Memory: The Origins of Alien

Weird Science, July 1951, containing “The Seeds of Jupiter”

After his last film, 78/52, a feature-length documentary about the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (the title refers to the number of camera set-ups and cuts in the scene), Alexandre O Philippe’s latest is an examination of the imaginative, mythical, and artistic roots of the xenomorph in Alien. So, we get to learn something about writer Dan O’Bannon’s rural upbringing (plenty of bugs about), and his early fascination with sci-fi, including a number of films and comics that have startling similarities to Alien (an EC Comic from 1951, “Seeds of Jupiter”, for instance, where an alien gestates in a man’s stomach), as well as his various attempts at scripting the film that would eventually become Alien. (One of these, which O’Bannon called Memory, was almost identical to the first 30 minutes of Alien. The title came from the fact that, once the spaceship crew were down on the planet they visit, they start losing their memories.) In terms of artistic influence, there’s not just H R Giger’s evident input (fought for, and at times personally paid for, by O’Bannon), but also Ridley Scott’s directing him towards Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” as a guide to designing the chest-burster.

Francis Bacon, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, from Tate.org

One of the most striking aspects of the documentary, for me, were the parallels it drew between Alien and ancient myth. The film itself opens with the ruins at Delphi, and shows us the three Furies of Greek Myth being woken from sleep by a spaceship-computer-like announcement, then breaking a laser-through-smoke “membrane” as they rise — all very much in the style of Alien. “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” one says (quoting the Oresteia), displaying a very xenomorphish set of metallic teeth. One of the film’s contributors, Dr William Linn, explicitly draws a parallel between the xenomorph and the Furies. In Alien, he says, “You see a major curse, in the form of the alien, who is very much a Fury responding to an imbalance.” It’s a pity he’s never given the chance to explain this at length — perhaps there’ll be an extended interview with him as a DVD extra sometime — but this, to me, seems to miss a fundamental point that made Alien, and so many of the most characteristic examples of 20th century horror, so different to their forebears. Because, for me, the point about what happens in Alien is that the xenomorph’s killing of the crew is not in response to some cosmic or divine imbalance. It happens not because the crew have done anything wrong; it happens because this is the sort of thing that can happen in the universe, and it just so happens it’s this crew it happens to. It’s not because they did anything wrong, simply because they exist.

The ancient Greeks believed that if something good or bad happened to you, you could attribute it to the good- or ill-will of a supernatural entity, a god or goddess who was pleased with you or angry with you. Even if it seemed to make no obvious sense, you just had to assume you’d angered or pleased one of the many (and not always very reasonable) gods, so better make a sacrifice to appease/thank him or her. 20th century mythologies such as Lovecraft’s did away with divine agency. To them, the universe wasn’t full of intelligent forces that cared enough about mankind to punish it when it did wrong. The universe simply didn’t care. It was a machine, rolling on, doing its thing, and if you got caught up and crushed in the workings, well, that was what happened — the universe was full of danger. Not hostility, which implies feeling. Just danger. To the likes of Lovecraft, not having bad stuff happen to you was a matter of luck — such luck being, to Lovecraft, the “placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity” — and when the bad stuff did happen, it wasn’t because you’d done wrong, it was because it was just bound to happen eventually.

Lovecraft did have divine-seeming entities in his mythology, but they were only “divine” because they were so much more powerful than humans. They weren’t gods in the truly religious sense. They didn’t create the universe nor did they stand outside of it. Even when (as in At the Mountains of Madness) they took part in the creation of humankind, they didn’t do so out of divine benevolence, but because they were toying around with genetics, trying to create something useful to them, and mankind was a by-product. Their attitude to humanity was indifference, as was the universe’s. (And Lovecraft’s most god-like being, the “blind idiot god” Azathoth, is a cosmic force without intelligence, and certainly without any feelings toward, or awareness of, humanity.)

The closest thing Alien (till Ridley Scott came out with Prometheus, anyway) has to a divine force is the Weyland-Yutani corporation, who send the crew to find the xenomorph in the first place. But the corporation does this not out of any desire to punish the crew; it does it out of indifference. The crew just happens to be close, and is expendable. They’re a tool. Ash, the android who’s human in appearance but without human feeling, is the closest we get to an embodiment of the corporation on-screen. He’s detached, scientific, obedient, indifferent: 20th century corporate man.

The Furies are very much not indifferent. They’re roused by the need for vengeance, and their role is to hound someone — into madness if necessary — till they carry out that vengeance. In the Oresteia, they urge Orestes to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, for her murder of Agamemnon — her husband, and Orestes’s father — whom she murdered because Agamemnon killed their daughter. The point of the Oresteia, though, is that the Furies represent a primal, irrational, uncivil force, and obeying them only leads to more and more vengeance in a never-ending cycle. That primal force is replaced, at the end of the last play in the trilogy, by the civilising force of justice, where the need for vengeance can be answered, but also ended.

I’d say that the point about the xenomorph in Alien is that it embodies an even more primal force than the Furies: life reduced to its utter biological basics of reproduction and death. The Furies are roused by human emotion, and can be placated by human reason; the xenomorph belongs to the region of the “lizard brain” where reason does not apply, and must be fought entirely on its own terms.

You may think your cat loves you, but this is how he’ll look on while you’re attacked by a xenomorph — with mild, professional interest

Because Memory moves quickly, giving us snippets of its various arguments rather than anything extended, I don’t feel Dr Linn was given the full opportunity to present his xenomorph-as-Furies argument, so I feel bad arguing against it on such scanty evidence. At one point he does say that “Alien is the response to Prometheus trying to steal fire from the heavens”, which I take it isn’t a reference to Scott’s 2012 sequel, but the mythical figure. But is he saying the crew of the Nostromo are “stealing fire from the heavens”? If anyone is, it’s the Weyland-Yutani corporation, but it’s the crew who suffer the punishment.

(That line from the Oresteia, “The reek of human blood smiles out at me,” reminds me of the xenomorph-like demogorgon in the first season of Stranger Things, which is attracted by blood, and does, in many ways, act as a Fury — it’s the abused Eleven’s uncontrollable rage against a world that misused her, and which, at the end, threatens to consume her, too.)

Though I love the way Memory explores links between Alien’s xenomorph and ancient myth, I think Alien, and Lovecraftian horror-mythologies generally, represent something genuinely new that the 20th century brought to the cauldron of myth. Before that, whether the divine forces that governed our lives were vengeful, wrathful, hostile or benign, our mythologies depicted a universe alive with active, intelligent forces interested in human beings. The 20th century, and the strand of Lovecraftian cosmicism that leads up to Alien, introduced a wholly new element in which the universe was utterly indifferent to humankind, and anything good or bad that happened did so by chance. This is what I feel is the real power behind the xenomorph in Alien, and it was something that was only intensified (and further Lovecraftified) when Scott began working on his 21st-century sequels, starting with Prometheus. Although these later films address religious-level questions — who created us and why — they’re met with cosmic-horror answers, not the sort we’d get from the divinities of ancient myth.

Still, I liked Memory, which did a good job of exploring the thematic depths of Alien and the story of how it came to be made, and why it still feels so powerful. After the shower scene in Psycho and the chest-burster scene in Alien, what is the next iconic moment in cinema that Philippe is going to examine?

Out of the Silent Planet by C S Lewis

First edition. Cover by Harold Jones.

Some time in the mid-to-late 1930s, C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien agreed to each write an “excursionary ‘thriller’”, as Tolkien put it, with Tolkien attempting a story of time-travel and Lewis one of space-travel. Tolkien never finished his (what exists was eventually included in The Lost Road and Other Writings), whereas C S Lewis went on to write a whole trilogy, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet (published in 1938).

Lewis later called it his “Space Trilogy” (it’s also known as the Ransom Trilogy, and the Cosmic Trilogy). One of its main inspirations was David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, which Lewis first read some time between 1935 and 1938. Lindsay “is the first writer to discover what ‘other planets’ are really good for in fiction”, Lewis writes in his essay “On Stories”. Elsewhere, in a 1947 letter to Ruth Pitter, he says that it was from Lindsay he “first learned what other planets in fiction are really good for: for spiritual adventures” (though he found Lindsay’s own outlook “so Manichaean as to be almost Satanic”).

That said, Out of the Silent Planet doesn’t display a great deal of explicit Arcturan influence (for that, you have to look to the second book, Perelandra) beyond the idea that a science fiction adventure needn’t simply pay homage to what Lewis felt was the purely scientific worldview, and could instead be used to present his own spiritual outlook.

The novel begins with philologist Dr Elwin Ransom, on a walking holiday somewhere in Britain, being kidnapped and taken to a planet he at first only knows as Malacandra. He is, it seems, to be a sacrifice to the creatures of that world, whom his human kidnappers want to appease so they can establish a base there, for mining gold and perhaps, in the future, colonisation. His kidnappers aren’t merely ruthless criminals, but a “great physicist” Dr Weston (who has “Einstein on toast and drinks a pint of Schrödinger’s blood for breakfast”), and a schoolboy bully of a businessman, Devine. Of the two, Devine’s main motivator is greed (he just wants Malacandra’s gold), whereas Weston is more idealistic, though not in any good way. Weston is a believer in the Life Force, in human expansion and survival as an end itself. To him:

“Life is greater than any system of morality; her claims are absolute. It is not by tribal taboos and copy-book maxims that she has pursued her relentless march from the amoeba to man and from man to civilisation.”

Once they touch down, Ransom escapes as soon as he can, and for a while is caught in a state of terror. Fed on a diet of the day’s science fiction, he’s come to expect the inhabitants of any non-Earth planet to be reptilian or insect-like, “alien, cold… superhuman in power, subhuman in cruelty”, combining “monstrosity of form” with “ruthlessness of will”. But what he finds is that Malacandra — or Mars, as he learns it to be — is in fact a harmonious place, home to three intelligent races, the hrossa, the sorns, and the pfifltriggi, and that none of these ever wanted him as a sacrifice. That idea was all down to Weston and Devine’s inability to understand the inhabitants of Malacandra in any way but their own imperialist prejudices.

1951 edition

Away from Weston and Devine, Ransom starts to learn the Malacandran language, and to appreciate Malacandran ways of life. The hrossa have a tribal, hunter-gatherer-style existence, and revere poetry above all other accomplishments. “They are our great speakers and singers,” Ransom is told. “They have more words and better.” The sorns are tall, intelligent and wise, and revere knowledge. The pfifltriggi are “the busy people” who excel in technical skill and making things. There’s a clear parallel between these three races and the three humans, with Ransom (a philologist) being equivalent to the word-loving hrossa; Weston (a scientist) equivalent to the knowledgeable sorns; and Devine (a businessman) equivalent to the “busy people”, the pfifltriggi. (You could also make a looser parallel with Tolkien’s humans, elves, and dwarves.) The difference is, of course, that the three Malacandran races not only live in harmony with one another, but with the cosmos at large.

Even before he reaches Malacandra, Ransom becomes aware of space as something other than the cold vacuum he’d been led to expect: “the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance…” It is, in fact, closer to his idea of heaven. And it turns out that, on every planet in the solar system except Earth, there’s a deep connection with the divine cosmic order. Maleldil (God) made it all, and placed one of his chief representatives (the Oyarsa) on each planet, who in turn are served by the invisible-to-us eldila (angels). Only on Thulcandra — Earth, known to the rest of the solar system as the “Silent Planet” — have we lost touch with this divine order, and that’s because our Oyarsa (presumably Lucifer) rebelled against Maleldil, and has since been known as “the Bent One”.

Paperback version, art by Bernard Symancyk

It’s humankind’s exclusion from a directly experienced connection with this divine order that has led to our “human history — of war, slavery and prostitution”. In effect, Lewis has written a science fiction story in which mankind travels to the stars not to fight evil aliens (a generalisation presumably only true of some of the worst pulp SF of the time) but to learn of its own inherent evil.

(This also makes it the opposite of the sort of cosmic horror being written by Lovecraft. Lovecraft used science-fictional concepts to paint a picture of a universe so chaotic and indifferent to humankind as to be utterly malevolent; Lewis is saying that if only we could see beyond our blinkered view, we’d know the cosmos to be perfect, ordered, and benevolent. As long, that is, as we obey Maleldil. And why Lewis should call the God of his trilogy Maleldil — a name that, to me, screams “ancient evil” — and one of its villains Devine, I have no idea.)

The trouble — and I think this is often the thing with Lewis’s fantasy fiction, for me — is that, when making a philosophical or ethical point about our world, but setting it in a world he’s created, Lewis has already won the debate. Towards the end of Out of the Silent Planet, he has Weston present the “Life Force” viewpoint directly to the Oyarsa of Mars, but Lewis makes what Weston says sound ridiculous because of Ransom having to translate it to Malacandran, whereupon it immediately sounds self-defeating and nonsensical. Not that I’d want to defend Weston at all, it’s just that Weston combines a belief in the survival of the human race with such an utter lack of feeling for his fellow human beings that you can’t say he truly represents the purely scientific worldview, only an extreme caricature of it. So, there’s no debate. If there is a benevolent Maleldil or God, there’s no need for Weston’s worldview, because there’s something better already available. But if you take out that certainty, and Weston’s psychopathic lack of empathy, you’d have a much more nuanced, and interesting, debate which Lewis avoids.

As science fiction, Out of the Silent Planet was probably interesting in its day, as it tried to present its alien races from something of an anthropological (wrong word, I know) standpoint: as intelligent races to be understood as living beings, rather than mere invasion-fodder for a pulp adventure. But the years between then and now have seen the same thing done a lot better by other hands. There’s also not a great deal of story to this book (I prefer the second in the trilogy, Perelandra, which I’ll be writing about in the next Mewsings). Instead, Out of the Silent Planet stands out as a sort of curiosity, Lewis’s attempt at a corrective to the modern, purely scientific science fiction story, presenting the sort of cosmic order a medieval writer might have come up with, and owing more to Swift (Lewis’s pfifltriggi sound very Gulliver’s Travels to me) than to H G Wells (whom Lewis apologises to in his brief preface, for “Certain slighting references to earlier stories of this type”). Which makes it sound as though Lewis-the-enthusiastic-reader-of-stories was in conflict with Lewis-the-Christian-apologist from the start. And that perhaps most sums up my own reaction — I like the bits written by the “enthusiastic reader of stories”; less so the rest.

Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Däniken

I thought, after writing about Margaret Murray’s Witch Cult in Western Europe — a work of questionable scholarship that nevertheless went on to influence popular culture, including the fiction of H P Lovecraft — I’d write about a similar book, from half a century later, which was actually (if indirectly) influenced by Lovecraft.

It’s likely, though, that von Däniken never read Lovecraft. Jason Colavito, in his short book Origins of the Space Gods (which he has made available as a free ebook), traces the “Ancient Astronaut theory” from Helena Blavatsky and Charles Fort to Lovecraft and then to Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels’ The Morning of the Magicians (1960). (Bergier and Pauwels popularised Lovecraft in France, so the influence there is undeniable.) Morning of the Magicians became something of a countercultural source text, though von Däniken at first forgot to mention it in his own book’s bibliography, until a lawsuit reminded him how liberally he’d borrowed from it. But, as Gary Lachman points out in The Dedalus Book of the 1960s: Turn Off Your Mind, von Däniken was no stranger to borrowing, as the international research trips he’d taken whilst writing Chariots had been funded by a series of falsified bank references and credit reports, which led to von Däniken’s imprisonment, for a short time, in 1970. (According to the New York Times, a court psychiatrist described him as “a prestige‐seeker, a liar and an unstable and criminal psychopath with a hysterical character”.) And this, according to his Wikipedia entry, was not his first court appearance on similar charges.

As if this weren’t already so different from the rather cosy-looking Margaret Murray in her knitted shawl and her background in Egyptology, von Däniken is, from the start, resolutely anti-academic. He hasn’t the least interest in even the appearance of scholarship, and instead begins by attacking “traditional” archaeologists, who, in his view, do nothing but:

“…stick a couple of old potsherds together, search for one or two adjacent cultures, stick a label on the restored find and—hey, presto!—once again everything fits splendidly into the approved pattern of thoughts.”

Such closed minds, von Däniken proclaims, will put his book “on the Index of those books which are better left unmentioned”. “It took courage to write this book,” he says at the start, “and it will take courage to read it.”

He’s very much a with-me-or-against-me kind of chap.

Von Daniken calls it “the Japanese statue of Tokomai” with “modern fastenings and eye apertures on its helmet”. It’s a Dogu figurine.

Von Däniken’s own method mostly consists of rhetoric rather than proof. Although it’s usually published nowadays without a trailing question mark, the first translated title, Chariots of the Gods? (it came out in England in 1969, and the US in 1970), is a fair representation of its approach. (Its original title was Erinnerungen an die Zukunft, which can be translated as Memories of the Future.) Von Däniken’s technique is to find oddities, puzzles, and things that the average reader might be surprised to find in the ancient world, then point at them and say, “Well, who can say it’s not aliens?”

It’s a worthwhile question to ask. Once it was established that space travel was possible, and that more advanced civilisations may exist on other planets, it is worth asking if they’ve visited us in the past. But von Däniken is too invested in the answer being “yes” to take a measured approach or look for more likely alternative explanations. It’s aliens or nothing. This can result in him appearing a little ridiculous at times, or merely hectoring at others. Gary Lachman characterises him as “a pub pontificator, laying down the law with a slam on the bar”, and this does seem to fit. It’s tempting to do a von Däniken-style revision of von Däniken himself in summarising his approach:

“…stick a couple of old oddities together, search for one or two presuppositions, slap a theory on it and—hey, presto!—once again everything fits splendidly into the von Däniken pattern of thoughts!”

Certainly, once you start checking what he says with even a superficial internet search, you see holes not just in his arguments but his premises. Too often it’s like what Wolfgang Pauli said of a fellow scientist’s new theory: “It’s not even wrong.”

For instance, he claims the Ark of the Covenant was “an electric conductor of several hundred volts”. Which is meaningless, as a conductor doesn’t have a voltage. (The idea, though, that the Ark was a sort of primitive capacitor (two sheets of statically-charged metal separated by wood, an insulator), has been around since 1745. See the Jewish Bible Quarterly, “An Electric Ark: The History of an Interpretation”, by Stephen A Newman.)

To give another example, von Däniken says that carvings on the ancient Gate of the Sun at Tiwanaku depict a legend:

“It tells of a golden spaceship that came from the stars; in it came a woman, whose name was Oryana, to fulfill the task of becoming the Great Mother of the earth. Oryana had only four fingers, which were webbed. Great Mother Oryana gave birth to 70 earth children, then she returned to the stars.”

I was particularly interested in learning more about this myth, because it sounds similar to the plot of David Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor. But I could find no reference at all to “Oryana”, except in another book about alien visitors, which said she may be same as “Orichana” or “Orejona”, but even these names only seem to be mentioned by other, later books on a similar theme. I couldn’t find anything about this myth of a Great Mother from the stars. And, from what I can find out about the Gate of the Sun from more conventional accounts, it features a male god, and no “golden spaceship”. Here’s the carving:

Turning his attention to myth, von Däniken finds evidence of alien visitations everywhere. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, he focuses on a passage where “the sun god” seizes Gilgamesh’s companion Enkidu, and lies “like lead” on his body. “How on earth could the old chroniclers have known that the weight of the body becomes as heavy as lead at a certain acceleration?” von Däniken demands, ignoring the fact that it’s a common metaphor. (This incident is from the seventh tablet of the epic, and actually occurs in a dream Enkidu relates to Gilgamesh. This translation has the phrase “press’d me down”, with nothing about “lead” at all.)

Eventually I gave up checking von Däniken’s evidence, in part because I got fed up of finding he was so often vague (even his bibliography gets authors’ names wrong), and also because von Däniken’s Wikipedia entry rebuts so many of the major points, it started to feel too much like work that had already been done.

Most disappointing from my own point of view, though, is that von Däniken doesn’t really spin out his own theories into something even imaginatively interesting. He wants to ask lots of open questions, nod significantly, and pour scorn on any potential opposition, but he’s not as forthcoming on his own juicy stuff.

His pronouncements as to what these ancient aliens might have done when they came to Earth are framed speculatively, in terms of what we might do, if we travelled to another, more primitive, planet. Impress them with our technology, teach them a few laws, perhaps get them to work for us, and, of course:

“A few specially selected women would be fertilized by the astronauts. Thus a new race would arise that skipped a stage in natural evolution.”

Um, what? Von Däniken presents the idea as so self-evidently obvious that he never questions the likelihood that human astronauts travelling to another planet, or aliens coming to ours, would attempt to procreate with another, intelligent or semi-intelligent, but entirely different species. And that it might actually produce viable offspring. And that those offspring would be superior to the existing stock. It’s all a bit bizarre, and it’s a pity, here, that von Däniken didn’t read Lovecraft, because at least Lovecraft had his alien races lift mankind up the evolutionary ladder by fiddling with their genetics, not actually, you know… their jeans.

Cave art discovered in the Sahara desert by another Ancient Astronaut proponent, Henri Lhote

There was a copy of Chariots of the Gods? in our house when I was growing up, and I would every so often pick it up and look at the photos (which are the best part of it, really — or, I should say, the captions are) and wonder at the idea that our distant past might be full of hints of ancient visitors and buried, stone-encrusted fragments of advanced technology. But for some reason I never actually read the book at the time. I think I can now see why. It’s so much better to leave the idea as a distant imaginative possibility than to have it so disappointingly presented in von Däniken’s (often surprisingly quite boring) style, and find how lazy, inaccurate, and uninteresting he so often is.

(And I’ve come to feel it’s far more interesting to think that human beings — our distant ancestors — did all these odd, crazy and wondrous things in the past. Saying aliens helped them actually detracts from the wonder and oddity. Even the craziness.)

The idea of ancient astronauts was already in the culture by the time von Däniken’s book came out, thanks to Lovecraft and those inspired by him, as well as Nigel Kneale, whose Quatermass and the Pit is far better than anything von Däniken comes up with. But Chariots had a definite, if minor, impact on popular culture. Rod Serling fronted a US TV series based on the book in 1973, In Search of Ancient Astronauts, and its popularity perhaps fed into a few films, though the only ones I can think of are Stargate, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and apparently Ridley Scott has mentioned it in connection with Prometheus. So, we’re not exactly talking top-grade cultural material.

It’s certainly not the source-text Margaret Murray’s book was, though Chariots of the Gods? and its like have had perhaps a wider, continued cultural impact. Not, though, from the text itself, but the ideas its hints and questions might inspire.

Von Däniken’s technique is, in a way, similar to Lovecraft’s, who wrote that “no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care & verisimilitude of an actual hoax” — for instance, peppering it with enough references to facts and genuine mysteries that it bamboozles the reader into wondering if the story being told is actually real. But Lovecraft was writing fiction, and did it far better.