TT: Cute But Not Always Sweet

JANE: After we finished chatting last time, I realized that the film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is, in many ways, a response to Bug-Eyed Monster stories like The Thing.  The film’s full title, since I didn’t mention it last time, is The Thing From Another World so there’s even a sort of parallel there.

Fuzzie: Proto-Ewoks?

Fuzzie: Proto-Ewoks?

In both stories, a solitary alien is stranded on Earth and, presumably, would like to improve its situation.  I say “presumably,” because we never do find out if The Thing is reacting from panic and fear (as Dr. Carrington, the chief scientist, believes) or from hostility (as the military folk believe).

E.T. has enormous eyes, which definitely qualify him as “bug-eyed” (although “doe-eyed” is equally accurate).  However, unlike most BEMs, he’s gentle, empathic, and intelligent.

ALAN: Oh! Cute aliens. I have something to say about them, but that’s far too much of a tangent at the moment. Finish off what you were saying and remind me later…

JANE: In The Thing the scientist who wants to communicate with the alien because it must have “wisdom” to share, is clearly a nutty idealist.  The Air Force personnel who want to blow The Thing up are the heroes.  (Though they lose points even in their own estimation when they destroy the flying saucer in the process of trying to free it from the ice.)

In E.T. the scientists and military folks are the bad guys who nearly kill their friendly visitor…

Each movie spoke to the concerns of its time.  The Thing is an artifact of the Cold War, while E.T., which came out in 1982, reflected a hope for communication between different “peoples” – something emphasized by the almost mantra-like repeated phrase: “E.T. phone home.”

ALAN: That idea of the alien as allegory is a potent one. It’s a common literary device, used to reflect the zeitgeist. For example, Jack Finney’s pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Robert Heinlein’s parasitic puppet masters who ride their human hosts to death (in his novel The Puppet Masters) are clear dramatisations of the consequences of a communist takeover that America was so concerned with in the 1950s.

Amusingly, in his novel A Plague of Pythons, the avowed left wing writer Frederik Pohl examined the same theme and came to much the same conclusion as Heinlein, who was writing from a right wing perspective. Pohl’s novel doesn’t have aliens in it (his puppet masters are human), but that only goes to show how symbolic the aliens actually are.

JANE: That’s an interesting point!  I hadn’t been aware of the unintentional agreement arrived at by two different approaches to the same theme.

However, I do think that there’s a lot more to aliens than mere allegory.  If they were only allegorical figures, I don’t think they’d have so much lasting appeal.

And speaking of lasting appeal…  You mentioned cute aliens.  Are they really as prevalent as you said?  I cudgeled my brain, but other than the Fuzzies and some aliens who fit more into the “companion animal category” (which I also think bears discussion) I couldn’t think of any right off the bat.

ALAN: Thank you for reminding me. I think that cute aliens are a staple of SF.  You mentioned Fuzzies and that’s probably the archetypal example. They appear in H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy  and its sequels (and John Scalzi has also written a Fuzzy novel).

The Fuzzies are so cute and sugary that you can almost get diabetes from reading about them! Nevertheless, they are delightful and it’s a perfectly valid way of addressing the problem of defining the alien – we’ve got a myriad of examples of that in our own animal kingdom. Nothing is cuter than a meercat, but they are fierce warriors when roused…

JANE: Indeed!  Even housecats can be fierce, as the four who share my household go out of their way to remind me daily.

I seem to recall that your Harpo has similar delusions of fierceness…

ALAN: He’s not delusional, he is fierce. When his eyes glow red, the wise know that it’s time to retreat…

However, now that I think about it, cute aliens are rather more common in movies and TV than in books.

Ewoks spring immediately to mind, as do the tribbles from Star Trek. Though having said that, the tribbles owe a lot to Robert Heinlein’s flat cats from the novel The Rolling Stones (aka Space Family Stone). There’s a rather cute baby with squid-like tentacles in the movie Men In Black, but there’s also the squidmoth in Vonda McIntyre’s Starfarers novels which somehow manages to be both cute and alien at one and the same time.

JANE: Interesting…  “Cute” is definitely easier to do in a visual medium than in print.  If you think about it, “cute aliens” are sort of the reverse of the “monster aliens.”  Ewoks turned out to be nice, tribbles dangerous.  And if one slides the scales over to pure monsters, the movie Gremlins shows both side of the question.

ALAN: We SF geeks sometimes refer to aliens as “little green men” and there are some rather cute little green men in the movie Toy Story.

JANE: Uh…  It’s been years since I’ve seen the movie, but do you mean the little green army men?

ALAN: No – the Little Green Men are prizes in a game of skill at Pizza Planet franchises. They are little, they are green, they have three eyes and an antenna sticking out of the top of their heads. The Little Green Men are all in telepathic communication with each other (presumably via the antenna).

JANE: I remember now!  Yes…  They were definitely cute.

ALAN: I’m also rather fond of the very funny (as well as cute and extremely annoying) little green men-Martians in Fredric Brown’s novel Martians Go Home!

JANE: Henry Kuttner had some annoying cute aliens in one of his short stories…  Darn!  I’m blanking on the title.  The story was one of the ones with his alcoholic genius character, who I didn’t care for, so I gave the book away…  Can you remember?

ALAN: Oh indeed – the story was called The World is Mine and the aliens are called Lybblas. Here’s a quote:

The ears were huge, round and furry, the eyes enormous and a pink button of a nose shivered and twitched. Again the creature cried:

“Let me in! I gotta conquer the world!”

Later the Lybblas discover a corpse, dead but still warm. Feeling chilly, they sit on it until it gets cold…

JANE: That’s them…  Cute but really weird and creepy.

I bet that the Lybblas were the inspiration for the aliens from the planet “Cuteatron” who appeared on a  “Pigs in Space” portion of one of Jim Henson’s shows.

The aliens from Cuteatron looked like long-haired, fluffy bunnies, and fired a ray that turned their opponents cuter one piece at a time.  It was a very silly sequence…

ALAN: Jim Henson’s shows were marvelously science fictional. Wonderful stuff!

But once we start looking at the cute alien theme more closely, don’t you find that it quickly segues into the “companion animal” kind of alien?

JANE: That’s a fruitful topic and one for which I can think of quite a few examples.  Let’s come back to it next time.

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5 Responses to “TT: Cute But Not Always Sweet”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Do Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson’s Hoka qualify as cute aliens, by any chance?

    Then there’s Willis the Bouncer in Heinlein’s Red Planet, which is a rather more complex case.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Yes, I think the Hoka definitely qualify as cute. I’m pretty sure that was intentional — I vaguely remember reading somewhere that they deliberately tried for that effect.

      Willis is certainly cute in the same way that meercats are. Heinlein was good at that. I’ve always felt that Lummox in The Star Beast was both cute and dangerous in that way too. If something that snacks on cars can be considered cute…


      -Alan

  2. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Yoda was kinda cute… Comparing E.T. to ’50s movies, there’s a bit where E.T. reaches out his elongated arm to touch Elliot on the shoulder. I think Spielberg was channeling 1953’s “War of the Worlds” where one of the Martians reaches out in similar fashion to touch the heroine, Sylvia, on the shoulder – with very different results.

  3. Paul Says:

    He did the same thing in the Indiana Jones movies. Lots of stuff straight out of old movie serials. The part where Indiana rides the horse alongside a truck and swings aboard is frame-for-frame out of “Zorro Rides Again,” of all places. (This was a modern-day Zorro; thus, a truck.)

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