On July 8, 1947, the Associated Press picked up and broadcast a line from a press release issued by the Roswell Army Air Field:
“The Army Air Forces here today announced a flying disk had been found.”
Within a week, the military issued an official explanation that a weather balloon was responsible for the strange sightings in the area. Rumors persist, but generally at the fringe of things.
But, if you think you’ve not been visited by aliens, I say ye nay. Here are some close literary encounters of the best kind.
1. The Time Machine
Purists may argue that the Eloi and Morlocks are not aliens, but simply humans (d)evolved over eons. I will concede the technicality.
But most critics will draw their best conclusions from finding the familiar (typically the extremes of capitalism) in these very alien races. So there’s a least a soupcon of alienism afoot. And certainly an amokery of alienism in Wells’s War of the Worlds.
H.G. Wells, Victorian par excellence, writer, philanthropist, founder, and unwitting father of Steampunk, had a talent for pointing out what is most human (hosting a dinner party to discuss your adventures in time traveling) and what is most alien (hunting a weaker people for sustenance and sport). In times when we’re looking for the best in humanity, it’s good to have some wise guides along the way.
2. The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury spooked me early on with his tales of book burning, but there are some gems in here. The idea of humanity in diaspora suffering from a soul sickness, The Great Loneliness, when realizing how separated they are from Earth is especially poignant.
Of very timely note is his story “Way in the Middle of the Air.” I can imagine that Mars is looking pretty attractive to some segments of the population right about now.
3. Gulliver’s Travels
No aliens here, you say? And those horses obsessed with truth-telling were denizens of where, exactly?
Once again, a social commentator takes for his task the improvement of his race. That seems to have been a hobby at one time, like cribbage or stick-and-hoop. Alas, no more. Quel dommage!
Jonathan Swift has an especially acerbic tongue (his recipe for Irish stew a notable example). He reduces his human caricatures to absurd extremes, helping us to see that the Houyhnhmns have a point: “Saying the thing that is not” is poor policy. Foisting this work on adolescent girls, most of whom already have a thing for horses (what is the deal with that, anyway?) is a favorite pastime of teachers, so you must have stumbled upon at least the Lilliputians at some point.
I’m holding in reserve the bulk of the science fiction genre. There are too may easy targets there, in more ways than one.
Good literature can use a lot of tricks to get us to see things in a new way. Sometimes it takes an alien to teach us what it means to be human, and sometimes human behavior is so alien we wonder what we have in common with others of our kind. Dear Reader, I submit that our books, our stories, help us limn the edges of what humanity is, and what it can become. When we choose what to publish or what to read, we are helping to forge those limits and craft those possibilities. Our best books help us become our best selves. What will you read next?