Dispatches from Venus
Aliens, androids, and human cruelty
In February of this year, I wrote about the May before, about springtime and Ray Bradbury’s imagining of Venus, where the sun shines only once every seven years. There is a particular hour upon the earth, always an evening and usually at the end of April, that I wait for each spring. This is the first clear evening hour after the cherry blossoms have opened wide along the river in Boston. I can usually call it by an unusual quality of light through the window—the way you know a rainbow or a tornado you can’t yet see by the right, odd tinge of sky and your animal gut.
It has to be the reflection of the new, strange pale pink blossoms in the still-winter sky that makes the earth below look so different for that hour or so. I seek out the experience of it each year because I know I’ll remember it, that I can trick my brain into taking note of its novelty in a kind of manual override of the senses.
This year of course was different. A fact easily buried in the molten stratifications of our fast and ruthless pandemic timeline, it was also the warmest winter on land on record. And by my records (these being the same essential photographs I take and post to Instagram every year to mark the happening), this hour arrived on Earth a full ten days earlier than the previous year’s. I had an appointment with a nurse on my iPhone that afternoon. She waited kindly after I pricked myself uncapping the needle and yelped, talking to me as I held pressure on my finger. And talked me through the quick, soft slip into the thigh—just meat, after all. I applied pressure, a bandaid, sent whatever emails were necessary for whatever reasons, saw the clouds clearing the curious sky, signed off, and slipped out.
I took the photograph. I ran my bandaged, tender fingertips against the blossoms. I pulled back, wondering how long COVID-19 could live on the petals of an ephemeral flower. There is grief inherent in every winter or season of cold slumbering, and a ritual, natural rejoicing in the spring. But here, too, I felt grief—felt it like a damp sense of death in my animal gut on February mornings, when I looked between the day’s forecast and my seasonal coats in disbelief, shrugging a denim jacket around my shoulders instead. And this year there would be so much grief, suffocating us in so many layers of loss, cruelty, conflict, and despair.
There is a similar kind of grief in science fiction stories like “All Summer In a Day”—the kind that sees an alternate but remotely possible version of ourselves pulled away from Earth, away from the lives we knew, with children dreaming animal dreams of a sun they’ve never seen. Bradbury writes of “rocket men and women,” of Ohio, of the cost of returning to Earth. Is it only colonizer greed that pulls us away? Desperation? Either of which begs us to wonder, oh god, what did we do?
Bradbury published the short story in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1954. By 1961, the Soviet Union had launched the first in its Venera probe series to fly past, and eventually land on, Venus; early radio observations had dispelled any hope for a lush or even hospitable environment at the surface since the time of Bradbury’s writing. Yet his Venus is a tropic run amok, sodden and strange from ceaseless rain:
“They stopped running and stood in the great jungle that covered Venus, that grew and never stopped growing, tumultuously, even as you watched it. It was a nest of octopi, clustering up great arms of fleshlike weed, wavering, flowering in this brief spring. It was the color of rubber and ash, this jungle, from the many years without sun. It was the color of stones and white cheeses and ink, and it was the color of the moon. The children lay out, laughing, on the jungle mattress, and heard it sigh and squeak under them resilient and alive.”
I remember reading this story in grade school, but I do not recall reacting so squeamishly to the descriptions of alien vegetation as I do now. But I have been watching a lot of movies about space this year in particular—and eerily familiar, fleshy lifeforms are rarely, if ever, so benevolent in such movies. The story is also more about the children’s experimentation with human cruelty, which is what lingers with the reader: They resent their classmate Margot for remembering the sun, for assuring them it will come, for knowing what they do not, and lock her in a closet for its one precious hour in seven long, dark years.
Stories about space offer a lot for our present moment of isolation, fear, and uncertainty. Quarantine, for example, is often the standard procedure in space after exposure to alien life or an unfamiliar planet. It is often insisted upon as the course of action by at least one character, and broken just as quickly by another. But when space quarantine is not heeded, it is quite possible that everyone on the ship will end up dead.
I am referring here to a specific kind of science fiction narrative about space. Movies which retell or imagine forward the literal Space Race are technically movies about space, but are usually far more concerned with bolstering a collective sense of nationalism and the individual acts of heroism (and sacrifice) necessary to preserve it. This is a good litmus test for any movie that seems on its surface to be about space: Does the film reinforce these values or demonstrate their consequences? If the former is true, you are merely watching a piece of earthly propaganda.
The presence of an alien is usually, though not always (Independence Day!), an indicator of the type of movie I mean, and the presence of an android, almost certainly. (As with the concept of cryosleep, I have to periodically do a Google like, wait, do androids actually exist yet?) We are both more, and less, preoccupied with simpler artificial intelligence, with identifying traffic lights to swear on our corporeal form that no, I am not a robot to access information, with the small military-grade devices we hold in our hands, which ransack our search activity and intimate conversations for data points with which to sell us back to ourselves. Artificial intelligence takes numerous non-humanoid forms even in science fiction movies—the chummy and dutiful ex-combat bots in Interstellar, the sensitive and omnipresent operating system HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey—but when presented to us in a form that mirrors our own, it seems to indicate that a certain point has been crossed. A point of technological progress and an existential point of no return usually skim down either side of a fine blade.
Some messages can be delivered by astronaut Brad Pitt or Matthew McConaughey, palatable promises of hope and resilience that go down smooth and slippery as an oyster. More complex reckonings often take more ambitious inventions.
The original Alien is a classic example. Set against an interplanetary capitalism, even the furthest reaches of space are mined for resources. The ship’s crew, a heirarchy of workers on three-year contracts to haul ore through space, awake and begin to gripe over rank and pay. They report simply to “the Company,” an unseen entity except through the ship’s operating system, which has roused them from cryosleep far from Earth to coolly delegate a new imperative to the crew: investigate potential distress signal. What seems to be a matter of simple obligation quickly devolves into chaos when one of the crew is impregnated through the mouth by a fleshy and terrifying alien scorpion-thing and another turns out to be an android. (According to screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, Alien is also an attempt to terrify men specifically with the possibility of such violation and insemination.) Sent by the Company, the android reveals the true imperative of collecting and returning an alien for study as a biological weapon—“crew expandable.”
The alien spawn rapidly molts into a silent, stalking, phallic nightmare mantis and begins to pick off the crew. But what’s scarier than the alien itself (and it’s quite horrifying—because of said imagery, because you never see it until it’s too late, because of the physicality of the 6'10" actor within the lubricated nightmare suit, etc.) is the possibility that one day some unhinged future escalation of a Donald Trump or Elon Musk type could deem you totally expendable to the attainment of some knowledge or technology that can be weaponized, and the reality that to at least some extent they likely already have.
While Alien’s android Ash acts within the brutal systems he is assigned, he still expresses abject admiration for the alien creature, whether by the design of his programming or its eventual degradation: “I admire its purity—a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” He is given an even more unruly predecessor of similar sentiments in Prometheus, the maybe-prequel released nearly four decades (and three bewildering sequels) later. We meet the android David alone on the eponymous ship. As the human passengers pass the two-year voyage in cryosleep, David shoots hoops, touches up his roots (really), brushes up on his Proto-Indo-European languages (again, really), and rewatches Lawrence of Arabia. (The profound loneliness of this montage hits a new nerve in the context of this year.) And, of course, he must dutifully check on the health of the hibernating crew. Though by the time of the film’s opening, he is far more interested in the human protagonist, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. While she sleeps, he invades her memories, accessing and replaying them through her cryopod’s interface. When she wakes, he invades her body, slipping generative alien goo into her husband’s drink in the hopes she’ll be impregnated with the offspring.
Like a lot of people in movies about space, David has issues with his father—to be more precise, his creator. What is my purpose, David wonders. Why was I made? “Because they could,” shrugs Elizabeth’s husband (as he unwittingly downs the goo). Like the Soviet Venera probes or Apollo, David is merely one within a mechanical sequence: the eighth iteration, and perhaps first success, in an endeavor to develop convincing artificial intelligence by Dr. Peter Weyland (a fictional Elon Musk type). But David is both as sensitive and inquisitive as 2001’s HAL and as physically threatening as a serial killer. And like Bradbury’s children of Venus, he begins to experiment with human cruelty. Though he is quite obviously stung when Dr. Weyland reminds him of his literal soullessness and the humans around him reinforce that status, he relishes his chances at agency and revenge without remorse—using Dr. Shaw to incubate his attempts to “perfect” the alien species and witnessing Dr. Weyland’s demise to dutifully affirm the collapse of his dreams. (“There’s nothing,” Elon Musk—er, Dr. Weyland croaks. “I know,” David chirps smugly. “Have a good journey, Mr. Weyland.”)
The role of the android in science fiction is one that can and has been richly explored to examine othered and marginalized identities in society. In this particular franchise, however, they happen to operate more like Nazis. What makes David so disturbing is not that we’ve never encountered any cruelty like his—it’s because he mimics our own.
As David combs back his freshly bleached roots in front of the mirror, he recites a line from Lawrence of Arabia as though it were a mantra: “The trick,” the film-within-a-film’s own blond protagonist explains while snuffing out a match between bare fingertips, “is not minding that it hurts.”
And that’s the trick to our cruelty, too, isn’t it? Not minding who or what it hurts.
If you like space content, I draw a little astronaut traveling through space sometimes.