The Big Book of Aliens and Other Stories
When I was a kid I would take a rock and whack it with a hammer to split it open and then with great fanfare and my eyes closed I would open the two pieces in my hands and then slowly open my eyes to gaze upon the surface of the rock’s now exposed interior. I would think to myself “I am the first person in the whole world since the beginning of time to see the inside of this rock”. But most of the rocks I found looked the same on the inside as they did on the outside.
But I started to look closer and I could see small patterns in the rock that differed from previous rocks and I would then imagine the million year journey this rock made to find its way to me.
As a kid I can remember the overwhelming drive I had to explore and learn new things and it’s probably why I started to look closer at everything around me. I mean literally closer in that I would try to examine the minute details of everything. I acquired a magnifying glass and that helped some but it just didn’t get me close enough to what I was hoping to see.
Until one Christmas, Santa (actually my Mom of course, thanks Mom) gave me a microscope for Christmas! This was science equipment, real science equipment and it came in wooden box and it was black and it was heavy and it had these glass slides and it had a thing with lenses on the end that spun around and it was just absolutely wonderful!
The first thing I learned about a microscope is that the objective lenses can extend beyond the stage and I found that out when I crushed a couple glass slides. But as I slowly learned how to use the microscope I started to look at everything I could fit under the lens. Salt, pepper, a piece of torn newspaper, the tip of my ball point pen and it was all pretty much as I expected. The salt was like cubes, the pepper was a bunch of dark crushed bits and pieces, the torn newspaper had little hairs on the torn edge, and the ball point pen was, well, a ball point. It wasn’t the revelation I was hoping for.
Until I found a dead ant and that changed everything. When I was able to focus on the ant I could see its compound eyes and as I moved it around I saw what looked like hair on its body.
“Hair, an ant has hair?”
What is going on here?
If you have ever used a microscope you know how difficult it is to focus on something that is three dimensional. A microscope works best with a flat one dimensional sample that can be smeared on a glass slide. When you have a three dimensional item under the scope you have to constantly change focus to see each part of it and it is a tedious process.
But I did it, back and forth, back and forth, focus on one part “He’s got claws on his feet!” Back and forth “He’s got hair on his butt too!” Back and forth “His antenna is segmented!”
The more I looked the more I found and I saw that he wasn’t just black, his color varied on the different segments of his body in shades of dark brown. And the texture, he wasn’t smooth, he had different textures on every part of his body!
This was what I had been looking for and I found it in a place I could have never imagined.
This ant was a complex creature and just the few things I could see meant there had to be much more I could not see with this microscope.
This was an earth shaking revelation for me and after this experience I knew I could never look at any insect again the same way. They weren’t just little creepy crawly specks, they were living creatures that had the most incredible alien appearance you could imagine and I thought they were beautiful.
After the ant, the microscope didn’t really provide me with any more revelations as it was difficult to operate as it only had a mirror to reflect light up under the stage and I had to use a flashlight that didn’t provide much light and well I just couldn’t see any closer than I already had.
I knew there was more to it all but I just didn’t have access to it.
I didn’t have the tools.
I might as well tell you now, the year was 1968 when I got that microscope and at that time there was so little knowledge made available to me that I thought that I was living in purgatory. That was probably because I attended a parochial school and they were very through in teaching us God stuff.
Fear this, fear that, don’t do that or get a whack!
It was also around the time I started daydreaming in class and let me tell you the nuns don’t like that. Add dyslexia to the mix and it was a special kind of fun.
But don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for any sympathy because I didn’t know anything else and it was all fine by me.
But I remember that I was so bored that I started to read the dictionary, it was one of those big volumes with tissue paper thin pages and the cover had a warm wonderful feel to it and it smelled like dried grass. It was so comforting because each page was filled with words that were so different from each one before it that I could keep my mind busy and focused.
That went on for quite some time until a nun took notice of my fascination with the dictionary and told me something I had never heard about before. It was called a library and it was filled with books that I could read any time I wanted!
WUT? Books? Lots of books that I can read? This was intriguing and she had my interest.
It was actually the nice young nun that told me about the library. She was the friendly approachable nun as opposed to most of the other nuns who were older and had a much more stern interaction with us students. Back then the nuns wore a full habit which meant that the only flesh you saw was their faces and their hands, everything else was covered in black and white. I never thought of them being people because they were so strict and to be honest, they were scary which is probably why what happened this one day led me to believe something quite incredible.
Each grade in this school had its own classroom assigned to it and you would spend the entire day in that one classroom. The teachers would, in turn, come to the classroom and teach their respective subject and so on with each subject. We had breaks for lunch in the cafeteria in the basement (I remember their famous boiled green hot dogs) and of course for the religious stuff where we would go to the chapel on the first floor (it was a 5 story brick building) for prayers, confession, or mass.
Well this one day we were lined up outside the classroom waiting for the nuns to take us to lunch and I just happened to be the first in line.
I would like to mention something at this point, I wasn’t a popular kid and it may have had something to do with my infatuation with the dictionary and maybe also the glasses I wore, but I was a regular target for the amusement of others.
On this day there was some sort of ruckus that had happened in class earlier that required the appearance of Mother Superior and a stern talking to before we left for lunch. Now Mother Superior is exactly who you think she is, the boss and the head nun. She was no nonsense and you did not mess with her, ever! She had to be the oldest nun too as her face had the lines and wrinkles to validate that, but she was also very small and in fact most of the kids in my 8th grade class were taller than her, including me.
She was standing at the front of the line facing us and admonishing us for something we all knew was the work of just a few trouble makers in the class. But we had to stand there and listen to it all until…
Did I mention that the head trouble maker just happened to be standing right behind me in line?
I don’t remember falling but I do remember reaching out with my hands to catch myself and how that action built a vivid mental picture of something so incredible I can still relive it to this day.
Yup, the kid behind me pushed me as hard as he could and as I fell I reached out with both my hands and before I hit the ground my hands raked down the front of Mother Superior’s body.
What I thought I felt under Mother Superior’s habit was bones, just bones, hidden beneath her habit. A picture appeared in my mind of a skeleton where the only flesh was on her face and hands. I know now it was because she was just a very thin older woman.
But my imagination, MY IMAGINATION!
Nothing happened to the kid that pushed me and everyone just sort of forgot it happened but…
But my imagination wouldn’t let it go.
A couple of days later two nuns were walking past me in the hallway and I heard what I thought sounded like bones rattling together. I could not take a breath until I ran outside the school building and stood there panting in fear.
I was really worried about this bone thing and I just couldn’t shake the idea. Those two nuns in the hallway seemed to validate my fears but I knew it just couldn’t be true, could it?
Anyway it was about a week after the incident that the young nun approached me and told me about the library. I really didn’t understand what she was talking about and I think she realized that so she asked me to follow her. As we walked together down the hall I heard that rattling sound again and I started to freak out because that would mean she was only bones under her habit too.
She was talking as we walked but I didn’t hear a word she was saying and I tried to not look at her because I thought I would scream so I looked down at the floor trying to keep it together.
And then I saw it.
I laughed out loud and she looked at me and looking back at her I said “It’s your rosary”
She smiled back quizzically and I said “I thought it was something else” as I reached out in relief and touched her shoulder and it was warm! She was warm under habit! The nun’s weren’t all bones!
All the nuns wore rosary beads on their waist belt and of course I heard the sound of the rosary beads before, since the very first day I started school! But my imagination just took it and ran away with it and with me in tow!
I was ecstatic but there was no way I could explain to her that I thought her rosary beads was the sound of bones rattling together.
She just smiled again and pointed to a door and said “This is the library”
The room was about half the size of a classroom and there were no windows but lining the walls were bookshelves filled with books. I never knew this room existed and between learning that nuns aren’t just bones and the bounty of books before me I was in awe.
She said that as a student I could read any of the books in the library and that I could even take some home.
Wow, just wow!
I didn’t know how a library worked or that I could search for subjects but I doubt I would have known what to search for so I did the only logical thing I could think of, I started at the beginning.
I reached up and took the first book from the top left shelf by the door and I read it. For the next several weeks that is how I selected what to read, each one in turn from the beginning. I didn’t know I could select a book from elsewhere in the library, I just figured they had to be read in order.
There were novels and plays and poems and technical manuals and all sorts of books devoted to math and science and physics and it just went on and on. I understood many of the books but there was just as many I didn’t understand but I read every word in each book because I thought that is what you had to do. It was like the dictionary but instead of one word and its definition each book was an idea or subject that expanded beyond what I knew and it was intoxicating.
I had gone through about three bookshelves when it started to get a little boring because a lot of the books were very old and I think the collection was mostly books donated by doctors. There was a great deal of large older volumes with all sorts of medical information and they were very difficult to read. Although there was this one book on Louis Pasteur that was amazing and it was also around that time that the nuns took notice of what I was reading. Two of them approached me as I was reading the Louis Pasteur book and asked if I understood what I was reading and I was afraid I had done something wrong so I told them I was just looking so they would leave me alone, and they did.
One of the things I noticed was that I was the only one in the library and it also seemed that no books were ever taken out. None of them seemed to have been touched because when I would take my one book out the space was always there when I returned.
The almost never ending supply of books was nice and I enjoyed how each book was like its own little world but I was losing that spark of excitement I felt when I first started reading them.
Something was missing and it was probably due to all the technical manuals that seemed to be the bulk of the collection. Those were fun to read but they weren’t stories and the few books that were story books also lacked something.
If you’ve read this far you know it getting close to the revelation part of the story, well here it is….
It was at shoulder height on the fifth shelf almost dead center and it was the smaller of the two volumes on either side of it where I found it. Of course I didn’t really find it as it was next in line to be read and when I removed it the two larger books on either side fell together touching at the top to form a sharp triangular space, kinda like a rocket ship. I didn’t look at the title page right away and in fact I didn’t even crack it open until the next day at home.
You see I had read books like this before, sort of. Mostly it was the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift from which I had learned what science fiction was, or at least I thought I did.
I actually revisited the Tom Swift books several years ago and it was very difficult to read as it was so dated and also because you have to be a kid to enjoy it. When I first read those books the adventure was all encompassing and it was fun.
But this book was different. It was different in every way possible and I remember reading the prologue several times over because it was filled with so many new ideas. And when I read this one sentence “All the habitable worlds of the solar system were occupied” something clicked.
You see Tom Swift was all about this boy genius that invented amazing things and flew in even more amazing vehicles and he even went into space a couple of times but all of his adventures never strayed far from earth. It was like his entire universe resided in a sort of snow globe that he would never leave from.
After reading the prologue for the third time I dug in and continued reading for the whole rest of the night under the covers in my bed with my trusty flashlight.
I could not put this book down because something was happening in my head.
It was like daydreaming.
It wasn’t the first time it had happened with a book I had read but this was vivid and prolonged! The words in this book created a world in my head that I could imagine as real. I could actually see this world, the characters, and the places, and the space ships, and the cold of space, and it just went on and on.
To this day I still remember this book in imagery and not words.
The Stars My Destination
Sometimes when I read a book that I really enjoyed I would re-read it again a couple of days later. But I could not pick this book up again as it was still alive in my head. All I had to do was rewind almost any part of the book in my head and I could relive the experience.
What I came to realize and resultant revelation was that you could turn anything from your imagination into stories and then into books.
I hadn’t realized until I read this book that I had already started to create stories when I daydreamed.
If you were caught staring blankly off into the distance in class the nuns would consider that an idle pursuit and they would correct that behavior. Unfortunately I had begun to believe that daydreaming was bad and unproductive.
But here was a book that went completely against that edict and I then knew that the only way possible a book like this could ever be conjured up was from someone’s imagination!
This meant that other people daydreamed too and I wasn’t alone!
It wasn’t too long after that I figured out how to search for books in the library and I found every science fiction book the library had and read each one.
Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and many more. When I think about it now it was kinda strange that a parochial school would have so many science fiction books but it was probably because very few people used the library so there was no one to raise an alarm.
That library and the books in it opened the doors to literature for me and it wasn’t just science fiction because I began to find other authors like Hemingway and Steinbeck and all of it was like having the curtains opened and letting the sun shine in.
I would like to tell you that I began to write my own stories back then but it didn’t happen, not because I didn’t try but because I was physically unable to do so.
Dyslexia is easy to explain, basically (for me) letters and number are reversed. That means that if I see a number I’ll sometimes, but not always, transcribe the number incorrectly by reversing two or more numbers. With letters it’s a bit more devious because when I would write something by hand with pen and paper I would sometimes start to write a word like “been” and not be able to remember which side the loop goes on the letter “b”. I would then have to get a book and find a word with a lower case “b” to then use that as an example to complete the word and in turn the sentence.
It was tedious to say the least and with my lack of spelling skills most of my writing endeavors went no further than a paragraph or two.
It wasn’t until the late eighties when I became interested in computers and I got my first keyboard that I was able to begin to write with any consistency and as computers and software became more advanced I could actually finish a story without dyslexia or my lack of spelling skills getting in the way.
And that is where I am today
When the aliens finally arrive it will be nothing like anything we can imagine. Maybe we’ll have a small bit of it right but everything else will be so alien that we will probably need several lifetimes to even begin to understand what or who they are.
In the mean time I daydream about all the strange and impossible stories that will be written about our encounters with the unknown. I am most interested in what we as humans will bring to the equation as we visit strange worlds and meet all sorts of alien creatures. How much of earth will we bring with us and how will our understanding of the universe will be warped by our encounters with the unknown?
Some of the stories are from the perspective of an alter ego I created who lives hundreds of years in the future and is recounting stories of his travels working as an engineer on space ships. He’s getting close to retirement and wants to write down his experiences and his perspective is one who either experienced the events himself or met others who were involved.
Some stories are just daydreams that have come to life as I realize that there are no boundaries in imagination.
If there was a way I could do it, I would like to thank that one nun who showed me the library all those years ago. It was a kindness I have never forgotten and probably one of the reasons I’m able to even put my thoughts down in print.
I wonder what she would think of me now as I daydream about Warped Tales of the future past?