“In space, no one can hear you scream”.  “We are not alone”.  “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”.  “The truth is out there”.  “Whoever wins, we lose”.

The question of alien life has produced some of the best movie taglines of all time.  And science fiction writers and directors have thought long and hard about the portrayal of creatures from other worlds.

The predatory and possessive mother in Ridley Scott’s Alien, the swirling sentient sea in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, and the hyperactive glove-puppet with poor sentence construction from George Lucas’ Star Wars movie series.  Alien as highly evolved killer, alien as ocean-planet, and alien as wise, benevolent, if slightly ridiculous, mentor.

Science fiction, inspired by the findings of science, has been conjuring up aliens for many a moon.

Enthused by Galileo’s discoveries with the telescope, German astronomer Johannes Kepler was one of the first writers to imagine alien life.  The extraterrestrials that stalk Kepler’s proto-science fictional book, Somnium (1634), are not humans.  They are creatures fit to survive their alien haunt.  Two centuries before Darwin, Kepler had been the first to grasp the bond between life forms and habitat.

But mostly, before science fiction really began in the C19th, extraterrestrials were not genuine alien beings.  They were merely men and animals living on OTHER EARTHS.

It was Charles Darwin who changed all that.  For Darwin invented the alien.

Darwin’s theory of evolution gave science fiction grounds for imagining what life might develop in space.  From now on, the notion of life beyond our home planet was linked with the physical and mental characteristics of the true extraterrestrial.  And the idea of the alien became deeply embedded in the public imagination.

The archetypal alien, with its strange physiology and intellect, owes much to HG Wells’ 1898 Martian invasion novel, War of the Worlds.  Wells’ Martians are agents of the void.  They are the brutal natural force of evolution, and history’s first menace from space.

Wells’ genocidal invaders, would-be colonists of planet Earth, were so influential that the alien as monster became a cliché in the C20th.  But the idea thrills us still.  The alien as monster stalks the Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s electrifying movie, and lies at the heart of each Dalek in Doctor Who.

With advances in biology, writers became more imaginative about alien life forms.  Darwinism travelled into space with French astronomer Camille Flammarion in 1872.  His three Stories of Infinity were ingenious tales of an intangible alien life-force.

If natural selection was universal, there was no reason on Earth why the random process of evolution should produce humans on other planets.  Distinguished British astronomer Fred Hoyle used his science to inspire his stories.  But his fiction was not forced by his physics.  Hoyle’s first novel, The Black Cloud (1957), is about a living cloud of interstellar matter.

Strange alien life forms reached their peak with Stanislaw Lem’s famous Solaris (1961; film versions 1972 and 2002).  Now an entire planet, Solaris, enclosed by an ocean, is a single organism with a vast yet strange intelligence that humans strive to understand.

Finally, will the wise benevolent aliens save us from ourselves?

In films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), science fiction presents us with civilised and benevolent aliens of superior intelligence. Aliens such as Yoda from Star Wars posses an almost saintly wisdom.

Even given the tremendous advances in the understanding of space during the C20th, science still has little to say about the psychology and physiology of the alien.   But science fiction has been conducting thought experiments on the matter for centuries.

Designed by Forte Web Solutions