Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

They’re devoid of emotion but that doesn’t stop them being mean and vicious.

Time for another cross-post from my own blog, dealing with material from my Aliens Are Here book, which should be out later this year. They’ve already picked the cover.Now that you’ve seen it (and didn’t they pick a good one?), on with the show!

One of the hoariest cliches of alien-visitor films — and a lot of other SF — is that being superior intellects, they no longer possess emotions.

There’s a longstanding assumption in our culture that emotions are a leftover of our primitive past — references to our “lizard brain” driving our decisions for instance — whereas intelligence represents our future. Holding our emotions in check and operating out of reason is a mark of superiority.

As our species evolves, this will become much easier. A stock trope of SF is that in the millennia ahead we’ll develop bigger heads holding much larger brains — like the Curt Swan cover here showing a super-evolved Batman — while our emotions die. In Edmond Hamilton’s story, once Batman accidentally super-evolves, he becomes cold, logical, ruthless; rather than share his advanced condition with Superman he devolves Supes into a Caveman of Steel

Similarly in Outer Limits: The Sixth Finger, coal miner Gwyllm (David McCallum) volunteers as guinea pig for an evolution experiment, hoping an advanced brain will give him a path out of the mines. He gets the big brain and a sixth finger (greater dexterity) and begins lashing out with TK at everyone who’s pissed him off. Then he evolves again, beyond revenge but also beyond warmth or affection. His dismayed girlfriend reverts him back to normal.

This concept crops up in a lot of alien visitor films. They’re clearly more advanced scientifically than we are: humanity hasn’t made it past the moon while they can cross light years. It’s easy to assume they’re also superior in intelligence and have a corresponding deficit in emotions. Like future Batman, there’s no room in them for friendship or compassion, just cold, rational logic.

This seems perfectly rational to me, simply because it’s been the subtext (or sometimes text) to so many stories I’ve read or seen. It’s not as logical as it feels, though. Superior tech doesn’t equate to superior intelligence: we’re a lot more advanced than the people of the 1822 United States but it’s not because our brains have leapfrogged ahead of theirs. And as Antonio Damasio writes in Descartes’ Brain, getting rid of emotion isn’t guaranteed to make us better thinkers.

Sure, gut instinct and emotion can screw us up but they can also lead us intuitively to the right decision, faster than analyzing endless pros and cons. Conversely, emotionless AIs can make terrible logic-based decisions, depending on the directives they’re given. People can too; as Stephen Jay Gould’s classic Mismeasure of Man shows, efforts to measure human intelligence and prove the superiority of white male minds are built on both racist feelings and piles of bad reasoning.

Nevertheless, the trope remains a staple of SF. In alien visitor films, it’s frequently attached to the idea that without emotions, the aliens must be evil. They have no compassion, no mercy, so they’ll have no qualms about destroying us dispassionately to take Earth for their own. They never find a logical reason to open peaceful relations or negotiate trade but there are always logical reasons for violence.

In a given movie, this doesn’t bother me. If there’s an alien invasion it doesn’t matter whether they’re attacking with bloodthirsty passion or in cold blood. Seeing the cliche time after time, though, it gets old. And all too often, it doesn’t make sense. Take that World’s Finest story. There’s no reason for Batman not to let Superman evolve too; later in the story he’s perfectly happy hanging out with other super-evolved humans in the future. Nevertheless, he goes ahead and takes Superman down.

In the mediocre Outer Limits’ episode “Keeper of the Purple Twilight,” (an evocative title that has no relation to anything in the story), the alien Ikar (Robert Webber) trades his cold-blooded super-intellect to a human scientist in return for the human’s feelings. What Ikar doesn’t mention is that he’s duping the scientist: free of emotion, he’ll willingly build the tech that will let Ikar’s people conquer the Earth. Ikar, however, discovers human feelings, particularly for the scientist’s girlfriend (Gail Kobe), complicate everything. While talking to her, Ikar reveals that as his world has no love, women’s choices in life are limited to motherhood or death; if they won’t birth new warriors for the army, they have no purpose.

To me — admittedly of another generation than whoever wrote this — it seems obvious that women in a logical society could aspire to any job that fits their talents. The writer apparently can’t conceive of women having any role besides stay-at-home moms; if they won’t fill that role and their husbands don’t love them, naturally the only logical thing to do would be to kill them. It gives me fresh appreciation for Vulcan, a planet of logic where women can achieve leadership roles and not having emotions means they’re less likely to go around invading people.

Other movie aliens who like their emotionless state, such as the Body Snatchers (the title quote comes from the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers — spoken, appropriately enough, by Leonard Nimoy) are invariably proven wrong. Both the ’56 and ’78 versions reject the pod people’s view that an untroubled life, free of emotional pain, is worth giving up joy. Even some aliens come to this conclusion. In 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the Martian children are miserable because their rationalist society has drained all the fun out of them (“Mars doesn’t have children — they have children’s bodies but adult minds!”). The Martian solution: kidnap Santa and have him bring joy back into children’s lives.In the same spirit, though with more serious mien, the alien abductors in Taken, Beyond the Sky and Visitors of the Night are experimenting on us because they envy our ability to feel. It’s the SF equivalent of countless romances in which the reserved, head-centered protagonist discovers it’s love that really matters. As the Starman, Jeff Bridges admits that even though his people, like Vulcans, are benevolent, achieving a calm, peaceful unity has cost them some of Earth’s fun. Singing. Dancing. Food. Sex.

Gor, The Brain from Planet Arous, really agrees with Bridges on that last one. Occupying the body of a brilliant scientist (John Agar) the disembodied brain creature finds himself awash with physical pleasure, at one point assaulting the scientist’s fiancee (contrary to multiple reviews that laugh at the scene, it is very clearly attempted rape).

The subtext to a lot of these films is that the human way is best: we may not be as smart as those nasty aliens but we’re nicer! Plus we have a lot more fun. Audiences can turn off the DVD player comforted that even if we can’t make it to the stars yet, it’s still better to be us.

#SFWApro. Cover by Curt Swan.


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