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Europa Report movie still

The Space Octopus Theory of Values

Science fiction movies are our modern mythology: they help us work out fears of our tumultuous present day and terror about a future we can't control. Good science fiction draws us in with fantasy techno gizmos so convincing they look like they'll be at Best Buy by Christmas, and deep archetypal themes that get the English Majors pausing the movie to bore everyone else with what it all means and the paper they wrote about it that one time. (Which you don't need, because archetypal themes are in all of us and that's why they ring so true.)

The best science fiction plots turn on moral dilemmas about technology, race, and resources. Of these, the "encounter with alien life" theme is the most political.

One of the best examples is Europa Report (2013). Astronauts go to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, looking for intelligent life. Spoiler alert: they find it, in the form of octopus creatures that live their entire lives underwater, communicating through radioactivity. 

The encounter between the Space Octopus and Humans does not go well. They never learn to communicate with each other. The Humans need a lot of equipment and accessories just to survive in Europa's landscape, and a Space Octopus doesn't speak English (or any other human tongue). The radioactive behavior of the Space Octopus is a total mystery to the Humans, and vice versa. At the end, we can't be completely sure if the Space Octopus is trying to kill the Humans or give them a big, wet, cold, alien embrace. Or perhaps convert the Humans to Octopusism.

The way humans talk about each other on our own planet is no different. "We" hate "them" or "they" hate "us" because one of us is an infidel, elite, baby killer, ignorant redneck, liberal or nationalist, or some combination that is either batshit or ungodly, and the other of us is normal, sane, moral, and right. The evil stranger may have grown up in such a different reality that he might as well be a Space Octopus that is going to kill us, but we still fly over there and poke at him to see if he will twitch, and sniff around his neighborhood to see if there is anything we can extract and sell, or at least get him to pray with us. For all we know, he is praying for us (or against us) and maybe his prayers are more effective in his neck of the woods.

We do this in our own country too. But we have managed. From what I have been told by old people, during World War II, Americans were all generally on the same page about what we stood for and what was true. From what I have read in books, during the drafting of the United States Constitution, some old boys with very polarized notions of the size and role of government and the nature of God managed to negotiate a brilliantly balanced compromise that remains greater than the sum of its parts. And then when American polarization got so intense that it broke out in Civil War, the Constitution was amended in such a way that our battle-weary national identity had more constitutional clout than fragmented, localized state-level identities once again.

In January, I was in Washington, D.C. and saw people in pink knitted hats, and people in red baseball caps. Each hat-wearer was certain that they are part of the one true movement toward what is best for our country, with no doubt that they are correct in their narrative of what America is, who Americans are and what America stands for. 

What struck me is that the America I remember from growing up in the 80s and 90s was varied and diverse, but a much more gently changing landscape connected by roads with generally understood meanings. Today, the coastal cities regard the rust belt, Bible belt and bread basket as an alien moonscape full of ignorant creatures, while those in the heartland are completely baffled by the preposterous efforts of elitists to invite the world to trespass on their land, schools and jobs. In the decades since the world has become smaller and communication faster, the gulf between people in our own country has become as wide as a space mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. I hope for everyone that it ends better than the movie.

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