After the Hugos is before the next Hugos, so I’m continuing my Non-Fiction Spotlight project, where I interview the authors/editors of SFF-related non-fiction books that come out in 2022 and are eligible for the 2023 Hugo Awards. For more about the Non-Fiction Spotlight project, go here. To check out the spotlights I already posted, go here.
For more recommendations for SFF-related non-fiction, also check out this Facebook group set up by the always excellent Farah Mendlesohn, who is a champion (and author) of SFF-related non-fiction.
Today’s featured non-fiction books takes a look at one of science fiction’s most enduring tropes, namely aliens and the way they are depicted on screen.
Therefore, I am pleased to welcome Fraser A. Sherman, author The Aliens Are Here – Extraterrestrial Visitors in American Cinema and Television, to my blog today.
The Aliens Are Here: Extraterrestrial Visitors in American Cinema and Television looks at how movies and TV have portrayed Earth’s encounters with beings from other worlds. Each chapter takes a different topic — alien invaders, aliens as refugees, alien/Terran love stories, UFO abduction films, genre mashups — and looks at related films, themes and tropes. Then I spotlight one to three movies or TV shows relevant to the chapter topic. The alien monsters chapter, for instance, has The Thing From Another World, The Thing and The Andromeda Strain.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in England to an English Mum and an American father. In 1969, we moved back to the US and settled into the Florida Panhandle.
I graduated college in 1980 with a biology degree but I didn’t fancy either working in the field or attending grad school. I’d started writing a novel so I decided I’d try writing as a profession. The novel didn’t sell but I liked my career choice and stuck with it. I sold my first short story a couple of years later.
In 2000, after a couple of decades as a published but starving writer with various day jobs (bookstore salesclerk was the best), I became a reporter with a local paper. I loved journalism, I was good at it, and I’d probably still be doing it except in 2008, I met a woman from Durham, NC at a Mensa convention in Denver.
I didn’t get contact information — in my defense, I’d had to leave Denver early — but I was delighted when she reached out to me via LinkedIn. I hoped she was flirting (she wasn’t) and did my best to flirt back. For once in my life I flirted well; I moved to Durham in 2010 and we married in 2011. Since then I’ve been a full-time freelancer.
What prompted you to write/edit this book?
My friend M. David Blake tipped me off that a university press editor wanted a writer for a book about alien visitors in pop culture. I’d written four previous film books for McFarland so the editor was delighted when I applied. We’d put together a proposal and a CV to present to the publisher, but before we could submit it, the editor got downsized. He gave me the green light to submit the idea elsewhere if I wanted so I sent it to McFarland. After proposing some changes to the original concept they sent me a contract.
Why should SFF fans in general and Hugo voters in particular read this book?
Aliens coming to Earth, whether to blow us to kingdom come or eat Reese’s Pieces, are a big part of SF, going back to H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (not the first story of alien visitors, but the first that had any lasting impact on the genre). The Aliens Are Here covers the history of alien-visitation stories on screen, and themes that show up in both movies and print fiction:
- Othering alien invaders (they’re murdering monsters we should wipe out to the last individual!) in ways that don’t play well when writing about human enemies.
- Our mixed thoughts about whether high intelligence and advanced technology are a good thing.
- How The X-Files made TV more paranoid.
- The different ways in which The Thing From Another World, Predator and Independence Day handle masculinity.
- How films about aliens raping and impregnating Earth women still focus primarily on the men.
- How fiction about aliens influences and is influenced by real-world UFO beliefs.
For Hugo voters in particular? Well, if you like good SF, some of the movies I cover are excellent. There are the amazing lead performances in Starman, the special effects of The Thing, the way The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 version, of course) conveys the feeling that what’s happening involves the entire world, not just the United States. I think my in-depth analysis of the spotlighted films in the various chapters is excellent, though YMMV, of course.
Do you have any cool facts or tidbits that you unearthed during your research, but that did not make it into the final book?
Only in the sense that I’d have liked to write in detail about many more films than I had space for. Sidney Poitier’s bleak drama Brother John, Men in Black, the family dynamics of The Space Children and lots of others I could only touch on. Other than that, if the information was cool and relevant to my topic, I included it.
SFF-related non-fiction is somewhat sidelined by the big genre awards, since the Nebulas have no non-fiction category and the Best Related Work Hugo category has become something of a grab bag of anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. So why do you think SFF-related non-fiction is important?
Good non-fiction about SFF can help us see it in a different way. Foz Meadows blogging about how movies and print fiction portray gender. Peter Biskind’s analysis of left and right-wing themes in 1950s films (both SF and mainstream) in Seeing Is Believing. As the late Bill Warren wrote in his book Keep Watching the Skies, the best criticism doesn’t just tell us what the critic likes, it helps us understand what we like and why.
Plus it’s fun. I enjoy learning about aspects of genre history; working on movie books is an excuse to read up on that stuff and call it work. Though admittedly I wind up reading some bad books with batshit analysis along with the good.
Are there any other great SFF-related non-fiction works or indeed anything else (books, stories, essays, writers, magazines, films, TV shows, etc…) you’d like to recommend?
Shamelessly, I think my previous book, Now and Then We Time Travel is excellent. Warren’s Keep Watching The Skies is an outstanding book on the SF films of the 1950s, as close to perfect as a film reference book is going to get. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh is my go-to reference for TV stuff, even in the age of the Internet. Brad Schwartz’s Broadcast Hysteria does an amazing job writing about Orson Welles’ legendary War of the Worlds broadcast and how the media exaggerated the level of panic among listeners.
From the movies I saw for in my book, I’ll recommend 1960’s Village of the Damned: it’s insanely creepy and Martin Stephens is a chilling child monster. For TV, I was blown away rewatching the original V (1983) and rediscovering how good it is.
Where can people buy your book?
Where can people find you?
Thank you, Fraser, for stopping by and answering my questions. Do check out The Aliens Are Here – Extraterrestrial Visitors in American Cinema and Television for a detailed look at one of science fiction’s most enduring tropes.
About The Aliens Are Here – Extraterrestrial Visitors in American Cinema and Television:
Aliens: They have taken the form of immigrants, invaders, lovers, heroes, cute creatures that want our candy or monsters that want our flesh. For more than a century, movies and television shows have speculated about the form and motives of alien life forms. Movies first dipped their toe into the genre in the 1940s with Superman cartoons and the big screen’s first story of alien invasion (1945’s The Purple Monster Strikes). More aliens landed in the 1950s science fiction movie boom, followed by more television appearances (The Invaders, My Favorite Martian) in the 1960s. Extraterrestrials have been on-screen mainstays ever since.
This book examines various types of the on-screen alien visitor story, featuring a liberal array of alien types, designs and motives. Each chapter spotlights a specific film or TV series, offering comparative analyses and detailing the tropes, themes and cliches and how they have evolved over time. Highlighted subjects include Eternals, War of the Worlds, The X-Files, John Carpenter’s The Thing and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman.
About Fraser A. Sherman:
A former Florida reporter, Fraser A. Sherman has contributed articles to such publications as Newsweek, Boys Life and Movie Marketplace and is the author of four previous film books and more than two dozen published speculative-fiction short stories. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.
Are you publishing a work of SFF-related longform non-fiction in 2022 and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.