During the summer I was 14 years old, I went to a two-week summer camp in Virginia. I am not the sort of person who enjoys two-week outdoor summer camps, nor am I the sort of person who enjoys Virginia, so I spent much of my time half-heartedly throwing a frisbee on flat, dry land and having odd conversations with other 14-year-olds.
During one such conversation, we were debating what we would do if aliens were to land on planet Earth. Would they abduct us? Would they swoop into the atmosphere, laser guns blazing? Would they ask us to take them to our leader? Would they come in peace?
Swimming against the tide of all the books, films and 2am radio shows which had suggested otherwise, we decided that the aliens would, in fact, come in peace. And we decided that we would not try to defend ourselves against them. We’d put on our nicest clothes and bring them the best humanity has to offer: music and flowers and a puppy and some garlic bread.
Andrew, one of the boys involved in this conversation and the cleverest, sharpest person I’d ever met, called it “making a fruit basket for the aliens.”
During the summer of 1977, NASA launched the Voyager space probe to explore the cosmos the way you might blindly stick your fingers into the sand at the beach. That probe carries with it what is referred to as the “Golden Record,” containing photos of humans, soundbites of ocean waves, and recordings of greetings in fifty five languages. Each is personal and specific, and one asks if they, the aliens, have eaten. The implication, of course, is that if they haven’t, they can always stop by and we’d be happy to make an extra plate.
That summer, we made a fruit basket for the aliens.
During the summer of 1969, three astronauts embarked on a dress rehearsal for the moon landing that would be televised two months later. Backstage at that rehearsal, peeking out from behind a curtain to look at the Earth, one astronaut said to another, “Where do you suppose a planet like this comes from?” The response was the only genuine answer that anyone can offer: “Don’t ask me, babe. I just know we’re here and it’s tremendous to be here.” Later in that conversation, the astronaut said, “By God, just think of where we’re all going, though.” I suspect the aliens, wherever they are, must think about that too.
That summer, too, we made a fruit basket for the aliens.
Watch any film about the day the aliens arrive on Earth. It’s violent, it’s bloody, it’s scheduled demolition to further the supergalactic highway. It’s all wrong, and for one reason: it’s rude.
They don’t want a bad first impression, for the same reason that we send recordings of Mozart or the sounds of a baby crying out into the beach sands of the universe. One day, First Contact Day, opening night of our global show, we’ll all stand on opposite sides of the meeting room, straightening our ties and declaring that we come in peace.
It’s a big world. It’s a good world. We’re good people. And so are they.Arden Henley, 2020
I grew up in a military household: my grandfather volunteered to fight in Vietnam and was in the army for his whole career; one of my great uncles was a prisoner of war during World War II; and my dad was an officer in the US Army for four years. So I grew up on war stories and war films and glory, glory, Hallelujah; though I cannot by any means pretend to be some tortured soul pushed toward the military by my overbearing parents.
I’ve been fascinated by the concept of a ‘fruit basket for the aliens’ since I first heard it at a summer camp in 2017. It was the same summer that I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind with my dad, a film which imagines alien abduction as a method of learning about humankind and our culture to better communicate when contact is made. I continued to feed my growing obsession with The X-Files, which as an imaginative teenager I took for absolute truth. A year and a half later, I read Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, one of the first science fiction novels I had ever read which doesn’t end in our alien overlords galivanting over the charred remains of humanity, and one year after that, I wrote my college essay about my love of aliens and outer space. A year after that, I wrote the essay quoted above on aliens and nonviolence, and today it lives here.
Kurt Vonnegut has had a huge influence on both my writing and my worldview, which I suspect is obvious both in this piece and in my other contributions to our museum. More than anything, this piece is an amalgamation of all my favourite science fiction and scientific works. I can’t remember who told me about the Golden Record onboard the Voyager, but I do remember reading every one of the 55 greetings as if they were each a short poem, and I especially remember being infatuated with the greeting in the Amoy dialect of southern China which asks if the aliens have eaten yet. (My other favorite, by the way, is the one in Bengali, which in English reads simply, “Hello! Let there be peace everywhere.”) I remember finding transcripts of the transmission from the Apollo 10 mission to the moon (which was explicitly referred to as the “dress rehearsal” for the Apollo 11 mission in July of the same year), but I didn’t stumble across the dialogue I quoted in this piece until a few months later. I included a reference Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (via the mention of a galactic superhighway), since it is one of my favourite novels.
As for content itself: I am a firm believer in science fiction as a reflection of humanity. (I feel similarly about horror, which I’ve written about elsewhere in the museum.) I believe that humans see their innermost selves reflected in characters from stories–when those characters are violent with each other, we believe that is our inherent nature, and when they are kind and peaceful, we are inclined to believe the same about ourselves. In stories about alien encounters, we watch as our leaders and representatives make the wrong decisions, behave callously, and reach for weapons, all in the first act of the story. What do we, as people consuming these narratives to see ourselves from outside, take from that? What are we meant to take from that? I think if we see ourselves from outside and watch ourselves treat aliens the way we’d treat a new acquaintance, with all the same courtesy and good intentions, we’d be inclined to believe that we ourselves are capable of that kind of peaceful interaction. Maybe if we see those kinds of stories, we would be more inclined to believe that, should we ever be ambassadors to the human race, we would try to communicate before we reached for a weapon. Maybe we would believe that we’d negotiate before going to war with another country. Maybe we’d resolve to be nicer to the next door neighbor who annoys us to no end.
Maybe (and this is a gargantuan maybe) science fiction that visualises peaceful encounters can save the world.
What do you think?
- Is peace an individual endeavour?
- Is peace by necessity a poetic, grand gesture?
- Do narratives of peace encourage us to behave more peacefully?
- What influences do narratives have on us and our lives?
If you enjoyed this item in our museum…
Arden Henley, April 2022
 Sagan, Carl. Contact. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
 For example: Star Trek: The Next Generation. “I, Borg.” 1992; Mars Attacks!. Warner Bros. (dir. Tim Burton), 1996; Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Columbia Pictures (dir. Steven Spielberg), 1977.
 “Greetings to the Universe in 55 Different Languages.” Jet Propulsion Laboratory – Voyager. https://voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/golden-record/whats-on-the-record/greetings/.
 Apollo Onboard Voice Transcription. June 1969. https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a410/AS10_CM.PDF.
 See, for instance, these two articles, which underline the real-world politics that inform and can be read into science fiction stories: David M. Higgins, “Psychic Decolonization in 1960s Science Fiction” and William A. Senior, “Frank Herbert’s Prescience: ‘Dune’ and the modern world”.