Thursday, February 9, 2012

Aliens on Earth - Read About It

Forget giant comets, nuclear war, plague, battling angels, vampires, global warming, zombies.  No threat to Earth is better that a good alien invasion.  Like all good things, good invasion lit. is hard to find.  In a good alien invasion stories, protagonists and their sidekicks struggle (1) to survive  (2) to maintain their core values even though there is little reason to do so (3) to combat - to defeat - the aliens (of course).  In really good alien invasion literature, the alien protagonist, the narrator, a really human character, is also struggling.  And we care.

Which is why these novels and films are so good for middle and high school readers who want a break from dystopian and depressing realism (to which most of these alien titles can be profitably compared). All of my titles raise serious questions about humanness, making them surprisingly good for classroom discussion.  As an extra bonus, some of the titles are funny

Essential Questions: 
  • Is it true, as maintained by author Gini Koch, that "alien characters tend to be no more or less interesting than the Earth-based heroes and villains, and in many cases, the aliens are just humans with one funky difference"?  What makes for a great alien character?
  • In what ways are alien invasions or visits in fiction reflections on or metaphors for human history or human needs and desires?  (It is often necessary to place the serious novels and the films in the time they were written in order to address this question.)
  • What are we afraid of when faced with the alien?  What do we expect?  How do we act?  Do we change?
  • Analyze the relationships between the human(s) and the alien(s).
Here, then, is the list.  Suitable for MS unless labeled as MS.

Humorous (also allegorical and cautionary) - 
  • Aliens Ate My Homework - Bruce Coville - 1st in a series - 730L - easy read for MS
  • "The Eyes Have It" - Philip K. Dick - short story about over-reading and over reacting
  • Fat Men From Space - Daniel Pinkwater - boy gets messages...  810L
  • Martians, Go Home - Frederic Brown - come to stay, or were they always here? - MS
  • *My Teacher Series - Bruce Coville - 740L (varies) - follows the trials of middle school students who discover that their teachers are aliens - on the light side for MS
  • *Only You Can Save Mankind (1st in Johnny Maxwell Trilogy) - Terry Pratchett - not really funny because all of Pratchett has a dark side, but humorous in a Pratchett way - video aliens are real aliens - 600L - good read for reluctant readers
  • Outlanders - Johji Manabe - manga - not really funny, but graphic SF, which I find humorous
  • *The True Meaning of Smekday - Adam Rex - 740L - girl and alien on a post-invasion quest to find her mother must also save the planet from the next invasion - clever use of graphic illustration (limited) and voice (a composition by the girl) - students should have no trouble identifying allusions to Native American and other "conquests" and to the technologies, cultures, and places that make up the USA
Not Humorous (also allegorical and cautionary):
  • The Alien Years - Robert Silverberg - fighting aliens, from a master of SF characterization and plotting - may stretch most MS
  • Battlefield Earth - L. Ron Hubbard - classic SF - future humans finally fighting back - 780L
  • Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke - 990L - classic SF invasion novel - MS (mature HS)
  • *The Dark Side of Nowhere - Neal Shusterman - boy finds that he is really an alien - 850L
  • *The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham - also a movie - carnivorous plant invasion of a blinded world (classic)
  • Footfall - Larry Niven - from a SF master, unlikely invaders, but Niven is a master - MS
  • The Forge of God - Greg Bear - two invading cultures clash - MS
  • *The High Crusade - Poul Anderson - aliens in 14th century England - some humor - high reading MS
  • *The Host - Stephanie Meyer - soul-stealing aliens - upper MS, who may recognize the author
  • *Interstellar Pig - William Sleator - as with all Sleator, questions raised - this one deals with gaming as well as with aliens - 810L
  • Invasion - Murray Leinster - MS - Kindle download - classic alternate-history-future tale - may be humorous to some, perhaps better as a cautionary tale
  • *Invasion (1st in C.H.A.O.S. series) - Jon S. Lewis - everyday boy suddenly has to battle aliens -  HL760L
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (also called The Body Snatchers) - Jack Finney - MS with guidance - classic that inspired all of those great B movies
  • The Kraken Wakes - John Wyndham - invasion during Cold War era is almost lost due to national mistrust - may be best in Audible dramatized version
  • *Lilith's Brood - Octavia Butler - trilogy set in a future in which Earth is to be repopulated by alien race - nice because author and characters are people of color
  • *The Man Who Fell to Earth - Walter Tevis - alien man, of course, who learns all about what it means to be Man - limited POV - MS
  • A Matter for Men (The War Against the Chtorr series) - David Gerrold - MS - giant worms - more of an action-filled story than a thoughtful one
  • *The Mount - Carol Emswiller  - MS - complex relationships in a post-invasion future where humans are the transport of aliens
  • *Omega Child - G S Anderson - alien child befriends Earth children - lighter read for MS
  • *Pod - Stephen Wallenfels - parallel and eventually interwoven stories of a boy and a girl trapped by unseen invaders in a house (he) and a hotel parking garage (she) - violence is often graphic, but psychological violence might be harder on some readers (my students loved it however) - the tight settings create excellent suspense and tension
  • The Puppet Masters - Robert A. Heinlein - classic alien-takeover novel - MS
  • *Shade's Children - Garth Nix - great MS alien fight-back adventure - only kids under 14 live in this world
  • *Stranger in a Strange Land Robert A. Heinlein - 940L classic - Grok - MS
  • *War of the Worlds - H.G. Wells - 1170L but certainly readable - great audio available, including the classic radio broadcast
  • The White Mountains (The Tripods series) - John Christopher - 920L - long-legged invaders in Britain - excellent MS reading as characterization and language are strong
  • *"To Serve Man" - classic Damon Knight story - adapted for ESL (.doc or Google Doc)
Film: (all classic films about alien arrivals) - these fall easily into categories: wistful, humorous, action drama, or dark drama.  Heads up:  at least 10 more new alien invasion movies are coming out! Ratings provided where available. 
  • Aliens and Cowboys - PG-13 - action
  • Batteries Not Included  - humorous - PG
  • Battlefield Earth - PG-13 - from the novel - action
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind - wistful
  • Cloverfield - PG-13 - neat use of hand-held camera technique - action drama
  • Cocoon - PG-13 - wistful
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still - there are a new and and older version - as usual, I like the older - action
  • *The Day of the Triffids - at least two versions - older one is campier
  • District 9 - R - aliens segregated in Africa - violence and racism - dark
  • ET - wistful
  • The Faculty - R - dark action (from a horror genre master)
  • Independence Day - action
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers - three versions available - I like the 2nd one - action (newer one is darker)
  • Maximum Overdrive - from a Stephen King story - more about what aliens cause than the aliens themselves - R - humorous action
  • Men in Black - humor
  • Monsters - R - aliens in Mexico City - dark
  • Starman - PG - wistful
  • "To Serve Man" - Knight and Sterling - Twilight Zone TV episode - view it here (Amazon Prime members only) - or download the radio drama - dark
  • V - TV miniseries - dark action
Video Documentary - Many people do believe...  At any rate, these will give students something to think about.

Just for fun, and because I think that how we make reading visualizations into pat graphics is also important, here are some apps and comics (apps have not kept up with comics):
  • Cows v. Aliens - app
  • Alien War - app
  • Star Warfare:Alien Invasion - app
  • Aliens on Earth - elementary school app!!  In case you want to start them early...
  • Buck Rogers - classic comics available from ComiXology
  • Formic Wars - Orson Scott Card - invasion comic series - available from ComiXology - graphic version of Ender series prequel (invasion of Earth) 
What if the human is the alien who comes to an alien culture...   This twist on the "first contact" theme is often more interesting than invasion stories.   It is an entirely different list, but a few of the better titles are listed below.  Ask: What do we learn from contact with aliens? (about humanness, about deeper values...)
  • Novels
    • *The Chanur Saga - C.J. Cherryh - aliens take on human boy stow-away - 900L (Pride of Chanur is first in this saga)
    • Contact - Carl Sagan - MS - philosophical cold-war era novel - 1010L
    • Ender series - Orson Scott Card - after the 1st book, novels deal with alienness and humanness with increasing depth and complexity - Formic Wars series deals with pre-Ender's Game invasions while post-Ender's Game titles are more about human contact with alien cultures
    • *Have Spacesuit - Will Travel - Robert Heinlein - humorous adventure - 770L
    • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and sequels) - Douglas Adams - humorous adventure classic
    • The Jupiter Project - Gregory Benford - youth seeking alien contact
    • *The Knife of Never Letting Go - Patrick Ness - first in a trilogy
    • Little Fuzzy - H. Beam Piper - cute little aliens in this classic - currently free for the Kindle as part of a class SF story series (this is a long story)
    • *Martian Chronicles - masterwork by Ray Bradbury - all 7-9 graders should read all or selected shorts 
    • Mission of Gravity - Hal Clement - human visitors as viewed from alien POV
    • *Nor Crystal Tears - Alan Dean Foster - told from alien POV - 1st contact with 2-legged creatures - followed by the Commonwealth series
    • The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut - 980L - what does it mean to be human? - MS
    • Sparrow - dark and adult - mature HS readers only (sex, religion) - MS
    • Star Trek - those novels are still available for reluctant and action MS readers
    • *The Taken Trilogy (Lost and Found: a Novel is 1st) - Alan Dean Foster - GT in MS or HS
    • *Tunnel in the Sky - Robert Heinlein - teens stranded on alien plant - makes you wonder about the source of so many dystopian titles...
  • Film & TV
    •  Avatar (film)
    • Star Trek - any classic voyage from the early TV series or Next Generation is great - recommended:  "The Trouble with Tribbles" for humor and "Arena" for drama 
The Aliens R Us v. Us - This is the heavy stuff that the lighter SF readings should lead up to. 
  • Contemporary and historical study of "different" as "alien" will expand student reading of these novels.  You will not have to look beyond the cafeteria, but certainly the History department can help, or the newspapers. 
  • And do not neglect to compare your SF alien novels to some realistic novels about what happens when an alien (someone different) enters a community.  The essential questions will be the same.  Here are a few titles to get you thinking:
  • The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison - 920L - wanting to be white-perfect - MS (although my daughter read and loved it in 8th)
  • The Body of Christopher Creed - Carol Plum-Ucci - death of the "odd" boy causes protagonist to reevaluate difference - 720L
  • Elk's Run - Fialkov - graphic novel will please HS boys, especially in rural areas - the "alien" here is revealed slowly - powerful book HS only with care (lots of the F word, content violent)
  • Feathers - Jacqueline Woodson - white boy joins all-black middle school class
  • Firegirl - Tony Abbott - scared girl enters middle school class - 670L
  • The Girl Who Fell From the Sky - Heidi Durrow - struggles of bi-racial girl in black community - MS
  • Guests - Michael Dorris - children's book with a big punch
  • Jasper Jones - Craig Silvey - Australian authors writes of the "outsider" boy in a small community, a community in darkness - HL590L, but not for below 7th - I love this book - Prinz Prize
  • The Laramie Project - Moises Kaufman - murder of a gay young man causes town to reexamine difference - play form - MS
  • Little Bee - Chris Cleave - Nigerian refuge girl in Britain - MS
  • Native Son - Richard Wright - 700L - story of young black man in mid-century Chicago - MS
  • Open City: A Novel - Teju Cole - stream-of-consciousness - Nigerian immigrant's insights into life, contemporary culture...  2012 National Book Critics' Award finalist - MS
  • Sarah Canary - Karen Joy Fowler - she may be an alien, or something else - historical US setting - MS
  • Stargirl - Jerry Spinelli - free spirit enters high school - 590L
As always, suggestions and comments are sought.

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