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The Landing Party
Grant Bartley observes a party that goes a little too far.
They came from one of the less discreet civilizations in the Pleiades.
They came to ‘Chiswick’.
The aliens appear human, from a distance. Perhaps a group of seven-foot-tall snow-white clones in silver would attract attention anywhere else; yet the denizens of the London Borough of Chiswick are clearly advanced in the application of their ‘politeness’ ideology and do not accost the visitors as they glide serenely up the High Road.
Unfortunately none of the guests had thought to bring a medium of exchange, such as the ice crystals of Zath, so they cannot trade. Nevertheless, window shopping is an antique delight from a still quite early economic phase, which they’re rather enjoying, along with the people watching. ‘Earth’ is like being on a strange theme planet.
“Pollution still high,” says Professor Bazang, pointing to one of the numerous passing fossil-fuelled personal transport systems. “This cultural expression is heading for a major phase transition soon. Very inefficient.”
“Thank you Bazang. Hmm… Let’s converse with the locals,” Captain P’Tox replies, stopping the group. “This man here. Let’s test our translation implants on him.” An unshaven twenties sloucher at a round metal table outside a café is grappling with an ice-cream. P’Tox introduces himself: “Hello. We’re from the Pleiades, but don’t tell anyone. For the benefit of our social scientists back home, may I ask what you think the high point of your civilisation is? Our xenopsychiatrists would like to ask you a few things too.”
The man glares at the snowy clones with bleary eyes. The shirt under his tweed jacket is crumpled from the night out before, but he’s not as sullen as he appears, despite his complexion and the weather that he’s under – if the aliens knew how to discern all this, which they don’t. Once his quizzical stare and frown combo subside, he responds, “Well, this ice cream isn’t bad. What do you think the highpoint of our civilisation is?”
“Thank P’Toknix it works!” grimaces the expedition leader, turning to the mob of pallid plastic-clothed angels behind him and whispering: “I know some of you didn’t think the Highs could tune into something as primitive as the human mind, but I understood every word this human said! I can even tell he’s referring to that energy compound he has in his primate hands!”
M’xara, the captain’s life-mate (current) interjects, “Ask him if they’ve discovered co-ordinated consciousness yet. That would be a sign their society’s got a chance of evolving beyond its next big discontinuity.”
“Don’t worry,” the human interrupts, “he doesn’t need to ask me anything. I understood the words. Now maybe your brother could provide a translation?”
The Captain holds up a long and slender hand, and the visiting group forms another huddle of high-pitched whispers. Then P’Tox speaks as ambassador for his race, saying, “I’m sorry, but your last two statements are paradoxical. We are unable to discern any clear meaning from them together.”
“Yeah, then maybe it’s true that Scandinavians don’t understand irony, huh? If I may say so, that’s one I got up on your civilisation…”
“Ah yes, competition. This we well understand.” The leader contorts his face again. “I wonder if you’d spare us a couple of units of your time and accompany us back to our transport, to be scanned, and answer a questionnaire? I asked our vehicle to wait in a small area of cultivated wilderness not far from here. Please just sign this form consenting to accompany us. For strict galactic legal purposes only – as I’m sure you’ll understand. Oh, it’s also for insurance purposes.”
“Okay, why not? Truth is stranger than fiction, right?” the man replies, licking ice-cream off his fingers.
P’Tox oozes a plastic pad out of a utility pouch. The pad squirms with black squiggles. P’Tox points to the bottom of the screen with a black plastic needle, and continues, “If you could just mark your signature here please,” handing the human the needle and pad.
“What does it say?” the human asks, taking them.
“Oh, the form just says that our species is not responsible for anything that accidentally happens to you while you’re in our care, such as culture trauma or xenotoxis. But don’t panic, you’re with a good team. We’ll take care of you. It also guarantees lifelong medical treatment from the best doctors in spiral arm Z9 – although I always think that part is a bit of an exaggeration. But you won’t need it anyway. As I say, we’ve got a very safe craft. We’ve been making them for thousands of cycles. And you’re certainly not the first aborigine we’ve picked up.”
The man shrugs and sighs: “You don’t sell yourself well, my friends, except perhaps in the area of the mysterious. So I think I’ll come with you, just out of curiosity. You’re the most interesting people I’ve met all week.” He stands, slugs back his mocha, leaves cash on the bill, and follows the pack of atavistic glam-rock-allstar clones as they head for Chiswick Park.
As they approach a grove there, a portal appears in a clearing mid-air. Their vehicle is clearly invisible. “This’ll take us straight up into the craft,” P’Tox informs Phil McGlass as they walk up towards the beckoning glowing hole in the sky.
Phil had wondered whether he was being kidnapped for a fetish party for technophiles; but alien phenomena are even more interesting. Tunnels to the unknown appearing in mid-air offer an opportunity not seen even in many nightclubs, nor in almost sober daylight, not even to an anthropologist. He steps inside.
He finds himself in a cosy cabin whose walls are shifting non-patterns of colours – apart from one showing a breezy alien meadow of burgundy long grass and a mauve sky, lending its clouds a pink hue. A soft, heavily perfumed musk welcomes his face. The room contains a silicate crystal table in the middle, and a couple of curved backless sofas. ‘Very Sixties,’ Phil thinks, peering around for a lava lamp. Through an open doorway he can see a dark control room, in which two clones of a different design but the same complexion apparently study holographic star charts. “ Um… Nice place you’ve got here,” Phil says, hoping that’s a slightly more intelligent thing to say than “Bloody hell, you guys really are alien! Especially your decor!” But he’s not nervous, since by a curious coincidence he’s had perhaps just the right training for this sort of friendly confrontation.
“Thank you. I designed the decoration myself,” P’Tox says, ‘smiling’: “Wait’til you taste the wine! The Zaringonians brew the best liquid brain massage in the known galaxy! Fetch wine, my love!” And so with her own charming facial contortion, his consort M’xara leaves P’Tox’s side to retrieve a rack of bottles and a set of glasses from an orange fur-covered wall-casket.
“Well, I’d usually say it’s a bit early for me,” Phil responds, “But this time I’ll make an exception.” He wonders if their translation devices were able to convey the hint of postmodern amusement in his voice. Probably not. This culture has probably evolved even beyond postmodernism. Maybe they left irony behind altogether thousands of years ago. But then again, judging by the decor, perhaps not. Phil thinks the sculpture on the glassy platform in-between the sofas particularly jars with the general plastic futuristic ambience. It’s a precarious tower of lumps of diverse clays, with jutting diverse twigs.
P’Tox offers Phil a translucent gold goblet containing clear sapphire wine and comments, “I see you’re admiring my rather advanced and concise artistic skills. Technology is not the only thing we excel at, naturally. We have a lot to learn from each other. Do you like this piece? I made it myself, on one of those long voyages between stations. It’s made from botanical and geological samples I got from a moon somewhere. It’s called ‘Moon Tree’.”
“Uh-Hum… do you think it’s safe for me to drink this wine?” replies Phil. “Or might it poison me, or perhaps drive me mad, or fry my brain, or something else ‘accidental’?” But once again, he doesn’t think they’ll pick up the irony.
“Nonsense,” replies M’xara with a gentle cooing, “Nanny scanned you when you came in. That’s the name we give our artificial operator – functional, and easy to remember. Incidentally, Nanny’s already inoculated you against all our microfauna too. So drink! Live long and prosper, as you say on Earth.”
Phil sprays out a mouthful of Zaringonian wine. He begins choking, gaining the pleasant attentions of a couple of tall alien Swedish albino clone women.
Whilst the ice-cool space chicks hover around Phil in concerned puzzlement, P’Tox contorts the sides of his mouth upwards and explains, “It’s a reasonable policy to process a planet’s broadcasts prior to contact. We like to know who we’re dealing with, as I’m sure you can understand. And you know, some things you see just stick in your mind… There is humour on our planet too.” The expression on all their faces is the now-familiar twisted smirk: ‘But if you can’t see the beauty in a smile,’ Phil reasons, ‘perhaps you’ve no chance of seeing the beauty in a sculpture. I’ve got to be more empathetic.’
They sit, and music starts. Slow, syncopated, long brassy pulses, with a gentle, unpredictable signal of deep drumming. This Phil likes a lot. He savours another sip of the exotic libation. Unsurprisingly, the combination of flavours drift way off the scope of his palate; but if he were pressed, he’d say it tastes a little like rum and flat coke with Ginseng and no aftertaste.
“Drink!” exhorts Professor Bazang, momentarily shifting his attention from a hologram of Phil glowing an inch above his palm. “We’ve developed some very effective solutions to the physiological and psychological problems induced by alcohol and psychoactive flora over the last twenty thousand cycles of our people’s history, so don’t worry. We’ve outlawed worrying from our society, actually. As Captain P’Tox said, we’ll look after you very well. We’re very civilised. Do you have to be somewhere else soon?”
“Um, well, I did have an appointment with my course supervisor, but I suppose that can wait,” Phil responds. “I’m studying my own species at the highest level, actually. This we call ‘doing a PhD in Anthropology’.”
“By P’Toknix, you were certainly the right person to apprehend!” P’Tox agrees with himself. “We’ll have to suck your brain dry!” Phil splutters again, and peers furtively from face to face, so P’Tox assures him, “Metaphorically speaking, of course. I mean you have a lot to teach us. Why not study us, even while we’re studying you, human?”
“Ah yes, I was coming to that… The scanning and interrogation you mentioned, and these jokes about my usefulness. But first I have to phone my supervisor and rebook my appointment. You’re gonna make me very late, I can tell. I assume I can use my communication device in here? Or I might have to go back outside?” Phil waves his phone, asking, “Um, if I go outside, will I suddenly discover that we’re in orbit around Alpha Centauri?”
There is a rattle from the throats of the circling throng that could plausibly be alien laughter. “No, of course not,” Professor Bazang says. “We can’t go anywhere until you’ve passed the examination.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“We’re still in orbit round your moon.”
“We’re waiting for you to make your phone call,” M’xara elaborates.
“You’ll probably think it’s very primitive by your standards, my device. But it can take pictures, look… Do I have to plug it in anywhere to phone out, like a radio system?” he asks, then pretends to ignore the amused whispers of the smug matching perfect-people-set around him.
“No, just use it,” Bazang says, with a tone that hints too much of non-condescension, “Nanny will reroute the signal. Just don’t tell your supervisor who you’re with. That would be unwise until we decide to give you substantial evidence of that, wouldn’t you agree? Do you wish a solitary room to communicate in?”
“No, I don’t need that,” Phil responds. “If you could just turn the music down – I mean, right down – and keep quiet while I’m speaking, please?”
A phone call, an intense verbal interrogation, and a thankfully painless medical examination later, and Phil waits with anticipation and curiosity to see what priceless trinket they’ll reward his co-operation with before they send him back, to prove historic major contact with a high civilization. Mulling over a goblet now of a cloudy lilac vintage, he suggests, “Um… I think you mentioned that you’d like to give me a nice piece of domestic hi tech or something – or maybe some holographic recording or similar evidence – to prove your existence to our global authorities, as we euphemistically like to call them.”
Bazang grimaces his most charming facial distortion, and says, “I don’t think that was the logic of anything I’ve said to you Phil. Do you mind if I call you Phil? Thank you. I didn’t agree to set you loose with anything, Phil. I believe I said I thought it would be wise for you to keep quiet about who you’re with until we want to give you proof. But we do not wish to give you any technology right now.”
“Brilliant! That’s irony, by the way. But surely you must know how immoral you’re being? You’re saying that my choice is to keep quiet forever and get on with my life like nothing’s happened, or maybe sell my story to the most ‘democratic’ end of our newspapers and electronic media, and discredit my career for the rest of my life? Thanks a lot!” Pause. “More irony, by the way,” Phil adds.
P’Tox growls low and steady for about two seconds. He also pauses, then says, “I’m afraid we haven’t been entirely honest with you…” Another brief monotone grind from P’Tox’s throat. “The truth is, we’ve borrowed you, for a few of your cycles. We’re cultural missionaries, and we’re employed to educate you in the ways of our society. When you come to appreciate us, we hope you’ll aid us in enlisting Earth for our cause.”
“Well, I guess that’ll unite our planet, if anything will!” Phil laughs defensively. “I’m not sure I agree with what I think you just said, though… Could you elaborate? What exactly are you implying by ‘a few cycles’?”
“The problem is, we’ve already broken lots of strict Galactic Protocol by revealing ourselves so blatantly to you,” says P’Tox. “This means you can’t go back until you’ve finished your education in our history. That way we will fulfil the Protocol criteria for making diplomatic approaches to species. But don’t panic. We’ve been looking for a suitably qualified human specimen for cultural re-education for many of your weeks. When we came across your CV being uploaded on a satellite signal, we instantly knew you were qualified for the job, in many ways. Unfortunately, we also thought it wise to not tell you the truth about what it said on the consent form before you signed it.”
Phil ponders the neurochemical affects of the wine on his judgement, and asks, “I’m sorry, could you spell that out a bit?”
“How clear do you require explanation?” asks P’Tox. “In brief, you’ve agreed to be our guest until you pass our ‘Purpose Of Life’ scans. Relax. It’ll only take a few of your years. More wine?”
M’xara interrupts Phil’s spluttering protests: “Put it this way: we think you’ll make a great diplomat between our race and yours, so we took a risk, and borrowed you!”
“Haven’t you guys heard of human rights? I assumed your ultra-tech civilisation would be civilised!”
“And I’m sure you can understand that our perceived requirements for the survival of our society override any objections raised through a lower ethical issue like this,” P’Tox responds. “Is that right or wrong, Phil? But please don’t make undue assumptions. Our necessary ethical prioritising does not mean we won’t try to be as nice as possible whenever possible.”
“That’s reassuring,” Phil replies, absolutely unreassured about being kidnapped by alien alcoholics.
“Do be reassured that the whole thing’s completely galactically legal. We’re following the strictest legal guidelines,” P’Tox affirms. “Well, most of them.”
“You apparently don’t know the difference between ‘legal’ and ‘moral’!” Phil says in a huff, really hoping that their translation tech will convey his tone.
M’xara says, “We’re following a moral tradition of your species too. Don’t you also remove members of your indigenous cultures to educate them in advanced ways? Is that not morally justifiable – for their own good, as you might say?”
“We stopped doing that years ago, because it isn’t,” Phil replies, still annoyed, holding out his goblet. All wait while he studiously samples the distilled fruits of extremely exotic plants and examines the remaining contents of the chalice. “But what the hell, I’ll never do anything else as interesting as this anyway,” he finally says. “It’s only for a couple of years, right?”
“Right,” P’Tox confirms.
Professor Bazang says, “Nanny’s projecting us to the vicinity of a star you may know as Sirius B, to take on fuel and supplies, and to begin your reeducation.”
“And so we can get even more mashed,” P’Tox adds.
“It’s completely justifiable as a civilisation survival ritual,” M’xara smiles.
“Right,” grimaces Phil McGlass, tasting the alien bitter wine.
© Grant Bartley 2015
Grant Bartley is an Editor for Philosophy Now. His ebook of short stories, Love, Solitude and Destruction, is available online.