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CULTURE

Medium

Bacteria are not known for their ability to stir the imagination, but there is at least one reliable exception: bacteria from Mars. In 1996, a NASA study caused a sensation when it announced the mere possibility of fossilized bacteria in a meteorite believed to be from the Red Planet. Thirty-six years after the Viking landers collected soil on Mars, scientists can still make news by declaring that the samples indicate the presence of microbes. Although conclusive evidence for life on Mars (or on any other foreign planet) has yet to turn up, humans are an impatient species. And so we have invented extraterrestrials of every conceivable kind. There are fictional aliens that resemble little green men, mollusks, insects, plants, and minerals. Sometimes they have no bodies at all.   For all their diversity, these creatures tend to fall into one of two groups: those we can live with and those we can’t. This summer, Hollywood franchises espousing each view will be delivering their newest installments. The genial “Men in Black” movies suggest that freaky-looking extraterrestrials already live among us, undetected by most citizens and overseen by an agency made up of weary bureaucrats and blasé field officers. The films are an extended pun on the alternate meaning of “alien”: immigrant. Far grimmer is “Prometheus,” the latest “Alien” movie; the series features an implacable foe that uses our bodies as nests for its young, and likes to chase us through hideous, dripping corridors while baring its hideous, dripping fangs.   Before the nineteenth century, if authors depicted the inhabitants of other planets the aliens were essentially human. The suave Saturnian described by Voltaire in a satirical 1752 story, “Micromégas,” looks like an earthling, except that he’s six thousand feet tall. (And he has a Continental spirit, keeping a mistress—a “pretty little brunette, barely six hundred and sixty fathoms high.”) The Saturnian’s primary fictional purpose, as he visits our planet, is to marvel at the relative puniness of humankind, whom he examines with a very large microscope.   It was only after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s and Charles Darwin’s theories of adaptation and natural selection gained wider acceptance, in the nineteenth century, that writers began to speculate in earnest about the sorts of creatures that might flourish in environments beyond Earth. According to Brian Stableford, writing in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the definitive reference on the genre, Camille Flammarion was the first author to present…

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The Image / Incarceration / Representation / Media / Social Justice / Responsible Photography

"We dread the idea of civilisation ending, yet we are continually drawn to it. Fairy tales and classic children’s…

   "At the edge of consciousness, there are no explanations; there are only invocations of myth."   William Irwin Thompson…

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