[On July 8th, 1947, something happened in Roswell, New Mexico. It was probably just a weather balloon (or like a really big condor), but ever since a not-insignificant community of Americans have believed that an alien landed there and was covered up by the US government. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Roswell and other cultural representations of aliens in America, leading up to a special weekend post on one of the most famous and influential such representations ever, The X-Files!]
On the longstanding, contemporary, and problematic sides to an otherworldly theory.
Despite spending his whole life in Europe (nearly all of it in his native France), pioneering author Jules Verne seems to have understood quite well a longstanding American tendency: our obsession with space, and our ability to use that alien world as an escape when things are especially difficult or fearful here at home. Verne set his groundbreaking science fiction novel From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and its sequel Around the Moon (1870) in a post-Civil War America, one in which the adventurers of the Baltimore Gun Club hope to create a vehicle that can take them away from this troubled place and toward that extraterrestrial body. 150 years later, Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s groundbreaking science fiction film Interstellar (2014) represents the latest version of this trend, using space travel and the possibilities of escape to other worlds as an alternative to climate change and inevitable destruction here on Earth.
No historical moment better encapsulated this trend than the first decades of the Cold War. There’s a reason why President John F. Kennedy emphasized in a 1962 speech a successful American journey to the moon as a central goal for the decade—while that ambition was partly based on the practical fears of Soviet space domination inspired by Sputnik and the Space Race, I would argue that it also gave the nation yet another way to focus on the heavens as an escape from such terrestrial fears and concerns. Fifteen years prior to Kennedy’s speech, in the first years of the Cold War, a routine incident—the crash of an Air Force surveillance balloon near Roswell, New Mexico—had produced an even more elaborate escapist space fantasy, the suspicions and stories of a covered-up alien landing that would become one of the nation’s most extended and enduring conspiracy theories. From TV shows like the X-Files and Roswell (1999-2002) to a central sequence in the film Independence Day (1996), the Roswell theory has become a staple of American popular culture, a shorthand for both the belief in extraterrestrials and this broader fascination with the mysteries of space.
That fascination seems silly and harmless at its worst, and (as with the very successful culmination of Kennedy’s and NASA’s 60s goals) productive and meaningful at its best. But NASA’s successes notwithstanding, I would argue that there is a more problematic side to the escapist space fantasies exemplified by the Roswell theory (besides the suspicious anti-government rhetoric it can engender and amplify, which is a recurring theme across many conspiracy theories). As he has done so often, Don Henley nicely summed up my thoughts on the matter, in the song “They’re Not Here, They’re Not Coming” from his album Workin’’ It (2000). Henley notes that such theories of alien encounters “carry our highest hopes and our darkest fears,” but recognizes them for the escapist fantasies that they are: “Now you long to be delivered from this world of pain and strife/That’s a sorry substitution for a spiritual life.” That last line is a bit more preachy than I would like, but I would agree with Henley’s concluding recommendation for what we must do instead, now more than ever: “Turn your hopes back homeward/Hold your children, dry their tears.”
Next AlienStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other representations of aliens (in America or otherwise) you’d highlight?
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