As a boy, I never understood why little green men would be attracted to human females (as in Mars Attacks!), especially where the reverse was not true. I was older before I realized these stories simply reflected the classic pre-industrial patriarchal fear that strangers from far away places, be they little green men or barbarians from the far hills, would come and take our land — and our women.
Science fiction reflects our myths and anxieties about the universe. In fact, the earliest “science fiction” films, which flourished under the specter of nuclear war, were actually deeply suspicious of science. They almost always featured some kind of monster accidentally created by an egghead scientist blindly pursuing some discovery over the objections of his beautiful and sensible sister or daughter, who warns him to think about the consequences of his actions. He doesn’t, and it’s up to the beautiful sister’s handsome beau, muscular and ignorant, to save mankind from the horrors of technology run wild. The scientist himself always dies at the hands of creation muttering some version of “My God, what have I done?”
Lest you blame Hollywood, this is (very nearly) the formula created by the first fully-formed work of science fiction, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” which was meant as a Romantic-era cautionary tale, consciously invoking the story of Prometheus. The myths of science fiction are that old.
With each new era of discovery, our list of fears grow: asteroid impacts, environmental catastrophe, rise of the machines, and so on. And with each new realization come fears that that event is immanent, despite that it’s no more or less likely than it was five minutes before we had our epiphany. Whatever dangers exist in the universe exist now whether we know of them or not.
These days, with films like Arrival and Annihilation, we seem to have woken to the fact that the universe is very, very big and very, very old, and that traveling in it transcends the scale of human life leaving us utterly alienated. Any creatures we find are likely to be so different from us as to be almost irreconcilable and as such are less likely to wipe us out by invasion as simply by accident, without realization or care, the same way we might step on an ant and continue with our day, oblivious.
Enter the work of Karl Sisson, whose abstract creations push the boundaries of sci-fi art into the truly alien and incomprehensible. They are not surrealist. They do not depict objects that could not exist. Nor do they depict the standard tropes of the genre: humanoid aliens or space ships blasting through open space.
Sisson’s creations are deeply alien, and yet they hover on the edge of the recognizable. They are made of the same stuff as us and we can almost but not quite make out their subtle forms. But they are so different as to evoke that same unsettling sense of the “deep strange” we have when contemplating all the ways the universe was not made for us to understand or survive it.