Aliens: Why They Are Here by Bryan Appleyard

Mission to inner space

We need other eyes to see ourselves and, where they are not present, we invent them. This is the message at the core of Bryan Appleyard's intelligent survey of the 20th century's vast mythology of the alien: the non-human "Other". It is a sensible one. Sometimes, aliens are a threat - unsympathetic intellects that kick our world as we would an anthill, or cruder creatures here to pillage or rape us. Sometimes, they are our better angels - here to instruct us in environmentalism, in a more humane diet, or simply to tell us to play nicer.

And sometimes they are here for their own inscrutable purposes, to stare back at us with eyes dark as night. Early in the last century, the poet Rilke told us that every angel is terrible; that beauty is terror we can still just endure. He spoke, presciently, about all aliens, not just people with rubber bits stuck on faces.

Appleyard could have multiplied examples endlessly. As it is, he contents himself with a lot of tales told twice, or far more often. We get Star Trek and UFOs, robots and cyborgs and nanotechnology and Satanic abuse: this is not so much book assembled from cuttings as one which contents itself with touching a lot of bases and being mildly sardonic all the while. "What fools these mortals be," is a perpetual refrain. We are left at times with a suspicion that Appleyard quite likes the idea of being cool and unsympathetic.

Among his tales is the complex story of UFOlogy, of abductions, higher beings, and memories of lost time recovered in ways that Proust never dreamed of. Appleyard spent a lot of time talking to the late Professor John Mack, and is minded to agree with Mack that, in some sense, the experiences of people who believe that they have been taken and returned are more than merely subjective.

The trouble is that we are all liable to experience the uncanny in some form or another: whether aliens, God, the voices of the dead or the inexorable laws of economic history. To say that these experiences are common is not to say that they are true; they are certainly no very sound reason to change our lives. Appleyard's aesthetic distaste for the measurements of technology lead him at times into a tolerance for the merely foolish. This is, as Mr Spock so often remarked, illogical.

Appleyard's reading and viewing of science fiction are extensive, but not always as insightful as he might wish us to believe. He is not entitled to patronise the SF novels of Philip K Dick as he does, treating Dick as much as a case study in amphetamine-fuelled paranoia as the creator of some of the best explorations of the American nightmare. There is a common decency at the core of Dick's work, a compassion for doomed junkies and scrapped robots, which Appleyard perhaps underrates in favour of the colder decorums of the Polish writer, Stanislaw Lem.

Appleyard joins Lem in the assumption that the Alien is ultimately incomprehensible, that any hint of anthropomorphism is sentimental and colonialist. In the absence of actual aliens, without whom the debate is somewhat academic, this is a dangerous assumption. After all, in our daily dealings with human Others, to explore difference is also to explore common experience.

If a lion could speak, we could not understand him, Wittgenstein said. Appleyard agrees. An intelligent lion, however, would notice, sooner or later, that the square on the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the two adjacent sides. Certain things are shared knowledge because they are how the universe is constructed. The world, as Wittgenstein also remarked, is everything that is the case. Lions, robots and Bryan Appleyard all inhabit and negotiate that interpreted world.

Roz Kaveney's 'From Alien to The Matrix: reading science-fiction film' is published by IB Tauris