The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Invasion Dream


The details vary, but it's always the same dream.

I'm outside my home, or in some other familiar place, and the sky fills with flying machines that engage in slow or sudden movement. Within the dream I remember previous instances of the dream, as dreams, and feel surprised that I'm now seeing it in reality. A few nights ago I saw bursts and trails of sparks in a twilight sky, like fireworks, but far bigger, and silent. I remember thinking that this was like the recurrent dream I have, of a sky filled with machines that sometimes look like ghostly outlines of gigantic military aircraft, and sometimes blocky shapes of complex alien spacecraft.

I feel no fear; at most, some apprehension. The main feeling is awe, and a sense of anticipation.

I wake and, as usual, I haven't had enough sleep. Many years ago I read of an experiment where volunteers lived in a cave without any information as to whether it was day or night. The object was to see whether they would continue to show evidence of a diurnal cycle. Sure enough, their bodies settled in to a circadian rhythm, but for a twenty-five hour day.

I miss the longer days of the home planet.


On the home planet there are enough hours in the day. You remember this. You know what I'm talking about. You recognise the suspicion. Have you ever felt at home here? Doesn't the word 'home' mean someplace other than 'Earth' to you? Maybe not, in which case I envy you, and intend to avoid you. To ca' canny, to evade, to back off. In fact I have never met anyone who knows what I'm talking about. I'm looking for you here, now. This is what this is about: SETI.

Some banal music does it. 'Sailing' by Rod Stewart. That's a good one. It's diagnostic. It's like hearing a chord or a bar from your national anthem in a foreign country.

Nostalgia was originally classified as a disease. People died of it. It has been bred out. Perhaps we are adapting. There are insects whose eyes are most sensitive to wavelengths not present in the spectrum of the sun. They can't have been here long.


Still missing the home planet, I get a coffee and a cigarette and connect to It's a terrible way to start the day. I should start with some science site, or NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day. I might recognise something. What I find on is always familiar.

Outside, overhead, I hear the heavy choppers. Peering through the window as the sound gets louder, I see them. Black helicopters, in real life. Other military aircraft will fly over at some point today. If they are loud enough I might go outside and look. It's childish, I know, but I always go outside and look. I used to think I could predict upcoming wars by upticks in local military activity: low-flying aircraft, army trucks refuelling at Tesco. These days it's harder. The baseline has moved up. It's like background radiation.

I walk to the local co-operative supermarket and buy the broadsheet for myself and the tabloid for my wife. She's still asleep when I get back. I make a bacon sandwich and eat it over the paper. I skip. I've read most of the interesting articles already, on I've read the science news in this week's New Scientist. Being the science correspondent of a British quality newspaper must be the easiest job in the world. On the evidence I see I could file a week's stories every Friday before breakfast. And I wouldn't perpetrate stupid errors, like saying that nanotechnology deals with particles so small that they are not affected by the laws of physics. Sometimes this thought drives me to flashes of berserk rage.

Calmer now, I take the red-top and the cereal up to my wife, kiss her and disappear for the day. I bound up the steps from the back of our street to the main road, in time to smoke a cigarette at the bus stop. A white van from Environmental Services loiters, engine idling, a few yards away. When I finish the cigarette I walk to the litter bin, stub out the cigarette and drop it in. The white van moves off. I wonder if they were waiting to slap a fine on me for littering. (You think I'm paranoid? This really happened.) A black helicopter labours across the sky from north to south, like a water-boatman rowing itself across the surface tension.

There's a lot of surface tension these days. The bus arrives and I take the front seat on the top deck. When I was a child I used to sit in that same seat and imagine that I was gliding above the street on a gravity sled. I still do.


Flying three metres above the surface of the planet, I arrive in Edinburgh. At Festival time players and promoters pester passers-by like cults. I once had an idea for a story about a play at the Festival that started a cult. A real cult, not a cult hit. It was a science fiction play called Mine! All Mine! The idea presented in the play was that we are a lost mining colony. 'Face it,' the play's promotional leaflets would say, 'we never liked the place. That's why we've messed it up.' We are alien visitors inserted into the genes of a promising hominid species, warping it to our own ends, which are to dig up all the metals of the planet. When we have fulfilled this function the mining corporation fleet will arrive with our pay packets and return tickets. Then we can all go home and at last get enough sleep. This proves to be so popular that the protagonist sees it take off and become a real movement to strip-mine the earth. At the end we see him very old, waiting on a ruined Earth for the great ships that will carry him home. We know that they are not coming.

What distinguishes his situation from ours?


Around the city centre I orbit widdershins. I go up Lothian Road and left along Bread Street to the West Port and the Grassmarket. There I describe three epicycles, around Armstrong's, Transreal, and Mr Woods' Fossils. In the first I find costumes for my characters. In the second I find science fiction. In the third I find aliens.

From this lowest point of the Old Town there are short cuts through space-time to any part of the city I want to visit. Through a wormhole gate I arrive at the Library. I sit down at the information terminal and search the index, then go to a shelf for a book. On the home planet, great racks of shelves of books index the information stored on the computer network: a much more rational system. I leave the Library and walk to Word Power, where I scan shelves of books on anarchist spirituality, feminist quantum mechanics, holistic terrorism, and pesticide resistance.


Sometimes I think resistance is futile. The next war is pencilled in like a summer holiday. The aircraft are booked, the cargoes are loaded and the sunshine is packed.

'How do you avoid being worried all the time?'

My daughter needs a lift, in more senses than one. During wars our family car becomes a tiny revolutionary cell.

'For one thing,' I said, 'I do worry a bit. But, yeah. Well, I have other interests. There are things to get on with. Anyway, in the long run I'm not all that worried. People want control over their working lives and they don't want to be thrown out of work by forces they have no control over, and so on and so on. Now we could get that - not without struggle, but without a violent revolution. As for war, well, I think there'll be some more wars, but there's no reason why there should be a world war. Once this mad American and British project to conquer the Middle East is defeated, there'll just be different powers. Their interests could clash, but that doesn't have to lead to war. Lenin said it did, but that was before nuclear weapons and television and the Internet.'

'So you're quite hopeful really?'

'Sure,' I say. 'In the long run.'

She grins and hops out and disappears into her block of flats. I wave and drive away. The Bridge is bright in the evening. Burn-off gas flares from the refinery beyond the horizon. Landing lights come on over the North Sea, staying still in the air for minutes on end. I drive past the hill where her brother and I watched the New Year fireworks light up the horizon from Leith to Grangemouth. We walked back between the wooden walls of gardens. The Ferry with its trees and houses, its noisy peace, the faded covenant in the museum, the Covenanter Lane between the war memorial and the harbour, is surrounded by a great wheel of engineering work - the bridges, the airport, the motorways, the naval yard, the refinery - like a space habitat or a generation ship. It carries me home.

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I've often got a small smile from people by saying "I've lived on this planet for n-ty-m years but still haven't adjusted to its 24 hour day/night cycle".

"SYNC: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life" by Steven H. Strogatz is a really interesting book that has quite a bit about how people's body clocks work and about those cave experiments.

I constantly tell people I'm from Mars because I naturally adjust to a longer-than-24-hour day. Most people stare blankly at me.

Thank you for posting this! It made me smile.

That's beautiful. And your picture of the Chinook reminds me of the one I saw over Hackney the other day. It scared me, but of course, nothing came of it.

1. What's it like being an agent for Contact/SC, ken?

2. As for, I couldn't take it seriously after I saw it published the work of Thomas C. Mountain. Among those of us who follow Eritrean affairs, Mr. Mountain is notorious as the last foreign defender of the Eritrean government, in spite of its utterly appalling human rights record.

My Invasion Dream is more conventional, more along the lines of Invasión, the film directed by Hugo Santiago (and co-written by Borges), situated in a much enlarged version of my home town, with no helicopters

Another problem with being abandoned here, far from my home planet, trapped in an hominid body without any means of escape is that my life-span is limited to that of my host. Many of my fellow abandonees have developed complex artificial belief systems involving reinsertion or sublimation. These beliefs help them cope with the all too obvious (and all too tragic) fact that we are occupying a hopelessly inadequate host organism.

I'm pretty sure that most of the direct intellectual heirs of the leaders who planned this mining mission in the first place now occupy positions of political and economic power. I have no evidence for this -- just observations of similarly devastating lack of foresight and/or preparation.

Here's an idle thought - aren't the chances fairly high that your typical visitor to our wee blue planet might also observe a 24-hour clock back home, even though, objectively, their hour might be a very different length of time?
I'm assuming, of course, that there's a good reason we have a 24-hour clock, or a 12-month year, or a 360-degree compass. Assuming being the operative word. I know other cultures have experimented with decimal time, etc, but is there any reason to think of the familiar 3,4,12 set of divisions as a particularly hardy little meme that might persist elsewhere, or have we just inherited some quirky system by chance?
Ach, if only I had 12 fingers this post would have been so much easier...

Roderick - that's uncanny.

D J P O'Kane - I'm well aware that has published some flaky or dodgy writers. So what? Most of its columnists are pretty sound and as a portal to relevant news and comment published elsewhere it's hard to beat.

Ken - you are of course right. I read the Monthly Review on a semi-regular basis, but it doesn't stop wanting to go to their office in New York and bang their heads together on occasion.

Ken --

It gets uncannier yet. The writer of that scene based it on his own recurring dream.

Roderick - I guess alien invasion dreams are an occupational hazard of SF reading and writing. For what it's worth, I haven't had the dream for a long time - that piece was written a couple of years ago.

As I may hvae said somewhere before - some time ago I got to wondering why I had in childhood a notion that some danger would come from machines in the sky. I also got to wondering why I had no memory of the Cuban missile crisis (which took place when I was seven years old). Then I had one of those 'Duh!' moments.

I lived on a hill in Bath for several years in the early 90s and got quiet used to the Hercules and big black helicopters lumbering past at 300 ft. It was always fun to watch someone else watch, for the first time, the fighter jets fail to explode as they plunged into the earth/ hidden valley of the river Avon. It was never fun to be down in said narrow valley as the attack helicopters came over a 30 ft. Do you have to laugh?

Used to get that when I lived up on the North shore of Loch Tay, quite often you would literally be looking down on the tops of the fighter jets as they went down through the valley. Even seen one take the top off a tree (although it may just have been the turbulence from the wing). I never minded it much at all (apart from when I was trying to sleep through hangovers), until one came over (possibly abiding by the 500ft rule, but not by much) while I was out on the horse. Which resulted in a panicked gallop over a wooded and boulder strewn hill. After that I was considerably less blase;. Emphatically and vocally so, even, with a choice selection from my vast repertoire of sentences constructed entirely of FLW conjugations.

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