Rage against the Greys

[This article first appeared in Matrix no. 161, May/June 2003.]
It won’t be news to many of you reading this, but:

  1. If aliens have ever visited Earth, they did it without leaving behind any trace of their activities.
  2. There is not a single artefact on, under or around this world produced by an intelligence other than human.
  3. Aliens do not routinely abduct human beings for any purposes, nefarious or otherwise.
  4. Even if aliens do exist, they are not thin, grey and spindly.

Of course, as we all know, in good science fiction there is no necessary reason why these points still cannot be assumed as the starting point for a story. Point (1) above: early intervention in human history? Arthur C. Clarke and Julian May are two writers who immediately come to mind as writers of ‘early intervention’ stories that quite flatter our distant ancestors. There are no doubt others. The flipside is Erik von Däniken and Stargate. As a boy, because I’d seen it in Dr Who and The Tomorrow People I was quite willing to believe that aliens might have built the pyramids; an idea that is in fact painfully close to the viewpoint of the nineteenth century European explorers who just could not believe that black people built Great Zimbabwe, and were prepared to cheat, distort and outright lie to ‘prove’ otherwise. Our regard for the magic and wonder of the real world is so low that rather than be challenged by a genuine sense of wonder at the abilities of our amazing species, and rather accept that other cultures might be even half as clever as our middle class, mostly white, western world, we instead assume a humdrum dime-a-dozen alien intervention.

Point (2)? There is nothing to say that there isn’t an alien spaceship buried under the polar icecap right now, ready to release a homicidal polymorphic alien at a moment’s notice. It might be discovered tomorrow. Yup, you can write a story about that.

Even points (3) and (4) could in principle make a good story, if the writer was careful to address and explain the fundamental illogicalities of both premises. But these points are now appearing routinely in science fiction for no good reason other than that the author (or producer) knows no better. It has got to the point where the aliens are expected to be grey and spindly, and expected to be abducters. They have become part of our world. The aliens are revealed and — gasp! — they’re greys. It shows a mindlessness that is singularly depressing.

The phenomenon is nothing new. Santa Claus got his red coat and big white beard as a result of the Coca Cola Corporation’s marketing activities in the 1930s, and now he is never imagined as anything else — at least, not in the UK or the US. (Go to Germany, on the other hand, where they stick more closely to the original legend of St Nicholas, and you’re in for a pleasant surprise at Christmas.) Likewise, thin, spindly, abduction-prone aliens made their big screen debut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind a mere 24 years ago. Now they’re everywhere. When I was in my believing-aliens-built-the-pyramids phase, a few years pre-CE3K, I read plenty of accounts where aliens had allegedly landed in front of people … but looked quite normal. Human, even. Maybe a touch angelic — dark they were and golden-eyed, and all that. But definitely human. Post-CE3K, suddenly visiting aliens have turned into greys. Coincidence? I suspect not.

Okay, it could be argued that every new story with grey aliens is a valid re-examination of an existing myth. Point taken: sf can do that. Problem is, it’s not a particularly good myth. It assumes a basic violation of Occam’s Razor and it ascribes to the US government a quite implausible ability to keep secrets. Oh, and to the list of points above, may I add (5): something may or may not have crashed at Roswell in nineteen forty-whatnot, but whatever it was, it wasn’t a spaceship.

In their time, the CE3K aliens were quite daring and innovative, though the logic of their actions continues to evade me. But science fiction is meant to evolve. Here in the early twenty first century, every grey alien is a nail in the coffin of originality. It is like equipping every fictional starship with a warp core and dilithium crystals, just because that’s how Trek does it. It’s safe — it’s a way of hanging up a sign to say that we don’t intend to explore this particular avenue any further. “These guys are the aliens, okay? So don’t bother your pretty little head — now let’s tell the rest of the story.” But in a story that has aliens, the aliens should be the freakin’ story. Otherwise, why are you bothering with aliens at all?

I’ll tell you why. Asimov deliberately chose a humans-only universe for most of his output, because he found the alternative of his contemporaries — a Campbellian, mixed-species-but-humans-triumphant universe — too similar to the barely veiled prejudice he had encountered as a Jew growing up amongst gentiles. By eliminating the aliens, he bypassed the problem. Since then, science fiction has evolved to be able to accommodate aliens without necessarily classifying them as Jews, blacks, communists or generally un-American. Sadly, the advance of the greys is a step back towards the Campbell days. Aliens are rendered instantly understandable and dealable with; and by implication, it’s immediately them vs. us, and we had better be the winners.

Science fiction is better than that. We are better than that. I’m not afraid to be challenged. Give me aliens. Give me intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, or give me physical forms and intelligences shaped by evolution on an unimaginably alien world. But unless they’re lined up with their backs to a wall and blindfolds over their pupil-less eyes, don’t give me any more greys.

Copyright © Ben Jeapes 2003. Not to be reproduced without permission, but feel free to link to it.