The Gollancz Blog is delighted to welcome Gavin G. Smith back to the blog with a special guest post on alien invasion stories.
(Optimus Deas, as my co-author Stephen Deas is now insisting on being addressed, begged me not to call it this.)
(Warning: there will be exclamation mark abuse. There will, however, be no discussion of the Transformers movies because there aren’t enough exclamation marks!)
It started with Star Wars. So you make a massive world destroying death machine but you make it with what is effectively a self destruct mechanism that is accessible to enemy forces? (That said, I have a degree of sympathy for the designer.) Basically I have some problems with cinematic alien invasion stories. Let’s take this on a case-by-case basis.
(WARNING SPOILERS! For the original V television series, Independence Day, Battle: Los Angeles, the Avengers (The one with Iron Man not the one with John Steed) and Captain America: the Winter Soldier.)
V – Original Series
I remember that V was on TV in 1984 because one of the stations didn’t get the rights to broadcast the Los Angeles Olympics. I had no interest in the Olympics. Instead, we got David Icke’s worst nightmare. It was the best thing ever. I recently re-watched it whilst Darth Deas, as Stephen is now insisting on being addressed, and I were doing research for EMPIRES. It’s not aged well. Ham Tyler is still cool though.
So what’s the problem? Well, why are they here? For food and water. I can just about buy the food aspect. Perhaps hairless monkey flesh is considered the sort of delicacy back on the lizard home world that could justify the resources of an interstellar invasion fleet. Perhaps there’s a reptilian Jamie Oliver proselytizing that all the other lizards need to eat more wo/man flesh. Perhaps the rest of the universe has run out of guinea pigs and it’s time to eat the mammals with armour piercing bullets, but water? You can fly in space dude, what about mining an ice asteroid? An ice asteroid is less likely to nerve gas you.
Also, let’s discuss priorities. There is a great deal of water utilized in heavy industrial processes. I’m going to make an enormous leap and assume that making space-going warships involves a degree of heavy industry. You see where I’m going with this?
Battle: Los Angeles
So they’re here for our water again. Not only that but a ‘scientist’ being interviewed on TV, in the film, claims that pretty much nowhere else in the universe has water. At which point, had I been writing the film, I would have mass driven the ice asteroid of scientific inevitability right on top of his head.
So let’s discuss tactics, both alien and human. Alien first: you’ve driven all the way from Alpha Centauri, you’re an interconnected cyborg soldier with advanced weaponry, so you’re going to use tactics that would have lacked sophistication at Stalingrad? Don’t get me wrong – if you’re an invading force, sooner or later you’re going to have to put boots on the ground, I get that, but perhaps establish air superiority before the ground invasion? And if you’re that advanced, perhaps soften them up first, perhaps with a virus, or if you’re feeling grandiose, perhaps some kind of extinction event, after all it’s just the water you want? Also, and this is quite important, don’t have an off switch for your invading force!?! (More on that later.)
And the humans: Battle: Los Angeles is set up as a MilSim film, for better or worse. It purports to use modern American military tactics, and from what little I know of the military this would seem to be the case. They are, however, rather conventional tactics. Technology isn’t the be all and end all in warfare. Time after time, armies have been defeated by opponents who are significantly less technologically advanced. This doesn’t, however, tend to happen by going toe to toe with the technologically advanced enemy. Guerrilla warfare perhaps? In fact, the alien invaders in Battle: Los Angeles seemed to have been defeated by people being plucky and heroic! Well yeehaw! THEY’RE CYBORGS FROM A SOCIETY CAPABLE OF INTERSTELLAR TRAVEL! BEING A BIT LIKE JOHN WAYNE IS NOT GOING TO HELP YOU!
Something, something, fucking stupid! Something, something giant alien war machines! Something, something, Randy fucking Quaid! Mutter, mutter OFF SWITCH! Mutter, mutter, defeated by Windows (actually this I almost get)! @#Iblamestarwars!
Now here’s something that doesn’t happen when you blow up a real life military command post: the tanks don’t stop rolling, helicopters don’t fall out of the sky and squaddies don’t all faint. So why would the Chitauri? Particularly as they seem more advanced than humanity, to the point where they have eschewed armoured vehicles in favour of giant, armoured space whales, and who wouldn’t? In fact, I believe that North Korea have their own giant, armoured space whale program.
Now I love this film. Only Joss Whedon can mix SF, fantasy, superheroes and even mythology in a summer blockbuster and get away with it. I can only assume that the next Avengers will be a similarly wild blend of genres, perhaps reality TV and paranormal romance with the superhero genre? (I’m available to write the script.)
I also understand why the Chitauri were taken out when the blue swirly thing in the sky shut. Narratively they couldn’t have the Chitauri running around the place and making a nuisance of themselves. I mean, imagine it: you’re waist deep in the political conspiracies of Captain America: Winter Soldier and the Chituari are still running around shooting at things with rayguns, being distracting. (Though it would have made a good couple of episodes of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D). In the comics it would be fine, there be crossover stories where other superheroes would help mop up, and then the Chitauri would stray into the Punisher’s neighborhood and decide that they didn’t want to invade after all (or they meet Deadpool and decide this world’s too irritating to conquer). Narratively understandable perhaps but, come on Joss, the Chitauri are people too!
Now, all of the above is just subjective nerd whining, which you may be familiar with if you’ve ever been on the Internet before. It’s not definitive, it’s just a straw man argument to highlight some of the things I have found unsatisfying in the alien invasion oeuvre. It doesn’t mean that I don’t make mistakes, or that Stephen the Merciless, as he is now insisting on being addressed, and myself are immune to putting stupid shit in our stories… but we’ve tried not to.
EMPIRES was a lot of fun to write but it was difficult. We had a shared world, we had crossover points, we had two alien races that had to be definably alien (no pasty headed space Vikings here!) but at the same time they had to be identifiable with. (I cheated. Stephen’s solution to this was a work of genius.) On top of this, I had a list of what I considered mistakes in this sub-genre that I didn’t want to see repeated. I wanted to develop a whole new list of mistakes.
Most of the time, when you’re promoting books, you give people an idea of what they will be getting. Below is what you won’t see:
-An implausible reason why technologically advanced races would travel across the stars to conquer Earth. (I hope.)
-The devaluing of a significant technological advantage.
-Alien war machines with conveniently exploitable weaknesses. Our scientists have analyzed the wreckage of the Death Star and we think we see where the problem is. Our exhaust pipes have grilles over them, and fucking space wizards are less of an issue.
-Being a bit like John Wayne will not be enough.
There is no off switch, and no Randy fucking Quaid.
(If you want an invasion story that does get it right you can do worse than War of the Worlds by Mr Wells.)
[War of the Worlds. The first ever SF alien invasion story. In which the aliens are destroyed by a virus. Just like in Independence Day – Steve the Merciless].
The Empires books are out now in hardback (Empires: Infiltration, Empires: Extraction), e-book (Empires: Infiltration, Empires: Extraction) and a combined two books in one e-book edition, Empires: The First Battle.
Want to win a copy of the Empires books? Be sure to enter our Goodreads giveaway below.