‘Our picture of alien life merely takes us back to ourselves’


Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, DC Comics, 1987

From Granta:

The end of Alan Moore’s famous graphic novel Watchmen has its megalomanic superhero, Ozymandias, attempting to end escalating hostilities between Earth’s superpowers by teleporting the carcass of a genetically-engineered organism into the middle of New York. Ozymandias’s crazed hope is that the materialization of a beast the size of several city blocks and the resulting ‘psionic wave’ that kills millions of people will convince humanity that it is suffering a botched extraterrestrial attack. The idea is that we humans can be encouraged to transcend our localized, earth-bound differences if we are presented with a sufficiently tangible threat from ‘out there’ in the cosmos against which we can unite.

This astonishing finale yokes two themes running through much of the portion of Western literature that concerns humanity’s encounters with extraterrestrial life and the imagery directly associated with it:

1) It will almost always be ugly; when it’s beautiful, this beauty will invariably mask evil intention. (In Watchmen, the beast is a gigantic, multi-tentacled super-brain complete with clitoral eye and vaginal mouth. We will return to this last detail.)

2) It will be dangerous.

As with phobias, our nightmarish visions of the extraterrestrial and the futuristic might have some foundation in logical fact but are, to a large extent, governed by the force of displaced fears whose origins are far closer to home. Foreigners, technology, government control: our imagined journeys at the speed of light seem only to bring us back to the most familiar paranoias. And so, of course, sex gets its slippery look-in. Consider the vagina dentata at the heart of Watchmen’s psionic beast, the giant ‘Mother Bugs’ in Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 adaptation of Starship Troopers and the narratives of extraterrestrial rape that populate the Alien myth both on screen and on the pages of books and graphic novels.

“Close Encounters”, Jeremy Sheldon, Granta

View a collection of The War of The Worlds book covers here