Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Brian Aldiss marks the centenary of HG Wells’ birth.  Published by Sphere Books 1968.  Cover photograph by David Davies.

Brian Aldiss marks the centenary of HG Wells’ birth. Published by Sphere Books 1968. Cover photograph by David Davies.

Evolution through the process of natural selection results in what is commonly referred to as the “survival of the fittest”.  Those that don’t meet the challenge become extinct.  It’s the sort of basic adaptation which we can expect to apply to any species on any planet, just as it does on Earth.

So we see creatures in science fiction which have clearly evolved in particularly brutal environments and pose serious threats to any human they come up against.  The title character of the 2013 movie Riddick has to fight off a range of unpleasant native predators on the planet where he is stranded, before encountering even worse threats from other humans.  But possibly the most famous such being is the endlessly ferocious, acid-blooded title creature from Alien in 1979 and its sequels.

Having said that, the alien concerned isn’t the brightest entity to ever walk a planet, and usually falls foul of the one evolved characteristic of its opponents which trumps all else – intelligence.  In the 2004 film Alien vs Predator, the intelligence of a Predator – beings who originated in the 1987 movie of that name – gives it the upper hand when fighting an Alien as a sort of rite of passage.  Well, not always, but at least sometimes.  But their great advantage over humans was obvious from the first Predator film – a Predator could become invisible.  Its cloaking device gave it a definite edge.

Which raises the enormous evolutionary advantage that any species would have if it developed the natural ability to become, or to remain, invisible.  Great for any predator when ambushing prey, or for any prey when trying to avoid getting caught.  And people have long had a fear of an invisible enemy that may be lurking around the corner, as Guy de Maupassant recognised in his classic 1887 short story The Horla.  This narrator of the story, whose sanity is never entirely certain, describes a threat from an invisible being that appears to have evil designs on him, and possibly all humanity.

This may have inspired HP Lovecraft’s evocative tales of extraterrestrials out to conquer mankind.  The short story writer Ambrose Bierce also tackled the subject in The Damned Thing from 1893.  The diary of a man who has been killed in mysterious circumstances indicates that he was hunting what he believed to be a dangerous creature that, having no colour whatsoever, was invisible.  Since it was unseen, it was indeterminate in size and shape, and all the more chilling because of that.

More recently, the science fiction author Brian Aldiss, who sadly passed away last month at the age of 92 after an extraordinary career in the genre, added a new dimension in his Nebula Award winning 1966 novella The Saliva Tree, which he wrote as a form of pastiche of HG Wells’ work to commemorate the centenary of Wells’ birth.  Set in rural England in the last years of the nineteenth century, two young gentlemen discuss typically Wellsian issues such as the nature of the fourth dimension and the prospects for a truly socialist society, and witness the fall of an unusual meteorite in a pond at a nearby farm.  The being that emerges seems to cause more havoc from the fact that it is invisible rather than any actual damage that it brings about, though that changes soon enough.

Strange and increasingly worrying events take place on the farm, allowing the main character to speculate on the severe problems for humanity if such aliens continue to visit the Earth.  A threat from hostile extraterrestrials is bad enough, but even worse if they are unseen.  They may even have been around for some time, as in the 1959 film Invisible Invaders, and we wouldn’t know it.

There can be little doubt, though, that invisibility would provide an immense evolutionary advantage to any alien species, and there’s a certain logic in suggesting that the top predator in the Galaxy, and thus the most superior alien civilization, cannot be seen.  It’s one answer to the Fermi Paradox.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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