Monday, November 4, 2013

Aliens, Angels, and the New Modern Myth

Don Lincoln, Alien Universe: Extraterrestrial Life in Our Minds and in the Cosmos

Voltaire famously wrote: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” Modern society, increasingly without religion, could say the same about extraterrestrials. We need something to fill their role, and if they won’t present themselves, we’ll invent them. Fermilab physicist and science popularizer Don Lincoln investigates what aliens mean, and what science actually supports. He accomplishes some goals better than others.

Lincoln divides his investigation into two prongs. The first, and longer, section discusses how extraterrestrial life, as a concept, permeates popular culture. Beginning with Renaissance discoveries that forced freethinking cognoscenti to question humanity’s, and Earth’s, presumed uniqueness, Lincoln progresses through popular hoaxes, science fiction, and pseudoscientific ufology to describe alien life’s cultural and psychological arc.

Lincoln’s second section addresses what Aliens (spelled thus, signifying technology and intelligence) likely will resemble. Lincoln unpacks latest scientific analysis of life’s capacity to survive even hostile environments, and what current chemistry tells us about stable, abundant physical components. Will Aliens be humanoid, air-breathers, or even animals? Lincoln’s answers may astound even hardened science fiction fans.

Unfortunately, Lincoln’s second angle will probably touch more readers, more deeply, than his first. A research physicist himself, Lincoln revels in scientific details, not only the latest discoveries and incontrovertible proofs, but thought experiments for what we could discover next. When he discourses on what might make plants intelligent, or how Aliens might survive oxygen-poor environments, his glee shines through, like a kid playing in the mud.

The first section lacks this undisguised glee. Though he runs over 100 pages, Lincoln never gets beneath surface readings of science fiction and pseudoscience. It takes little to say that 1950s UFO movies reflect Cold War anxiety, or that George Adamski’s beatific Aliens clearly replicate angel mythology. Lincoln simply name-drops these interpretations, and walks away. He doesn’t so much explore Aliens as catalog nearly two centuries of references.

These themes deserve better explication. Aliens’ cultural role seethes with unexplored potential. Is there any correlation between Aliens’ transition from mongrelizing enemy in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, to banal annoying neighbors in Men in Black, and the growing acceptance of American multiculturalism? Maybe. What about the changing role of military violence across the Star Trek franchise? Lincoln just doesn’t say.

He says plenty, though, about current hypotheses and new discoveries. Lincoln’s breakdown of probable extraterrestrial science runs only eighty-five pages, yet his compact, rich style and sly humor resemble great prior science popularizers, like Isaac Asimov or Carl Sagan. He lovingly unpacks not only what we know, but how our knowledge has changed, and how prior assumptions have proved unsustainable. Lincoln may change your view of our universe.

A research physicist himself, Lincoln seems more comfortable with hard answers, or at least reliable data. Aliens’ culture role demands a Claude Levi-Strauss or Meaghan Morris, willing to dissect obvious answers to spotlight unasked questions. Aliens plainly serve moral roles in contemporary culture, permitting us to externalize aspects of ourselves that deserve scrutiny. Lincoln correctly writes: “What we think [Aliens] look like will tell us more about us than them.”

Copernican heliocentrism and Darwinian evolution changed how humans see ourselves and our universal status, Lincoln claims. We can no longer regard ourselves as Creation’s pinnacle, or the center of existence. Yet somehow, Aliens represent continuity with prior human mythology. Our desire for Alien contact puts a technological veneer on ancient narratives of worlds awash in fairies, djinn, and other beings we can’t quite grasp.

Anyone familiar with mythology will immediately recognize the persistence of archetypal folklore in Alien narratives. Barney and Betty Hill’s abduction account set the standard for Grey narratives, with malign gnomes inordinately interested in human sexuality and crossbreeding. But George Adamski’s “Nords” bespeak peace, transcendance, and interplanar brotherhood. Can anyone doubt the inherent angels-and-demons dichotomy there?

But Lincoln just name-checks that trope, and moves on.

Fortunately, Perlich and Whitt have established precedent for the sort of criticism Lincoln introduces, but doesn’t elucidate. Science fiction explores human potential, and human fear, in ways religion has largely abandoned, and what we love or fear about our future reveals covert truths about our present. Lincoln’s implicit assessment starts well, but doesn’t go far enough.

Lincoln’s brief, frequently exciting book makes a worthy prolegomenon to his topic. Its contrast between scientific insight and cultural paradigm will certainly amaze beginners on the topic. I just wish he went further. If he’d only dedicated matching vigor to his pop culture critique that he used on his science, he’d have an ironclad future classic.

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