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Alien Scientist: Monsters Are Us

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: July 2003, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

We humans delight in fabulous beasts and monsters. As if the diversity of species on Earth were not enough, we always seem to need more of the exotic, monstrous kinds to satisfy our imaginations. We would trade thousands of species of beetle for just one species of dragon.

Anything big, angry and hungry could make a good monster. However, there is more to monstrosity than size, temper or appetite: somehow a Very Large Rabbit or a Rather Cross Unfed Goat do not seem to be the real stuff of scariness. There has to be something strange or alien about a creature to make it truly monstrous.

Something like a sea anemone - which turns from a ghastly glistening brown polyp into a menacing tentacled carnivore - sounds intrinsically creepy. But it's the wrong scale. A human-flesh-eating carpet bug grown to the size of a house is more like it: and just the right combination of brute and creepy-crawly. (In contrast, a mouse-sized elephant sounds more cutesy-kawaii than anything else).

Then again, just looking strange is never enough to be scary. A life-form can't afford to appear too alien, or we would hardly recognise it as anything threatening.

It is easy to imagine the terror of a Godzilla-like creature stalking the streets of Tokyo, because it seems plausible to scale up a lizard to the dimensions of a dinosaur (after all, we have seen the size of those bones!). Similarly, a horribly slimy sea monster could be imagined reaching its tentacles out from the city's murky river channels, curling round the pillars of the Shuto Expressway and hungrily plucking people from their vehicles like mussels from their shells.

In contrast, we find it harder to relate to what a 'giant microbe' would look like 'stalking' the streets of Tokyo, because the world of the microbe is so alien to us. To envisage a viable scenario, we might have to first imagine the city drenched in an organic ooze, from which mega-microbes would emerge to attack us. An unpleasant image, perhaps, but a bit far-fetched to be convincingly chilling.

In general, the more contrived the image, the less threatening the impact on the senses - as a dip into Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings can elicit. The vision of Kujata, the bull with 4000 eyes, ears, nostrils, mouths and feet is somehow just too much for the imagination. Whereas Japan's Eight-Forked Serpent of Koshi seems to have just the right amount of fearful exaggeration, having eight heads and eight tails stretching over eight hills and eight valleys. (This brute devours seven maidens before a god lops off all eight of its heads after enticing it to drink from eight tubs of rice beer.)

For a good monster, then, being vividly imaginable is a great start; the clincher is a convincing provenance. The mythical chimera is clearly intelligible as a monstrous hybrid: a lion's head, goat's body and snake's tail. (Such a creature could provide a nourishing meal of three different meat courses. A 'chimera kebab' could be a classic snack). But if the coupling of any two of those component creatures stretches credulity, the threesome seems to take things too far.

And so, biological possibility is ever the brake on monstrous actuality. In their book Evolving the Alien, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart point out that the aliens in War of the Worlds could not have fed on human blood, or been infected by earthly bacteria, because they wouldn't have had the right biochemistry. It is because predators, prey and parasites all evolved together that we form a single food chain. We earthlings are, collectively, what we eat. Vampire bats are viable on Earth because they have a sympathy with our blood. Alien vampires, it seems, just wouldn't do. Alien invaders, no matter how scary, are unlikely to be interested in eating us or sucking our blood; far less mating with us.

A monster is scarier, then, as it gets closer to home. The giant insect with huge bulging eyes and slobbering mouthparts is scary partly because we recognise these as monstrous analogues of human features.

More monstrous still could be the cross-breeding of humans with other species. In one sense, mythical creatures that are half-human seem less alien than other kinds of monsters - mermaids and minotaurs seem to have very human qualities and frailties - but only so long as they are safely confined to the mythology of the past. The idea of engineering a real live hybrid of human and non-human perhaps gets more scary as it gets technically more plausible - as science fiction threatens to hatch out as science fact.

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