Aliens with Tentacles

I’m in the process of assembling a presentation for Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, Arizona that discusses the origins of terrifying aliens from space coming to invade the Earth. The presentation dovetails with the convention’s theme, “Cthulhu For President.” H.P. Lovecraft describes his most famous creation as, “a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.” During my research, I discovered that Cthulhu is part of a long line of terrifying monsters inspired by octopi and squids.

Personally, I’ve always found cephalopods fascinating and a little mysterious. Octopi often seem elusive when I visit aquariums and either hide or don’t give me very good photo ops. This is one of the best photos I’ve taken of an octopus at the Seattle Aquarium in 2008:

octopus

That said, when I invented the Alpha Centaurans for my novel The Pirates of Sufiro, I gave them tentacles to make them immediately distinct and “alien” as I was getting the action off the ground. When Captain Firebrandt from The Pirates of Sufiro returns in Kepler’s Cowboys, I wanted to give him a truly dangerous and frightening opponent in the water. The first thing that came to mind was a giant squid.

My octopus-inspired aliens and scary squid are really heirs to a science fiction trope that goes well back to the nineteenth century. For some reason, the Victorians found squids and octopi truly frightening. Camille Flammarion was, in many ways, the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his day. He wrote popular science books about astronomy and biology. He also wrote science fiction. In his book, Lumen, he imagines extraterrestrial beings from a star in the constellation Andromeda who live in water and must “keep their tentacles in unceasing motion.”

In The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells described the Martians as having pulsating bodies, a beak-like mouth, and lank, tentacular appendages. Although Jules Verne tended to steer away from aliens in his fiction, one can make a case that he capitalized on the Victorian terror regarding cephalopods when he had a giant squid attack the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

By all accounts, H.P. Lovecraft was an avid reader and would have been familiar with the works of Wells and Verne—and possibly Flammarion as well, who was widely translated and in circulation during Lovecraft’s youth. So, it’s really no surprise that in 1926 when Lovecraft created his most famous monster, he would invoke the image of the octopus to inspire terror in his readers.

When I created my tentacled alien for The Pirates of Sufiro, I gave it little conscious thought, but it’s clear I was being inspired by those early works as well. When I put Captain Firebrandt up against a giant squid, I knew Verne had inspired me. Whether conscious inspiration or not, it’s all enough to make me think twice the next time I order octopus sushi or calamari rings. I’d hate for our cephalopod overlords to be displeased!

Secret Science

A fictional trope I encounter frequently working at Kitt Peak National Observatory is the idea that I might have access to some top secret information that the general public doesn’t know. For example, I’m often asked whether there’s an asteroid getting ready to pummel the Earth or if aliens exist. I have indeed pointed telescopes at objects expected to pass close to the Earth, and even one that passed between the Earth and Moon. That object had already been on the news before I went to work. As for aliens—I work near the Mexican border. All the aliens I’ve met have perfectly terrestrial origins.

For all I know, this might happen after the aliens leave Kitt Peak.

For all I know, this might happen after the aliens leave Kitt Peak.

The fact of the matter is that science, by its nature, is remarkably open and transparent. We aren’t in the business of keeping secrets. Science progresses by presenting not only results but details of how those results were obtained so others can attempt to duplicate the results. What’s more, scientists actually require independent confirmation of results before they’re presented as discoveries.

This is why the president’s recent actions requiring that press releases and announcements from agencies such as the EPA and the Forest Service be vetted by the White House concerns me. It’s just like the fictional trope of the government deciding what science is fit for the public to hear. Of course, what’s almost worse is the impression that the White House wants all scientific results to match its political objectives.

Admittedly there are times when scientific secrecy is appropriate. A good example would be World War II’s Manhattan Project in which the atomic bomb was developed. That said, here’s a story my graduate advisor, Dr. Stirling Colgate, used to tell. He was a high school student at the Los Alamos Boys School, which was part of the land taken over for the Manhattan Project. He remembers seeing two mysterious strangers called Dr. Smith and Dr. Jones who toured the campus. He met up with some friends and they realized Dr. Smith and Dr. Jones were, in fact Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, whose photos were in their physics textbooks. They pondered why Oppenheimer and Fermi were visiting their little out-of-the-way school and realized that they were there to build the atomic bomb. The point of this story is that while the project was secret, the physics used was available to anyone, and even a high school boy in New Mexico could have sufficient theoretical understanding to know what was afoot. Of course, a boy smart enough to understand that scientists were about to build the atomic bomb was smart enough to know he’d get in a lot of trouble if he revealed what he figured out!

An element of secrecy that I deal with on a daily basis is that I avoid discussing results obtained by the astronomers I work with before they’ve had a chance to publish it. This is not because the data itself is necessarily secret, but because the observers need time to analyze their data and feel confident in the results before they announce it to the world. In this case, my role as an observing associate is not unlike my role as a book editor. As an editor, it would be inappropriate for me to post an author’s work without their permission. In much the same way, the data obtained at the telescope isn’t “mine” to share.

astronomers-crypt-453x680

In my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, I playfully use the trope of secret science when two characters encounter a creature at the observatory they don’t understand. The joke is that secret science doesn’t really happen and that astronomers don’t grow monsters in their mountaintop laboratories. While not everyone takes the time to understand science, the facilities are generally open and the results are available. Unfortunately, one of the dangers of a government releasing only the science it deems appropriate is that it throws a cloak over the whole process, which is no laughing matter. There suddenly becomes the possibility that results are selectively presented for political aims. This not only has the potential to invalidate scientific results, but also means the public doesn’t get to see what their tax dollars are funding. For all anyone knows, we might be growing monsters, harboring aliens, or keeping the next apocalyptic asteroid a secret for fear it might cause the stock market to plummet.

The “Monsters” of Star Trek

I remember the first episode of the original Star Trek I watched. I must have been around five or six years old and Captain Kirk was being chased around the desert by the largest, most ferocious green lizard man I had ever seen. Monsters-Star-Trek When the creature first appeared hissing and growling with its strange, segmented eyes, it would have sent me to hide and watch from behind the couch if our couch hadn’t been backed against a wall. Scared as I was, the episode hooked me and even made me feel a little sorry for the green lizard man when Captain Kirk finally beat him. That likely was not only the beginning of my love of Star Trek but my love of monsters as well.

In 1980, soon after the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a book appeared at my local bookstore called The Monsters of Star Trek. It was a thin book clearly designed to capitalize on the new movie. On the cover was the Gorn—the lizard man from my childhood—so I had to pick it up. The book discussed mind-bending aliens such as the Talosians from the series pilot and Sylvia and Korob from Star Trek’s twisted Halloween episode “Catspaw.” It talked about dangerous animals such as the giant space amoeba and the ape-like Mugato. Browsing through the pages today, it strikes me that the original Star Trek dealt with vampires not just once but twice. In the first season, they met a salt vampire, then in the second, they met a vampire cloud that Kirk obsessively hunted. No doubt this contributed to my own vampire novels.

Of course many of Star Trek’s monsters prove to be misunderstood aliens or aliens who don’t understand humans. The most recent Star Trek movie, Beyond had an alien that definitely fell into this latter category—a swarm-like race led astray by an outside force. (I won’t say more, lest I give spoilers). I’ve always found swarms a bit scary, since they’re a large force with a single purpose, operating like one organism. For me, the best zombie stories work from this basis. One zombie is a little scary. A bunch of zombies working in concert is really scary! You can find my zombie stories in the anthologies Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie and Zombiefied: Hazardous Materials from Sky Warrior Publishing.

As it turns out, zombies aren’t my only look at the scary swarm. In Owl Dance, I introduce Legion, a swarm of microscopic computers who decide to help humans evolve in the second half of the nineteenth century causing near disaster. Legion clearly took some inspiration from Star Trek. In fact, one of the chapters in The Monsters of Star Trek is called “Androids, Computers, and Mad Machines.”

I never really thought of myself as a horror writer or even a horror fan until I started reading Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft as an adult and writing my first vampire stories. That said, it’s interesting to look back and see how scary stories were influencing me even from an early age. Still, it should really be no surprise. I’ve often said my interest in science fiction novels began from paying attention to the writer credits on the original Star Trek. One of those writers was none other than Robert Bloch, a writer mentored by H.P. Lovecraft who would go on to write the novel Psycho. Bloch wrote the Star Trek episodes “Wolf in the Fold” about an evil entity who possessed Scotty and made him a murderer, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” which featured Ted Cassidy from The Addams Family as a decidedly creepy android, and the aforementioned Halloween episode “Catspaw.” If you’re looking for some good creepy TV, you could do worse than hunt up copies of these episodes on video!

Dangerous Aliens

This past week, I’ve been at Kitt Peak National Observatory, helping to obtain spectra of distant galaxies, while at the same time, waiting for my beta readers to get back to me with their comments about my novel, The Brazen Shark. Obtaining these spectra is a process that involves precisely positioning the telescope on a faint galaxy so light goes down a fiber optic bundle to a spectrograph two floors below. Once the light arrives, it’s separated by a grating and recorded on a camera. It’s a process that involves a lot of care and patience. What’s more, it can be especially tricky, when the wind is gusting around 45 miles per hour!

Children of the Old Stars

These kinds of long nights are good ones for contemplating what life might be out there looking back at us. Back in 2010, Stephen Hawking famously said in a series for the Discover Channel, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.” It’s a pretty pessimistic view.

Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer for the SETI Institute rebutted that statement, saying, “This is an unwarranted fear. If their interest in our planet is for something valuable that our planet has to offer, there’s no particular reason to worry about them now. If they’re interested in resources, they have ways of finding rocky planets that don’t depend on whether we broadcast or not. They could have found us a billion years ago.” Shostak makes a good point, but well meaning people have caused disasters without trying.

The universe is so vast and there are so many stars out there, as I’m reminded during each of my working nights, that it’s almost inconceivable to think we’re the only intelligent life. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to find intelligent life taking many different forms ranging from frightening to benevolent and a whole range in between. In that sense, I suspect that both Hawking and Shostak are right. We’ll find life we’ll enjoy meeting and life we’ll regret meeting.

Also, there’s been a lot of talk in the news that life may be closer to us than we’ve thought. NASA scientists are talking about sending a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa where they believe conditions are right for simple life to exist. One thing I’ve long suspected is that if an alien race is advanced enough for long-distance space exploration, they can probably hide themselves from us rather easily, much as a hunter can hide behind a duck blind.

Heirs of the New Earth

I experiment with all of these ideas in my Old Star/New Earth science fiction novels. It’s perhaps not surprising the ideas for many of these came while working at Kitt Peak looking at the many wonders of the universe and discussing them with visiting astronomers.

In the novels, the Titans are benevolent aliens who live much closer than we might imagine. They hid for much of human history to avoid harming us. The Cluster is an ancient life form born of the oldest stars in our cosmic neighborhood. Saying much more will provide spoilers, but I will say contact with them doesn’t go so well. Other creatures such as the Rd’dyggians have their own agendas and just tend to ignore humans, unless they feel they need something.

Here’s hoping any encounters you have with aliens turn out to be pleasant ones!

Monsoon Season

It’s monsoon season here in the southwest, and fortunately this year we’re getting much needed rain both at home in Las Cruces and at Kitt Peak National Observatory. During monsoon season, the clouds typically roll in around four or five o’clock in the afternoon, then rain. Sometimes they disburse and sometimes linger into the morning hours. Either way, the warm temperatures and cloudy skies make it tempting to spend a lot of time where it’s dry, enjoying the air conditioning and reading a good book. One place I like to discover good books is at science fiction conventions and I spent last weekend at Bubonicon in Albuquerque.

Bubonicon Dealer's Table

The photo shows me at the Hadrosaur Productions table in the dealer’s room. In addition to dealing, I was on several panels. Two that were closely related to my steampunk writing were “Sci-Fi and Southwestern Fiction” moderated by Walter Jon Williams and “The Weird Weird West” moderated by John Maddox Roberts. One highlight of the first panel was discovering that Laura J. Mixon had family connected to the Roswell Incident. As it turns out, my undergraduate advisor, an atmospheric physicist named C.B. Moore claimed to be responsible for the Roswell Incident, saying it was a nuclear sensing balloon that got away from him. Both panels touched on Tombstone, Arizona along with the technology that has long been present in the Southwest. For example, Nikola Tesla had his lab in Colorado Springs. What’s more, railroads and mining companies brought a lot of technology into the southwest.

During the convention, I had the opportunity to read from my novels Lightning Wolves and Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order. Speaking of which, if you’re looking for something to read as summer wanes into fall, I’m giving away a copy of Dragon’s Fall over at The Scarlet Order Web Journal, but you need to hurry if you’d like to enter. I stop taking entries on the afternoon of Sunday, August 10. By the way, this lovely graphic for Dragon’s Fall was created by Sharlene Martin Moore. If you’re an author and would like her to create one for you, visit http://graphicsbysharlene.wix.com/graphicsbysharlene.

Dragons Fall Card 2

As for my own reading, I’m wrapping up the submission period for Tales of the Talisman Magazine. We’ll be closing to all submissions at midnight Mountain Daylight Time on August 15. Please note, I have a short list full of outstanding stories. Thanks to those who have submitted. If you haven’t heard back from me yet, I’m hoping to have answers to you by the end of August.