I have this childhood memory of one of those rigged games at a county fair where the prize was a stuffed alien. I wanted it really bad. It looked just like the Halloween costume I’d made with my mom a few years back. We covered a balloon with Papier-mâché and when it dried we popped the balloon, cut out almond-shaped eyes, and spray painted the whole thing silver. This stuffed alien looked just like my costume but it was electric green and had a beautiful black cape with silver embroidery. I won it (don’t remember the game) and kept it for a long time. I might still have it somewhere.
Being the 90s kid I am, I was excited to see a New York Times story about a 2004 incident off the coast of San Diego where two Navy airmen followed a U.F.O. as it, “appeared suddenly at 80,000 feet, and then hurtled toward the sea, eventually stopping at 20,000 feet and hovering. Then they either dropped out of radar range or shot straight back up.” I was hoping this story might circulate for a while, especially given that a $22 million Defense Department program meant to study U.F.Os was recently discovered in the Pentagon’s black money budget. There’s even video of the thing! Sadly, it barely scratched the surface of most newsfeed algorithms.
The paltry reaction to such amazing footage might annoy me, but it isn’t surprising. The 21st century, in spite of 20th century sci-fi’s predictions, has been radically ambivalent to the stars. There’s no Star Trek on primetime TV and The X-Files reboot received mixed reviews. In the 90s there were not one but two Star Trek series running throughout the whole decade, The X-Files was one of the most popular shows on television, and alien abductions were fodder for weekly episodes of Unsolved Mysteries. UFO sightings were also a dime a dozen, providing source material for books, documentaries, and even feature films.
Then, something changed. Part of the change is cultural, which, I’ve argued before, is exemplified by South Park’s Eric Cartman. Even as an 80-foot satellite dish emerges from his butt, he refuses to believe that he’s been abducted by aliens:
This syncs up nicely with Vox style explainerism to create a furiously obnoxious ethos where fun half-truths die and only the vindictive lies remain. One is either the liberal explainer Cartman who is technically correct (e.g. “There is only a 0.0024 percent chance that an 80-foot satellite dish is coming out of my ass.”) or the alt-right Cartman who refuses to acknowledge the satellite dish in the first place. Either way you’re Cartman.
I still think its accurate to say that we’re governed by a cynical desire to prove others wrong, either through bad faith deployments of data or categorical denials of incontrovertible evidence. What’s remarkable is how well represented both perspectives seem to be in our politics. It’s sort of amazing that one society can contain both Fivethiryeight.com and a Centers for Disease Control that can’t use the phrase “evidence-based” in their reports.
First contact stories have always really been about humanity. We are on our best behavior, or rise to the occasion when aliens arrive. In the 90s we proved our worth through feats of technical achievement (Star Trek: First Contact, Contact) or we defeated them (Independence Day, Mars Attacks). Either case required massive cooperation and the suspension of usual conflict. But what happens when a fragmented society such as our own encounters the extraterrestrial?
More recent takes on first contact —namely Europa Report in 2013 and District 9 in 2006— are very different. In Europa Report first contact is deadly and a part of a larger corporate conspiracy. In District 9 humans are the antagonists: forcing aliens into Johannesburg’s slums. Mars Attacks may actually belong in this list too. Jack Nicholson’s President James Dale gives what reads today as a decidedly Trumpian speech (read the YouTube comments if you don’t believe me): “what is wrong with you people? we could work together! why be enemies? because we’re different? is that why? think of the things we could do. think how strong we would be. earth and mars— together.” President Dale is then stabbed through the heart by a Martian’s robot hand. Defeating the aliens in Mars Attacks is achieved through an accidental discovery instead of super-human achievement.
While District 9 is based in (white) humanity’s track record of reacting to foreign visitors, Mars Attacks pokes fun at our earnest belief that our leaders are the most honorable and talented society has to offer– their Sorkin-esque speeches ensuring that “we do not go quietly into the night.”
We don’t believe that anymore. Most don’t see the president as competent, let alone inspiring. If we can no longer maintain the fiction of imagining our leadership as competent, then what use are aliens to us? They’re dinner guests showing up when you haven’t finished tidying up. They’re rubberneckers at a crash site. If aliens showed up today we would feel kinda embarrassed because we don’t feel like we’re at our best right now. Sure in the 90s, when we published books that heralded the end of history, we were happy to show off humanity, but today we are back to feeling society is a work in progress.
We aren’t paying attention to the New York Times’ reporting on U.F.Os because we don’t want to pay attention to humanity. In the past we used U.F.Os as an excuse to imagine what global cooperation would look like and we searched the skies to see if we would ever have the chance to try it out. Such cooperation and even our own best selves seem very far away at the moment. We’re not accepting visitors at the moment but hopefully, soon, we will.