And I’m back with another conceptual post, hard at work exploring the ideas that run deep in the grand genre that is sci-fi. And this is one that I find particularly cool, mainly because it’s just so freaking existential! I mean what is there that can possibly throw a wrench into our collective anthropomorphism more than knowing that there is sentient life out there that significantly predates our own, especially if we were to find out that they had something to do with our own evolution…?
In some ways, this is a shout out to the “ancient astronauts” theory, which speculates that extra-terrestrials came to Earth long ago and left some evidence of their visit behind. This can be limited to something as basic as a structure or a relic, or can run as deep as having influenced human cultures, religions and technological development. Regardless of whether or not this theory is to be taken literally, it is well represented in the sci-fi community. Here are some examples that I have assembled:
2001: A Space Odyssey:
A classic example of an ancient species, ancient astronauts, and one of my personal favorites! Originally conceived in the form of a screenplay by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, the concept of the TMA-1 monolith aliens was a central plot element to one of the most groundbreaking science fiction movies of all time. However, owing to Kubrick’s esoteric style, not much was ever made clear about the species that built the monoliths. Luckily, Clarke went on to develop the idea at length in his novelization of the movie and its many sequels.
According to the novel, and ongoing interviews with Kudrick, the beings that built the monoliths were known as the Firstborn – an extremely ancient race that achieved sentience millions of years ago and were exploring the galaxy long before humanity even existed. The monoliths were their means of traveling from star to star, which they did in order to seek out life and help it along. In the course of their travels, they came upon Earth four million years ago and discovered Simians that were on the verge of starvation. By teaching them to expand their diet through hunting and some basic tricks to cultivate their manual dexterity, they ensured not only the survival of higher order primates, but the eventual emergence of humans as a species.
The story of 2001 thus takes place in the near-future (from when it was originally written) where humanity has developed into a star-faring race and colonized the Moon. Not far from this colony, a monolith is discovered buried under millions of years of moon dust. After examining it, to no avail, they discover that it has sent a signal out to Jupiter. The ship Discovery is then dispatched to investigate, where it finds an even larger monolith in orbit around Europa. The mission ends quite mysteriously as David Bowman, the last surviving member of the crew, flies closer to it in a small pod and disappears. Adding to the mystery were his last words: “My God, it’s full of stars!”
In subsequent books, the mystery of Bowman’s disappearance and the nature of the monoliths is made clear. Essentially, the monoliths are alien machines that contain their consciousness, and some are gateways which allow for FTL space travel. Bowman, when he came into contact with the one around Europa, was transformed or downloaded (depending on how you look at it) and became one with the monolith. The reason they are hanging out around Europa is because they are currently working to transform Jupiter into its own star so that life may blossom on Europa (which scientists speculate is already teaming with life underneath its icey shell).
Cool idea! But you see, there’s a snag… Apparently, the First Ones have also been known to weed wherever they’ve sown. What would happen if they came to the conclusion that humanity was too aggressive for its own good, the result of them teaching us how to harness an appetite for killing other animals and members of our own species? This is the premise that is explored in the finale 3001: Final Odyssey, and which was left on a cliffhanger note. Unfortunately, Clarke died in 2008, leaving fan fiction authors to speculate on how this would all play out…
Alien vs. Predator:
Note: this is not a reference to the terrible movie or its even more terrible sequel! No, in this case, I am referring to the wider franchise, as exemplified by its many video games, comics, novelizations, and even the independent (non-crossover) movies. In these cases, we get a glimpse of two races that predate humanity by hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Their outward characteristics alone make them cool, and they are both pretty badass in their own special ways. But what is especially cool about them is the fact that very little known about them, other than the fact that they are very, very dangerous!
“I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality”. That is how the Alien, or Xenomorph in AVP terminology, was described in the very first movie. Their origin is unknown, as is the timeline of their existence and the circumstances of their evolution. However, one thing is clear: on this last note, it must have been something pretty harsh! I mean really, how difficult must life have been on their homeworld for something like the xenomorph to have emerged. They proliferate at an alarming rate, require living being to gestate, and are designed purely for the hunt!
Overall, their race is divided into two symbiotic and interrelated species. First, there are the “Facehuggers”, the spidery creatures that attach themselves to living creatures and implant them with embryos. This in turn gives rise to the “Chestbusters”, the warrior aliens that seek out, kill and capture creatures for the Facehuggers to use. At the top of the pyramid is the Queen, a Chestbuster who has evolved to become the egg-layer who gives birth to more Facehuggers. An interesting chicken and the egg type arrangement, and something which only adds to their mystery!
The Predators, on the other hand, are relatively straightforward. At their core of their society lies a warrior ethic, where each and every male member of their species is trained to be a hunter. In time, hunters accumulates honor and seniority within their culture by attaining as many kills and trophies (i.e. skulls) as possible, preferably from different species. In fact, it is rumored that a single scene from Predator 2, in which an Alien skull appeared in a hunter’s trophy case was the basis for the whole AVP crossover.
In addition, there are also some clear and apparent rules to the hunt. First, each hunter is drawn to arenas of conflict. In the first movie, one chooses a hunt in Central America where a guerrilla war is taking place. In the sequel, one travels to LA during the height of the drug wars. In both cases, the get a sense of their terrain, taking out the easy prey first, and gradually working their way up to the top carnivore. At first, they rely on their advanced weaponry and stealth. But when at last they face off with the strongest prey, they fight them in the open in hand to hand combat.
God knows how long they’ve been doing this. But given their obvious level of technology, its clear they are not exactly recent additions to space race!
The “Ancient Humanoids”:
Now this was one I didn’t much like, but it’s an example of the concept of ancient astronauts nonetheless. And it comes to us courtesy of Star Trek: TNG. from an episode named “The Chase” (episode 146). In it, Picard’s old friend and mentor turns up dead in the course of an expedition which he claims could be the most profound discovery of their time.
After retracing his footsteps, Picard and the Enterprise are joined by three other search parties – one Klingon, one Romulan and one Cardassian – in orbit around a dead planet. When they reach the surface, they find that all the clues lead to a recording left behind by an ancient species. In the recording, the humanoid alien tells them all that they are the progenitors of every sentient race in the quadrant, that their DNA was planted on countless worlds. This is apparently why so many species are humanoid, and means that humanity shares ancestry with all these would-be enemies.
Heartwarming, and kind of cool if it weren’t such a convenient explanation as to why all aliens in the Star Trek franchise are humanoid. This is something that’s always annoyed me about the franchise. It’s not enough that all the aliens speak English and look like people, minus the occasional molded plastic on their faces. But to make matters worse, they always got to make a point of drawing attention to their humanoid forms. So when it came right down to it, this episode felt more like a contrived explanation than a homage. Personally, I would have thought that limited budgets would be the reason, but what do I know? I’m no xenobiologist!
The First Ones:
Another favorite which comes to us courtesy of the Babylon 5 universe. According to the expanded storyline, the First Ones were the first beings to achieve sentience in the Milky Way Galaxy. By the time of the show, most of them had left our corner of the universe in order to explore other galaxies and what lies between them. Only two remains behind, ostensibly to act as shepherds to the younger races. They were known as the Vorlons and the Shadows. However, in time, the two races turned on each other because of their diametrically opposed ideologies.
The Vorlons believed that development and progress came from order. In the course of their long history, they travelled to many worlds inhabited by sentient races and began tampering with their evolution. In each case, they presented themselves as angels, thus ensuring that sentient beings would see them as creatures of light and truth. In addition, they fostered the development of telepaths for use in the coming wars against the Shadows, whom they knew to vulnerable to psionics.
To illustrate this, the Vorlons are often presented as being aloof and rather stodgy figures. In fact, Lyta Alexander, one of the show’s secondary characters, commented that despite their power, the Vorlons are a highly sensitive people who do not react well to change! In the course of the show, they were initially hesitant to commit their forces to fighting the Shadows, they were extremely irked when Kosh (their ambassador to B5) was killed, and when Sheridan went – and presumably died – at Z’ha’dum, they began destroying entire worlds in the hopes of erasing every trace of the Shadow’s influence.
In addition, their esoteric, mysterious nature was summed up with one question that they would ask anyone who was privileged enough to speak to them: “Who are you?” If ever you found yourself being asked that, odds were you were meant for some higher purpose, one which the Vorlons had a hand in arranging!
The Shadows, by comparison, were much more enabling and intriguing, even if they were a little… oh, I don’t know, shit-your-pants scary! In the course of their history, they too traveled to many worlds as ambassadors, encouraging different people and races to embrace their ambitious, darker side and go to war with each other. Whereas the Vorlons asked “Who are you?”, the Shadows big question was “What do you want?” Again, if you found yourself being asked this question, it meant that you were on their radar and they had big plans for you. The proper response to this would be feelings of flattery followed by abject terror.
In any case, whereas the Vorlons believed in order and stability, the Shadows believed that evolution came only through conflict and disorder. This, they reasoned, is what lead to the development of stronger, more advanced races. As Morden, their own representative to B5 said, humanity would never have come so far so fast were they not constantly “at each others’ throats”. Sure, some races had to be sacrificed along the way to make this philosophy work, but that was all for the greater good. In the end, what came out of it was a series of species that were stronger and better than they were before.
This philosophy eventually led them into conflict with the Vorlons as well as several other First Ones. Many younger races found themselves taking sides as well or just getting caught in the middle. In fact, wars between the two sides became a recurring thing, happening every few thousand years. In the last, which took place 10,000 years before the main story, the Shadows were defeated by the last great alliance between the First Ones, most of whom then chose to leave the galaxy. Then, just 1000 years before the events in the show take place, the Shadows were once again defeated by the Vorlons and an alliance of younger races and forced out of the galaxy entirely. However, as the show opens, we quickly learn that the Shadows are once again returning to their old stomping grounds, and the first spot on the tour is a planet known as Z’ha’dum.
This world is doubly significant because it is this planet where another First One – THE first one in fact – is thought to reside. His name is Lorien, and he is the last of his kind and the sole First One outside of the Vorlons and Shadows that is left in galaxy. All of the others have long since abandoned it, leaving the Shadows and Vorlons to their war and all the other races that have chosen to enlist in it. In the end, however, Sheridan, Delenn and the younger races form their own alliance which they use to draw a line against both races. With the help of those First Ones that they are able to reach and enlist the help of, they are successful. After a brief but decisive fight, both races agree to leave the galaxy with Lorien, never to return. In the last episode, when Sheridan is on the verge of death , he is found by Lorien who takes him to the great beyond where the other First Ones now reside.
Like I said, its a personal favorite, mainly because I felt it was so richly detailed and in-depth.
Now here is an interesting take on the whole ancient astronauts concept. Whereas in most versions of this idea, aliens make contact with a younger race and influence them for their own purposes, in the Halo universe, things happen in a sort of reverse order. It is established as part of the game’s back story that eons after they died out, the Covenant races came upon the remains of an ancient race which are referred to as the Forerunners. After learning how to reverse-engineer their technology, the Covernant began to merge it with their own and was able to jump thousands of years ahead as a result.
At the same time, they began to develop a religion and even a theocracy based on the Forerunners and what they believed their most important relics to be. These would be the Halo devices, for which the game takes its name. Believing that the Halos were the gateway to the afterlife, or the source of deliverance, the Convenant became obsessed with finding a working Halo and activating it. All of their mythology for the past few thousands years was based on this, and they pursued it with absolute single-mindedness.
So in this way, the Forerunners had a profound impact on the development and beliefs of the Covenant, but not intentionally. Rather than coming to the Convenant while it was still in its infancy and manipulating them for their own purposes, the Covenant instead found them, but only after they were long dead. In addition, they were influenced by their own assumptions about the Forerunners, and not anything they chose to tell them. And in the end, this influence had a near disastrous effect, given that the Halo devices were weapons of mass-MASS destruction and not holy relics. By attempting to activate them, the Covenant very nearly brought about their own extinction, and that of every other sentient race in the quadrant. One would think there was a message in all this about the dangers of blind faith and the dangers of deification or something!
Here is a perfect example of the ancient astronauts theory, so bang on that you’d think it was tailor made to fit the premise! In the Stargate universe, which has expanded considerably over the years, an advanced extra-terrestrial species known as the Goa’uld came to Earth during the neolithic period and had a vast influence on our history. In the original movie, this involved a single alien who took on human form and appointed himself God Emperor over his human subjects. This, in turn, gave rise to the Egyptian civilization, with the alien-god Ra at its apex.
In addition to creating ancient Egypt though, Ra was also revealed to have taken human beings through the Stargate, an means of near-instantaneous interstellar transportation, and established similar civilizations on distant planets. On each of these, the Egyptian motifs of pyramids and the cult of Ra persisted, in some cases for thousands of years. Meanwhile, back at Earth, a revolt unseated Ra and he fled into the cosmos, to be found thousands of years later when humans accessed the Star Gate on Earth.
In the expanded universe, we learn that the Goa’uld were merely one of many races that visited Earth and appeared as gods to humanity because of their advanced technology. But whereas most had benign intentions, the Goa’uld were concerned solely with establishing slave colonies on many worlds throughout the universe. In addition, their interference extended to other less advanced races as well. As a result, humanity is now faced with the task of preparing to face this and other threats, all of which involve highly advanced races that have visited Earth at one time or another and could very well be hostile.
Although it was not too good a movie (in my opinion), the concept is still a very fertile one! It’s little wonder then why it was made into a series, one which has done quite well for itself. Aliens came before, they may come again… Can we stop them this time. Who knows? Spooky stuff!
In the video game series Master of Orion, there is yet another take on the concepts of ancients aliens. In this turn-based strategy game, players select from different alien races that inhabit the galaxy and begin the process of colonization and expansion. In time, the concept of the Orions comes up. It seems that each race, though they are different and possess varying special abilities, have their own legends about this particular race.
One of the aspects of the game is to find the Orions homeworld, a place full of secret and advanced technology, but which is defended by a powerful robotic starship known as the Guardian. Whoever is able to destroy this ship and land on the planet is the most likely to win the game. This is advisable, seeing as the how the purpose of the whole game is to become the undisputed master of the galaxy – the Master of Orion, as it were 😉
Another example of this concept which comes to us from the gaming world. of which fans of Starcraft will no doubt be instantly familiar with! Translated literally as “Wanders from Afar”, the Xel’naga were apparently a race from a distant galaxy that was concerned with creating the perfect life form. In the course of their lifetime, they apparent “seeded and cultivated thousands of various species” (from the SC game handbook). This included the Protoss and Zerg, two of the major players in the game, and figures pretty prominently in the game’s backstory.
In the case of the Protoss, the Xel’naga thought that they had found beings that possessed “purity of form” and began manipulating them. However, when they revealed themselves to the Protoss, the latter turned on them and they fled. They discovered the Zerg shortly thereafter, a species which they believed possessed “purity of essence”. They began by enhancing them from the small, parasitic larvae that they were, but found that they were too primitive. They therefore developed the Overmind as well to give them purpose and direction, but this only made matters worse. In time, the Zerg found the Xel’naga, who had chosen to remain hidden this time, and consumed them.
In the course of the game, Xel’naga ruins make only one appearance, in the form of an ancient temple which possesses the ability to sterilize the planet of all other species. However, other ruins are apparently featured in one of the game’s novelizations. Otherwise their is no mention of them, their existence merely constituting part of the story’s deep background.
After looking through these and other examples of ancient astronauts, a few things began to stand out. Like I said before, sooner or later aliens serve an anthropological purpose in science fiction. Or to put it another way, they will always play the role of mirror and meter stick. On the one hand, they are the means by which we project aspects of ourselves onto others so we can study them better. On the other, they are means by which we measure our own flaws and development.
But above all, aliens tend to fall into any one of four categories based on where they fit into the moral and technological spectrum. This spectrum, which I made up myself (!), breaks down as follows:
- Benevolent/Malevolent: How aliens behave in our favorite franchises and what purpose they serve often has much to do with their basic motivation. In short, are they kind of benevolent, enlightened overseers as envisioned by Arthur C. Clarke in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood’s End, or are they hostile, conquering species as envisioned in War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers? In either case, the alien serve a basic purpose: as a commentary on humanity. Their murderous ways are our murderous ways, their benevolent, technical perfection what we aspire to be. As Nixon is said to have muttered to JFK’s painting: “Men look at you, they see what they want to be. Men look at me, they see what they are.”
- Advanced/Nascent: Another important aspect to the aliens in question is their level of technical development. And, interestingly enough, this can have much to do with their moral character. Oftentimes, the aliens in a franchise are both advanced and malevolent, blowing up the White House Independence Day-style or trying to make us one with the Borg! Other times, they are advanced and enlightened, technology and evolution having erased whatever primitive impulses they might have had, but which humanity still possesses. And in other cases still, their are aliens who are less advanced than humanity and are either ethically challenged because they are behind the times, or noble and “untainted” because they haven’t been perverted by civilization’s greed and avarice. It’s a toss up, really, where the benefits and downfalls of technological progress are seen as having an influence on moral and social development.
Again, these are all mere projections, designed to focus attention on moral and ethical dilemmas that arise out of our collective history. Still, it is fun to take these various examples from popular culture and see where they line up on the moral/technological graph. That way we can see where different franchise place their aliens in terms of the overall spectrum. And like I said at the beginning, its a cool concept. I mean seriously, wouldn’t it be cool if it were actually true? No one can prove aliens didn’t visit Earth thousands or even millions of years ago and mess with our evolution, right? Yeah, it’s not exactly a sound basis for a scientific theory, but a very fertile source for science fiction!