Maybe this summer sci-fi blockbusters will rule (Men in Black, Prometheus).
In “The Cosmic Menagerie” (New Yorker, June 4, 2012) , Laura Miller asks, “What did the first fictional aliens look like?”, offering us a bit of the history of the genre:
Rosny’s “scientific romances”—as the genre was called until the nineteen-thirties—won him the esteem of some French scientists, according to Danièle Chatelain and George Slosser, the translators of the recently published “Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Mankind” (Wesleyan). Today, Rosny is best known as the author of the novel that is the basis for the 1981 film “Quest for Fire.” In the new collection’s bold introduction, Chatelain and Slosser champion the relatively obscure Rosny, over Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, as the true “father of hard science fiction”—a term used to describe narratives in which science, not human concerns, determines how the story unfolds. Rosny, they assert, was the first to attempt fiction in this “neutral, ahumanistic manner.”
Rosny’s stories have a stripped-down, lunar quality, and are subject to disorienting shifts in tone. His first alien yarn, titled “The Xipéhuz,” was published in 1887. It begins as a prehistoric adventure (a popular genre at the time), and is related in the solemn, archaic cadences of a fable. A wandering tribe on Earth comes across a clearing occupied by a “large circle of bluish, translucent cones,” each with a “dazzling star” near its base. Close by, the tribesmen spy “strata-like forms . . . somewhat like birch bark” and a few “nearly cylindrical” objects, all of which begin to “undulate.” These are the mysterious Xipéhuz. Suddenly, the aliens attack, killing the humans, in a hazily described manner that causes the victims to be “struck down as if by the sword of lightning.” Priests approach the Xipéhuz with offerings, acknowledging their status as gods, but that only results in more casualties.
Where do the Xipéhuz come from? Capable of shape-shifting from cone to strata to cylinder, they certainly seem otherworldly, but Rosny offers no explanation for their presence. In a story that he published two decades later, “The Death of the Earth,” the beleaguered remnants of humanity confront an even stranger species. In the distant future, Earth is racked by massive earthquakes and water shortages. In the wastelands beyond the few surviving settlements, a new life-form emerges: the ferromagnetics, sentient metallic beings that glow in the dark. (Rosny was big on bioluminescence.) Although the creatures are not manifestly hostile, they will vampirically leach the iron from the blood of any human who spends too much time around them. The hero, at the story’s conclusion, is the last human alive, and he decides to lie down among ferromagnetics so that a trace of his own species will be preserved in Earth’s inheritors.
The original selfish gene meets the original monolith?
Anyway, Men in Black:
Here’s a great free source of space alien graphics.