human-alien frission typically presented in SF, from the over-hyped assumption of instant warfare, or the however improbable love at first site, to the more nuanced anthropological approaches of Chad Oliver and the intensely portrayed psychological gestalts of Theodore Sturgeon. At that point Sturgeon’s amazing story To Marry Medusa (aka _The Cosmic Rape_) popped into my mind, and in particular the lush red cover image for the 1968 paperback by Paul Lehr.

This image, so typical of Lehr (with a mountainous half-organic construction looming in the center, while miniscule beings flit around it like so many fleas,) represents the contact between human and alien minds in the realm of abstraction and metaphor. In that sense it fascinates more than the familiar image of some athletic dork with a ray gun zapping the tentacles off of a bug-eyed wierdo.

Though, don’t get me wrong, I admire the artistry of the goofy BEM pulp painting, it’s just not the image I would pick to represent my visualization of the alien encounter! That being said, the artist might be forgiven for falling into the reactive stereotype caused by the relentless alien advance seen on decades of War of the Worlds jackets. Indeed, a perusal of the various covers for War of the Worlds __— continuously in print since 1898 — makes for fascinating study all by itself. Of course we find no shortage of tentacled tripods and slick spaceships laying waste to planet Earth.

However there are some images which appear to be almost comical, considering the subject matter involves wiping out half of the human race.

Strangely enough, very few of the covers deal with any sort of physical contact between humans and aliens, although that turns out to be the pivotal element of the plot, of course…

Only the Heinemann cover, with its kitsch skeletal claw and a background sky that is washed out into vague foreboding, begins to touch on the appropriate level of psychological horror. While the recent Spanish edition, with its octopus tentacle coiling beneath the paranoid single eyeball, and a landscape full of burn-out trees under a pink sky finally delivers on the promise of aliens out to get us!

One must sit back to wonder about whether or not aliens even care enough to pay us a visit, whether they are really concerned about our piffling nuclear bombs and other instruments of self-destruction, or if — in fact — they have already completely infiltrated our societies and governments, and are deliberately pushing us to the brink. When you take into account the hyperactive mayhem and financial ruin that has resulted from the years of Bush and Cheney, you really must begin to wonder what the hell is in that “man sized safe“ at the Naval Observatory! Personally, I wish those bastards would come out of the safe and have at us — anything is better than dealing with their geopolitical vampire go-between.