I had planned, for this review, to fall asleep reading Murray Leinster‘s 1963 novella The Greks Bring Gifts and write about my dreams immediately the next morning. As it turns out, I’ve woken up fuzzy; not only do I not remember my dreams, but I can hardly place where I was yesterday, or where I am now. I feel densely packed, as though with cotton-wool.
In retrospect, though, I’m glad. If I had dreamt about The Greks Bring Gifts, there’s no way I wouldn’t have woken in a panic; the story plays into all kinds of human paranoid fantasies, and my subconscious would have undoubtedly have had a field night with it. Grey-faced aliens with blank expressions + Who bring technological innovations to Earth that no one can understand yet everyone suddenly feels they can’t live without + Who herd and enslave another race of sentient aliens like so much cattle = Nightmare. I already have a recurring dream (so transparent I hesitate to relate it here) about grey-faced aliens. In this dream, which miraculously didn’t befall me last night, the alien is always standing on the other side of a curtain, window, or wall from me. Perhaps it hasn’t noticed me yet, but it’s looking to find me. We’re so close I could reach out and touch it, but I simply hold my breath behind the curtain and wait for the inevitable moment where it will draw aside that which obscures me and I will be forced to gaze directly into its completely inscrutable expression. I try to savor those last moments of my life before I see this unforgettable, horrifying face. The profundity of this other’s unknown! What unimaginable torture will it submit me to? Is it contemptuous of me, or simply indifferent?
In Leinster’s story, the Greks are aliens who come to Earth in a five-mile ship and hover in front of the moon just long enough to send the population of the planet into rioting pandemonium. Then, they decode our language, effortlessly. Side note: they communicate through cut-up fragments of recorded human voices culled from our broadcasts, an effect which is so pragmatic as to be creepy, and also very Ginsberg! They express a desire to land and share with the people of Earth their magnificent technologies; foolishly, we let them. They explain that they’re a merchant ship, just passing through the neighborhood, with a crew of Aldarian cadets — another, more immediately friendly-seeming alien race. The technologies in question all use a kind of wireless energy that revolutionizes production and promises a massive upswell in human leisure, so everyone quits their job in anticipation of a completely mechanized future where everyone is a millionaire. The Greks then leave humanity to enjoy their newfound “wealth.”
The alien of my nightmare is much like these Greks. Through the curtain, I cannot read its intentions, and so I fervently hope that it is altruistic, binding myself to the belief, holding desperately. I rationalize: it can’t control the effect its mask of a face has, but, being a creature of higher intellect, it must be benevolent. This hope keeps me from losing my mind. Humanity, in Leinster’s story, is just as profoundly naïve. It not only accepts but celebrates the Greks, showering them with gifts which the aliens, without emotion, leave piled up in the garbagey rubble of their ship’s departure. The new technology displaces all human labor, and yet the Greks leave before it is fully implemented; the result is widespread famine, looting, chaos. Addicted to the vision of a utopian future, everyone refuses to work, but nothing is left to fill the chasm between the human and Grek modes of production. “We were intoxicated by the gifts they brought us,” writes Leinster, “we hadn’t discovered that unearned riches are as bad for a race as for a person.”
The result? Humanity voluntarily enslaves itself. It clamors for the return of the Greks, willingly placing itself under the steely dominion of its alien overlords. No one is willing to imagine that their benefactors might be liars, that the cadet Aldarians might actually be slaves, that the Grek devices are simple receivers, only elaborately made to look complicated. They only want the glorious future they caught glimpses of in the alien technology. This book is scarier than a full-scale Mars Attacks! invasion, because the Greks do nothing but impassively sow the seeds of a destruction that we, gladly, willingly, bring to fruition. Their frightening force is not in nuclear ray-guns or spindly-legged robots. Its in their complete indifference to our well-being; unbearably calculating, they stand before us with expressionless faces and simply wait for our civilization to completely unravel.
War of the Worlds doesn’t scare me because it’s absurd. This scenario, however, of human foolishness — motivated by a fear of the unknown — caving in on itself in a giant compounded mass of idiotic fucked up-ness…it already happens every day, and it doesn’t need Greks to fuel it. It’s always-already directed at any and all “other” the universe can provide, including the fundamental disinterest of the universe itself. We would fall prey to such a conqueror.
And the Freudian transparency of my alien dream is this: that true awfulness is the inscrutable, the oblivion, the void. I would rather whip the curtain aside in a witless fit of hope, a self-destructive swan song, than come to terms with the total nothingness that permeates actual reality.