In Space, Can Anyone Hear Your Philosophy?: A Look at Alien and Philosophy with Editor/Contributor Jeffrey Ewing12 min read


M.B. Sutherland
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One measure of a good story is how much time you spend thinking about it after it ends. Does it make you wonder what the characters were thinking? What motivated them? Does it make you ponder your own life? The measure of a great fictional universe might be whether more than 20 philosophers can create an entire book exploring its moral and philosophical implications.

The world of the Alien movie franchise is rich with moral dilemmas and societal implications and the new book Alien and Philosophy explores most, if not all, of them with an engaging combination of humor, history, philosophical concepts, and questions left unanswered. The authors use the first four Alien movies and books and the prequel Prometheus as canon to explore six major themes within the franchise.

Identity and Mortal Considerability explores personhood and value. Do androids qualify as people? Do they have rights? What about the many unfortunate employees of Weyland-Yutani? The authors try to answer these questions and reveal parallels between attitudes in the fictional world and our own.

Ethics takes us from Kant to Mill to Marx to ask what the franchise teaches us about business ethics and who the true villains in the movies are (hint, it’s not the aliens). But far from simply pointing fingers, this section explores the idea of human machinations and the importance of action vs. beliefs.

Moral Psychology discusses military necessity and asks if the widely quoted suggestion in the second movie to “nuke them from orbit” is actually the right thing to do from a moral standpoint. This section comes the closest to actually giving advice based on Socrates’s notion of exposing children to violence and acts almost as a parent’s guide on whether or not your children should watch these movies. And interestingly, it brings us back to Marx to give a possible explanation for why the entire crew of the Nostromo fared so badly against just one alien on their ship.

Horror gives us a peek into the work of Lovecraft and how he inspired the look of the aliens. It also explores the idea of contamination and bodily invasion to explain why these stories and the aliens themselves do such a great job of scaring the hell out of us. It deals with my own least favorite [film] in the series, Alien 3, and discusses the notion of impurity and contagion along with motherhood and suicide.

Sex and Gender takes a deeper dive into motherhood and its role in motivating characters—particularly Ripley, whether she’s defending a cat or a child. In a more provocative sense, it also explores the motherhood of the alien queen and the dysfunctional MU/TH/R-ing of the Nostromo.  More provocative still, it discusses various definitions of feminism to ask if Ellen Ripley fits the bill and even suggests that the alien franchise may do our own society some good in helping men who have never been victimized to better understand rape and rape culture.

Continental Philosophy delves into the tricky waters of superiority and whether we or the aliens can claim the high ground based on our behavior. It looks at Ripley and Call’s struggles to come to terms with who they are in Alien Resurrection and even goes so far as to ask us to have sympathy for the plight of the alien queen.

While this may seem like a lot to take in, it’s not a difficult read and it doesn’t assume you know about the various philosophers but instead presents everything to a wide audience. Like all good philosophy, it doesn’t assume that anyone knows anything, but instead holds up a mirror and poses questions, many of which still have me pondering.

APEX MAGAZINE: How did this book get started? How did you find so many people interested in writing about philosophy as it relates to Aliens? Do you all belong to a club? 

JEFFREY EWING: Some of it’s a little informal. There are a couple different series of pop culture philosophy books. Over time you just build sort of a network of people that get called for abstracts and it’s also advertiseable widely over the internet.

So, you know, you can pitch abstracts and then we looked at a large variety of them, kind of honing chapters with authors. Yeah, there’s actually a pretty large network of people who are just fans of sci-fi or fans of literature, or television depending on the book. 

AM: What were the other two books that you participated in? 

JE: I’ve participated in a few at this point. I’ve also been in, for example, Frankenstein and Philosophy, [and] Jurassic Park and Philosophy. I tend to like to do the sci-fi ones. 

AM: A few of the pieces in this book dealt with things that weren’t in the movies, but were in the books or were in director’s cuts, that kind of thing. Was there anything that you considered off limits for the purposes of this one? 

JE: I think it’s more like a loose ranking of priority. So, for example in the original four Alien films or Prometheus, those are established as pure canon. But Alien vs. Predator not as much and then some of the source material, because there are comic books and all sorts of other things, are kind of, it seems people used them as they rounded out the world. 

AM: Do you think we have to look at the universe as a collective? So, are there lessons to be learned from breaking them up into the earlier vs. later? Prometheus vs. the first four Alien movies? Or do we look at it all together? 

JE: I think it’s useful to look at it all together. You could ask a lot of meaningful questions about corporate ethics, or the aliens themselves, or androids or consciousness from just the first four movies alone. But the prequels add interesting elements about the—sort of the ethics of creation and a lot of other larger, big-picture questions that blend well with the original films. So, I think you can ask a lot of really complex questions without the prequel for example, but I think they add a lot of nuance. 

AM: What do you think is the most important question that comes out of this? Is there one? Can that be identified? 

JE: That’s a really good question. I think through the original quadrilogy, the aliens were given a sort of gradually expanded nature as we get more detail. But a lot of the questions had to do with identity—like with androids, for example, and with the ethics of corporations, etc. like the Weyland Corporation. But I think the series’ main question has been expanded in the prequels it seems, more in the larger scale area of analyzing the relationship between a creator and the creation, or the ethics of science and engineering. And you know, do you have an ethical obligation if you created a living organism to maintain it? Or is it ethical to destroy it because you’re its creator? What is our relationship, if we found out that we were made by an extraterrestrial species, etc.? So, I think that a lot of those questions about creation have been expanded a lot with Prometheus and with Covenant 

AM: So, as you edited this, did you learn things about the Alien universe that you hadn’t known before or hadn’t thought about before? 

JE: Oh, a lot yeah! We had a lot of really wonderful submissions by some really intelligent authors who made a lot of really good points about the ethics of identity and also different related topics. I also learned a lot about aspects of the Alien universe that, like you just asked, I haven’t really been privy to. Before I really dug into editing, I was familiar with Prometheus and the original Alien films and a little about the extended universe around it. But I learned a lot from the authors and I did a lot of independent supplementary research too. So yeah, I learned a lot about different philosophical questions and also about the world as a whole. 

AM: As you kind of brought up yourself, there was a lot of talk throughout all of these pieces about greed and corporation-based society in the Alien universe. Do you think we as a society ourselves are headed there? Are we there already? 

JE: I think you could make a fair argument that we’re there already. I think it’s increasingly—especially with these certain, you could actually say apocalyptic-level threats like climate change—there’s a certain inability from dominant economic and political elites to really deal with that squarely and to acknowledge the fact that, you know, some of these threats are produced by corporate activity. Right? But those acts that are destroying the environment, or increasing inequality still proceed apace. And I think the Alien series kind of takes the stance, starting out with the very first one of, “Okay, so these are the dominant tendencies of corporations run amok. Project that forward into the future when it’s larger and they’re more powerful. What would that do?” 

AM: Anything else to say about that? Anything you think we can learn other than the obvious? 

JE: I mean, I think one of the most powerful things about science fiction is that it allows us to project forward some of the tendencies of the world today. So, we can actually look at, “Well what would some of the dangers be of this activity unchecked?” Right? If it’s AI with androids. If it’s corporations run amok. If it’s dystopian political futures. And I think two really important ones that come out of the Alien universe off the top of my head, out of many.

One, it asks us to really consider our relationship to the technology we create, which, I mean, you see the evolution of androids and AI right now and these attempts to create more advanced robotics, artificial intelligence. But the androids in Alien show that you can’t always trust androids to operate in the best interests of all the people they affect. And that’s something we need to be wary of. I also think it asks really interesting questions about the future of unchecked corporate power. If you get, you know, to a point where we have space exploration or on Earth an increasingly advanced civilization but it’s controlled for profit, there may be negative consequences for employees or in the universe at large, or at least our portion of it. 

AM: I noticed the book is certainly a mixed bag. We talk from Plato to Karl Marx, even to modern childrearing practices. How did you decide what to include? 

JE: Well we looked at all the submissions and we wanted to have a good balance of distinct perspectives and distinct topics. And so, there were some major considerations. For example, we wanted to make sure we had different chapters on the xenomorphs. We wanted to make sure we had different chapters on Ripley. We had a number of submissions. So, we kind of prioritized the things that were in our estimation, most essential to the series, most important to the fans of the series. And then within that, we looked for a variety of topics to try and have the most well-rounded book that we could pull together. 

AM: You yourself take the interesting position of defending the Aliens and their queen and kind of looking at the situation from their point of view. I’m wondering, was this kind of a thought exercise, or are you firmly on Team Alien? 

JE: (Laughs) That’s a very good question! So, I would say that there’s a larger degree to which it was a thought exercise. But the reason why, other than the fact that it’s an excellent series, I was so excited to get to edit a book on Alien is that—personal proclivity—I am a big monster movie fan. I think that Alien is a wonderful series and I thought, “Well, you know, they’re always typically presented as automatically the villain of the series. But in a sense, it is kind of anthropocentric. Right? We have these assumptions in all of these monster movies and extraterrestrial films that human beings—and of course it’s natural because we are human—should win. And anything that opposes human beings must be the enemy. So I mean, I realize I would be on Team Human, of course. But, for the purposes of a thought experiment, I thought it would be a good opportunity to get us to question some of our assumptions that people go into these movies with. 

AM: How does the latest movie impact your philosophy? Particularly as to this. Does it change your view or change your thought exercise that the aliens were seemingly engineered or helped along by the android David? 

JE: You know, I think in a certain sense, it adds a lot of complexity, right? Because there was always the question of are they (in the series origin) … natural? Were they created by the engineers? I think there are a lot of questions that are still in the viewer’s mind, so I’m still taking that under advisement personally as to why they were created and what the sort of plan was that David had. But I do think it sort of, I still think that by their nature it makes them a little more sympathetic because there was another example of them being sort of manipulated and used. But it does highlight their dangerous nature as well. 

AM: Any thoughts on the end of that movie? How David swallows the embryo and almost impregnates himself? 

JE: Yeah, I know! The ending is so nail biting I guess you could say because you follow such a large potential future colony and you follow the heroine the whole time. And then she’s in this extremely vulnerable position. I think it is strange that David, in effect, becomes the temporary queen I suppose. And I don’t know, I really look forward to the next film because I doubt they’re going to start it out with —“And then he infected the ship, and now it’s full of aliens, the end!”—because that’s a very short film! But I don’t know how they’re going to get out of that predicament. I can say that it is thoroughly disgusting to think of having an alien embryo in your esophagus. Personally, not to judge, but I’d rather not!  

AM: What do you hope people will get out of reading this?

JE: My biggest hope, when I was editing the book and writing my own chapter, was that when people reengage with the Alien films, or engage with them for the first time if they’re new to the series, that the chapters in the book allow them to sort of come at it with seeing these different philosophical questions and really thinking about different aspects of it that the movies highlight that they may not have thought about before.

I mean, I think one of the most exciting things about the pop culture philosophy books is that they do ask questions of people’s favorite material and they’re questions that are in the world that people might not have at the forefront of their mind. Like, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation has really shady practices with its employees, who it considers expendable. So how does that, like you asked earlier, … relate to our world today? And what implications does that have for how we see our own world? I think that’s a really powerful thing it does and I hope that’s what people walk away with.

AM: So, do you see this more as philosophy and thought exercises, or should it lead us into reexamining our society? Do you think that something like this should be actionable or becomes actionable for people?

JE: You know, I can’t speak for the other editors in the series or the authors, but for myself as someone that’s also written chapters, I’ve always intended everything that I wrote to kind of highlight parts of these works that would make us question our own world. I think that’s part of the reason for at least most really high-quality science fiction. That’s one of the author’s or the director’s original intent oftentimes. And so, I’ve always intended it to allow people to see these critical things about our own world in these works and hopefully they do, for me, become actionable. That they inspire some people to actually see their own agency, I guess, toward these social ills.

AM: What’s in the future? Can we look forward to more musings on this universe as it continues to evolve?

JE: Well if I have anything to say about it, yes! I hope so. Personally, I would like to do a lot more works in sci-fi/sci-fi horror and really draw out some of these implications of different works. As the Alien series proceeds, I’m sure we’ll have a lot more questions as well. I look forward to seeing some of the threads from Prometheus and Covenant being elaborated on and answered in the future.

AM: Anything you think people should know that I haven’t asked you about?

JE: Honestly, I hope they just pick up a copy and read the works. If they agree with the different authors’ takes—or if they agree or disagree, I hope either way it encourages them to think critically about these works and other sci-fi like classics if you will. So, I just hope people read it and find them thought provoking and inspiring.

  • M.B. Sutherland

    M.B. Sutherland is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has written for newspapers, magazines, and corporations for over 20 years. She enjoys writing and reading science fiction, fantasy, and even philosophy. You can follow her on Twitter at @McKkenzie596.

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