Stanislaw Lem on Alien Invasions

The invasion of Wells’s Martians is certainly justified by their situation as inhabitants of a dying planet that is turning into a desert, from which perspective the fruitful earth hovers as territory (Lebensraum) to be conquered. What proves to be an exceptional case within the solar system was nonetheless thoughtlessly appropriated as the model for the whole science-fiction genre. Indeed, the successors to Wells mechanically imitated the failings of the master. The science fiction that followed his sickened on the chronic monstrosity of stellar invaders, while leaving behind the rationale by which Wells accounts for it. Furthermore, later writers, wanting at all costs to surpass the founder of the genre in their rendering of aliens’ hideousness, went well beyond the limits of plausibility. By equipping their aliens with ever greater power, they filled the entire universe with civilizations whose desire to expand is wholly irrational. The greater the power attributed to the aliens, the more irrational is their invasion of earth. In this phase, science fiction became a fantasy of imposture and of paranoid delusions, because it claimed that the cosmic powers were sharpening their fangs the better to eat humanity, as if earth and its treasures were of incalculable value not only for the inhabitants of a small desert planet like Mars, but also for every imaginable civilization in the galaxy. Yet the preconception that a power with armies of starships at its disposal could be dead set on taking over our property is as naïve as the assumption that one of the superpowers of earth would mobilize its armies in order to expropriate a grocery store. The price of the invasion must always be higher than the value of the loot.

Thus invasion plots could not be motivated by interest in material gain. Instead, the aliens attack earth because it pleases them to do so; they destroy because they want to destroy; they enslave humanity because it amuses them to exercise tyrannical mastery. In this way, science fiction exchanged Wellsian interplanetary Darwinism for a sadism which became a cosmic constant in intercivilizational contacts. Science fiction’s task of forming hypotheses was replaced by that of projection, in the sense the word has in depth psychology: the authors projected their fears and self-generated delusions onto the universe. They thereby established a paranoid cosmos, in which everything having so much as a hint of life sets about the conquest of earth—a cosmos that is a trap set to catch humankind, a cosmos whose evolution comes down to an embodiment of the principle of “Civilization as a wolf to Civilization” (cp. homo lupus homini).

This “den of thieves” cosmos was later transfigured many times over. Its general unfriendliness was mechanically transformed into friendliness. The aliens attack, but only to rob us of our free will and to preserve humankind by taking us into protective custody (this motif became especially popular during the Cold War years); or they don’t attack immediately, but hesitate and thus enable humankind to unite: in view of the stellar threat, solidarity wins.

SOURCE: Lem, Stanislaw. “About the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic,” in Microworlds: Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Franz Rottensteiner (New York: Harvest / HBJ, 1986), pp. 246-247.

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by Stanislaw Lem

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