“The monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read. The monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns,’ a glyph that seeks a hierophant.” – Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
I’ve been thinking about monsters and aliens a lot lately, and how they both intersect as concepts and work separately from each other. I just had an article published in Apex Magazine about the cultural influence of H. P. Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos” and I was struck by how these two categories transform and fuse in his work and in some of its uses as cultural capital and expressive resource. I have also been working on a long-delayed (I have written and discarded two drafts) review of China Miéville’s Embassytown for The Functional Nerds, a novel in which aliens have center stage (sort of). Part of the problem in writing that review, some tangled thematic issues aside, is the fact that I often find aliens less satisfying as a literary device than monsters.
Monsters are, as Pamela Coles noted, “fabulous at getting our attention.” The word that we use to describe these imaginary creatures comes from Latin for “omen, portent, sign.” They have a long history in the human imagination and all sorts of historical and psychological echoes in their formation and narrative use. But that is not why I prefer them over aliens; mythological richness or psychoanalytical resonance is sometimes a problem when thinking about monsters, and can limit their potential. The resources we have for imagining and signifying them are vast, but what makes the conception powerful and illuminative is not just the history of its imagery and uses. They are more flexible and potentially enlightening than that.
This is not an argument against aliens; they have a niche in our shared imagination that is very powerful and telling, and a generative linkage to the rise of SF and fantastika, even to our awareness and grasp of the universe. Michael J. Crowe’s The Extraterrerstrial Life Debate, 1750-1900, for example, demonstrates the growing interest in other worlds and other beings that humans have had since the time of ancient Greece. But aliens are not the same as monsters; even if some of them are monstrous (and I will sideboard the debate on “space monsters” for another day). What we often seek when telling stories of monsters is not what we are searching for with tales of aliens, and while they have some similarities and overlap, they also have differences that come down to, well, the idea of difference itself.
To some extent, aliens are an evolution of monsters, a rethinking of monsters from a different angle, one more cosmic and ostensibly scientific, one that looks for answers to newer questions. Some of the creatures that were instruments of the gods, roving dangers on the edge of maps, or serving as explanations for the unknown became ciphers, part of a new narrative code for understanding our place in the universe as we broadened our conception of it. Monsters have been with us for so long because uncertainty and risk are our constant companions in life. Whether explaining forces of nature, enforcing customs and taboos, or creating shock and pleasure out of the inexplicable and strange, monsters are hugely versatile yet quickly recognizable.
This is one significant conceptual difference between monsters and aliens: monsters are supernatural, portentous, often dangerous, but they are a part of the world. They may come from realms higher or lower, be ravagers or revenants, be deeply symbolic or viscerally entertaining, but they have a place of origin linked to our world. Whether a classical beast of myth or a postmodern dehortation, pooka, zombie, or AI, a monster is a thing that can be known, that we label with the term “monster” to know it, to establish a relationship to it. A monster is generally not human, but as a trope or character or plot device, it is about being human.
Monsters almost always relate to humanity in some fashion, while aliens are ostensibly an Other that has nothing conceptually to do with human beings. The alien is an essentialized form of Other, not just different but something else entirely, that ideally has no resonance with humanity, but is of another sort of ontological order. At the heart of the word alien is the idea of “(an)other.” Whether they act quite human or are indecipherable in their behavior, aliens are supposed to be not only “not-us,” but an entirely different “them,” xenochthonous and enigmatic. They are something that we do not have a relationship with, that must be discovered and rendered understandable. Monsters are difference as reflection or play or warning, and even if they do things we do not understand, their otherness is more impression and exaggeration.
This disjunction is part of what makes, for example, H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos so powerful at its best. His creatures are monster and alien, unknowable and yet existentially intimate.They are, and should remain, inscrutable, yet hover over humanity and subvert it, corrupt and taint it. They are beyond our understanding yet speak directly to our fears and to mysteries unsolved. They are Other and not-Other simultaneously, creating immediate horrors while still out of reach and not fully manifesting. They erase the line between monster and alien and elucidate some of the artificiality of the very distinction I have made. Aliens are also about us, because they are a part of the stories we tell for and about ourselves and others. But monsters are conceptually grounded in us, in our breaking the rules or revisioning the world’s shape and lessons. I like monsters more because they are present all around us and let us communicate what is scary, exhilarating, seditious and rambunctious about the world to each other.