It’s a new year. Perhaps we could use a New Year’s resolution to improve science-fiction.
I’ll propose one: No more stupid alien invaders.
I suggest this with a certain trepidation, knowing as I do that hostile extraterrestrial dumbasses have a long, proud history in sci-fi dating back to H. G. Wells. "The War of the Worlds," you may remember, is a story in which Martians invent interplanetary travel and the heat ray to conquer us but fail to notice our planet has germs on it. As a result, they catch Earth sniffles and die.
Despite the unlikelihood of this, we enjoy the novel because it’s a seminal work and Wells was a brilliant writer. But science has advanced since his day, and countless sci-fi writers have mulled over the underlying logic of the tropes he invented. We could have better, smarter sci-fi movies and television if we got rid of the following:
1. Aliens who invade to take stuff they could more easily get elsewhere.
The aliens from "V" (the original series) are a classic example. They came to steal our water, like the creatures in "The Darkest Hour" just recently turned up to dig for minerals.
The trouble with this is that a civilization capable of interstellar travel could find abundant water, copper, zinc, and what have you on uninhabited planets, asteroids, etc. Or if not, they could almost certainly synthesize them, and it would be less bother than mounting an invasion.
This type of stupid alien particularly irritates me because it’s so unnecessary. Anyone who invests a little thought can come up with more plausible reasons for extraterrestrials to attack. Maybe they want something they truly can’t get anything else, like human slaves (like, apparently, the alien masters in "Falling Skies") or our whole world and biosphere to live in (like Wells’s Martians, although, as noted previously, they didn’t really think that through.) Maybe they’re pursuing some sort of galactic jihad. Whatever; just don’t tell me they covet our talc.
2. Aliens in a tizzy because humans are oh so dangerous.
The most famous example here is Klaatu from the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still," an envoy from a peaceful multi-species interstellar civilization worried because humans have launched a couple satellites, possess nuclear capability, and, horrifyingly, still fight wars! Klaatu warns us to clean up our act and PDQ. Otherwise, alarmed at the possibility of humanity exporting its aggression offworld, his peaceful civilization will demonstrate its commitment to peace by exterminating us like a nest of termites.
You may think Klaatu is a hypocritical prick, and I don’t disagree. But my point is that it’s a long way from the H-bomb and Sputnik (or even the space shuttle) to the warp drive.
Ask a physicist about the possibility of faster-than-light travel. A conservative one will tell you relativity makes it impossible. An imaginative one may beguile you with wormholes and tachyons. But then ask about the energy and engineering requirements of the ship he envisions, and how soon he thinks we’ll be capable of meeting them. I’m pretty sure he’ll tell you that, as an absolute best-case scenario, we’re still centuries away.
There’s just no way we’re going to show up on Rigel IV, steal the locals’ lunch money, and shove them all in their lockers anytime soon, and any alien who imagines otherwise is a hysterical twit.
3. Aliens who don’t bring their A-game.
This is probably the most ubiquitous type of pinhead alien. Their idiocy manifests in a couple different ways.
Sometimes the hostile forces show up with a couple nifty technological tricks, like the starships that got them here and rays that blow up national monuments, but by no means all the miraculous gadgets we’d expect of such an advanced civilization. The Goa’uld in "Stargate SG-1" provide a case in point. Admittedly, they’re a decadent lot, coasting on the scientific achievements of the past. Yet even so, it’s amazing the immortal systems lords equip their Jaffa troops with guns that plainly don’t work as well as those carried by Jack O’Neill and company, whose weaponry includes handy features like sights and auto-fire.
But even when the aliens do bring all their toys, they often display an appalling lack of judgment and a woeful inability to grasp basic strategy and tactics. In "They Live," the scheme to enslave humanity depends on the single antenna broadcasting the signal that keeps us all hypnotized. When Rowdy Roddy Piper takes it down, game over.
Now obviously, nothing could stop Roddy Piper. The aliens were doomed from the get-go, no matter what. But most invaders aren’t so unlucky, yet they pretty much commit suicide by following the same imbecilic three-part plan:
A. Make sure your whole operation depends on the functioning of one particular gadget and/or command center. Only bring one. No backups allowed.
B. Put the gadget and/or command center someplace where humans can get at it (and, usually, blow it up.)
C. Only lightly defend the gadget and/or command center.
Invaders were still trying to make this plan work as recently as "Battle: Los Angeles." Anybody want to bet they won’t take yet another shot at it in "Battleship"?
Now, as a fiction writer myself, I understand the reason for this kind of plotting. It’s tough to work out any plausible means for contemporary humans to defeat a star-faring civilization. In warfare, advanced technology often provides an insurmountable advantage, and this would almost certainly be such a situation. The writer’s workaround is to give the invaders an Achilles heel.
But does it always have to be the same Achilles heel? Or could a sharp, imaginative screenwriter get away from extraterrestrials who wield disintegrator guns but have apparently never heard of surveillance cameras and motion detectors, or who are giving the old ABC plan one more try? If so, the resulting alien invasion flick would be less predictable and less dumb.
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