Nostalgia for Detritus
By D. Harlan WilsonOctober 11, 2015
After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain
DOUGLAS LAIN’S latest novel depicts an alien invasion set in an alternate near-past where people have been dehumanized by the worn-out specter of consumer-capitalism and electronic media. From beginning to end, the pages are littered with kitschy pop detritus, including references to Soundgarden, UFOs, B-movies, Bill Clinton, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Macy’s, “garbage pail lid-shaped” flying saucers, Yoko Ono, body snatchers, name-brand autogeddon (Studebakers, Volvos, Toyotas, Mercedes-Benzes, etc.), MTV, Pepsi, Proctor & Gamble, Heineken, Duran Duran, espressos and cappuccinos and Maxwell House French roast, Elvis, The Carpenters, Playboy and Penthouse, the Gap, junk food, Swatch wristwatches, Good Morning America, Magritte, ZZ Top, Jazzercise, soap operas, laser light shows, IZOD shirts, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Herman’s Hermits, comic books, and Toys “R” Us … The territory is familiar. And given Lain’s frequent invocation of literary theorists (the kitschy pop detritus of academe?), all of this immediately gestures back to the Frankfurt School, namely Horkheimer and Adorno’s assertion in Dialectic of Enlightenment that “real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies” and Walter Benjamin’s mythologization of “low” commodity-culture in The Arcades Project. There’s something fresh and stirring about Lain’s rendering of the subject matter, however, even if After the Saucers Landed may not quite live up to its back-of-the-book endorsement as “the bastard offspring of They Live and The Day the Earth Stood Still, as told by Jean-Paul Sartre.”
In his short career, Lain has straddled the fence between small indie presses and bigger genre publishers. After the Saucers Landed should situate him indelibly in the latter camp. His first stories appeared in the online magazines pif, The Infinite Matrix, and Strange Horizons, and his later work was published in Amazing Stories and Interzone. In 2006, Night Shade Books published his first book, Last Week’s Apocalypse, a collection of soft, absurdist SF that he followed up with the Bizarro novellas Wave of Mutilation and Fall into Time, both published by Eraserhead Press in 2011. In 2013, he landed a deal with Tor (the granddaddy of speculative fiction publishers) for his magical realist novel Billy Moon. With After the Saucers Landed, he returns to Night Shade, a publisher that nearly went bankrupt in 2010 but was bought out by Skyhorse Publishing and is now firmly established again.
Lain has been called a postmodern SF author. What that means in the 21st century isn’t necessarily what it meant in the fin de siècle 1990s or the paranoid ’80s, let alone the anti-disestablishmentarian ’70s and the freewheeling, psychedelic ’60s — all decades that Lain jaunts back and forth between in After the Saucers Landed as he conveys the characters’ backstories while underscoring the evanescence and displacement of time itself. There is no stylistic experimentalism or playfulness with narrative structure; Lain more or less shoots straight, with a palpable beginning, middle, and end, and he writes in prose that is smart yet colloquial. On the postmodern register, two coordinates jump to attention: metafiction and nostalgia, the latter in terms of Fredric Jameson’s notion of cultural schizophrenia and historical amnesia. In his masterwork on the subject, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson argues that French nostalgia films point to a pathological condition in Western culture — the way we create mythologies and stereotypes about the past rather than try to represent or reclaim an authentic sense of history. Lain’s novel is an iteration of this pathology.
The narrator and protagonist is an English professor, experimental writer, and UFO enthusiast named Brian Johnson. In a short prologue, he recalls the first landing of kitschy “Nordic-type alien[s] from the Pleides” on June 11, 1991. “It was exactly like something from a B movie from the ’50s,” Johnson recounts. “The landing was another sequence of moving pictures set between commercial breaks.” Punctuating the corniness of the event, the leader of the Pleidiens, dressed in a sequined jumpsuit, introduces himself as “Ralph Reality.” This is bad news for Johnson and his mentor and colleague, renowned artist and ufologist Harold Flint, whose research on the prospect of alien life is foiled by the brazen “Reality” of their goofy (and seemingly good-willed) arrival in flying saucers straight out of Amazing Stories or Plan 9 from Outer Space. Now that the fantasy has been made flesh, Flint can no longer spin his otherworldly theories and must find new purpose. Not that anybody seems to notice or care that much. Accented by Johnson’s deadpan tone, this blasé, hypermediatized society is in many ways a mirror-image of our own; people care more about how commodities reify their identities than what the Pleidiens may have in store for them.
David Skal’s Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture suggests that, ever since Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Pleidiens (usually spelled Pleiadians) often look human and have generally been represented as do-gooders in science fiction — unlike the homunculoid, bug-eyed, malicious “Greys” of the Whitley Strieber and X-Files variety. They supposedly come from the Pleiades star cluster, an appropriate home according to the satirical logic of RationalWiki, which suggests that “since the Pleiades are a pretty group of stars and since they’re even more beautiful through telescopes, anything connected with them has to be good and kind, right?” This very well might be a line uttered by one of Lain’s characters, but not Johnson, who becomes suspicious of the aliens’ intentions. Reminiscent of Jehovah’s witnesses and once referred to as “sci-fi angels,” these aliens make their mark on multiple walks of media and popular culture; they work with Stephen Spielberg, for example, as movie producers on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The Pleidiens were prompted to make contact with the human race because of Flint, who insisted “that people consider UFOs as a philosophical problem, rather than as science fiction phenomena,” as well as by his colleague, fellow artist and semi-rival Charles Rain, who, in 1953, orchestrated World Contact Day, an event premised upon a message that was paid homage to in a song (“Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”) written and recorded by the band Klaatu in 1976 and covered by the Carpenters in 1978. It sounds made up, and wonderfully so. But with the exception of Charles Rain being a fictional character (and the alien invasion), it’s altogether true. As Lain’s novel repeatedly demonstrates, the insipid authenticity of popular culture often has bigger fangs than the inspired conjurings of the speculative imagination.
Johnson explains that “humans have been approached, off and on, by higher intelligences from the Pleidien system since the beginning of civilization, and we have always been found wanting.” Specifically, they say that humans are delusional and are “collectively stuck in the intermediary realm between consciousness and spirit.” They want to lift the proverbial veil that clouds perception and reveal the “truth” that exists on their home planet, “a world of total synchronicity, a world where each thing that happens, every big event, every small and private moment, is meaningful and in harmony.” Over time, more and more people allow themselves to be inducted (via abduction) into the Pleidiens’ New Church. Johnson, however, isn’t buying into it. He worries that the aliens want to steal his identity, and his anxiety isn’t without justification: Body switching and doppelgänging is a common occurrence. Early in the novel, for instance, his wife Virginia is surrogated by a Pleidien named Asket. For a time, Johnson has two wives who are acknowledged as such by other characters until Virginia is essentially raptured by the aliens and Asket fully takes over her role. When it becomes apparent to Johnson in a metafictional epiphany that he may in fact be Harold Flint or a “projection of his ego” — an unsurprising Phildickean turn that renders him an entirely unreliable and pathological narrator or merely subject to a “divine invasion” — he surrenders to the Pleidiens and allows himself to be taken. The last chapter sees him unzipping his jeans, “the protocol for surrender,” and waiting or the disc overhead to beam him up in an elevator of light.
We don’t know what happens to the narrator, who he actually was or is or will become, and we don’t find out what the Pleidien “truth” entails. Considering the arc of literary theory and philosophy that overshadows the novel, this endnote of ambiguity makes perfect sense. The first rule of (post)modernity is there is no (post)modernity, which is to say that real truth is a fiction, and identity is a slippery changeling. On the surface, Lain’s engagement with these themes might seem antiquated and cliché, but it works on the level of nostalgia, as if Lain is sentimentalizing what it was like to read Foucault or Derrida for the first time as a graduate student when theory was fresh and new, difficult and challenging and enlightening, rather than Old Hat. I’m uncertain of Lain’s actual university experience, but he is conversant in some schools of theory and satirical of academia; to an extent, After the Saucers Landed is a campus novel.
Nostalgia operates in other ways. It is of central importance to the Pleidiens and “runs through the entire […] aesthetic […]. They want to communicate the idea of modern technology and […] they want to invoke a sense of nostalgia at the same time.” Alien nostalgia, however, points to the broader nostalgia conveyed by the entire book for pulp science fiction aesthetics, which were once “amazing,” “astounding,” filled with a “sense of wonder,” and so on, whereas now, in the realm of Baudrillardian hyperreality (which is mentioned briefly), such media has become a mere insignia of “the death of the real” — a death that is very much alive in After the Saucers Landed. What distinguishes it from other “postcapitalist” novels of its kind — spanning from Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1952) to Max Barry’s Jennifer Government (2003) and beyond — is Lain’s sharp and easy voice, cool humor and wit, appetite for the absurd, and understanding of our mediatized nuances.
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