No one in classical times knew about the existence of other worlds; the planets simply were wandering points of light in the night sky. So you won’t find any mention of aliens from space in biblical literature, or Greek mythology. The invention of the telescope changed that. When Galileo trained that newfangled device on Jupiter in 1610, and found four moons, people started to think about other worlds, and who might reside there.

It was not until 1752 – still well before the American Revolution – that anyone tried to write a story about what aliens from space might be like. That thought came to the mind of Voltaire. (I understand the condemnation that I will receive from Fox News simply for mentioning a well-known Frenchman.)

Voltaire wrote a short story called “Micromegas,” depicting first contact with someone from outer space. In Voltaire’s story, the contact is somewhat awkward, since Micromegas is 23 miles tall. In fact, just as it took us a while to recognize the existence of bacteria (discovered just 18 years before Voltaire was born), it takes a while for Micromegas to notice all of us tiny human beings.

Eventually, when logistical difficulties have been overcome, Micromegas has a conversation with a human philosopher, who tries to explain the human condition. He does so with this example (translated from French, I willingly confess):

“At this very moment there are 100,000 fools of our species who wear hats [meaning Christians], slaying 100,000 fellow creatures who wear turbans [meaning Moslems], or being massacred by them. Over almost all of Earth, such practices have been going on from time immemorial.”

[Micromegas] shuddered, and asked what could cause such horrible quarrels between those miserable little creatures.

“The dispute concerns a lump of clay,” said the philosopher, “no bigger than your heel. Not that a single one of those millions of men who get their throats cut has the slightest interest in this clot of earth. The only point in question is whether it shall belong to a certain man who is called Sultan, or another who — I know not why — is called Caesar. Neither has seen, or is ever likely to see, the little corner of ground which is the bone of contention; and hardly one of those animals, who are cutting each other’s throats, has ever seen the animal for whom they fight so desperately.”

“Ah! wretched creatures!” exclaimed [Micromegas] with indignation; “Can anyone imagine such frantic ferocity! I would like to take two or three [giant] steps, and stamp upon the whole swarm of these ridiculous assassins.”

“No need,” answered the philosopher; “they are working hard enough to destroy themselves. I assure you, at the end of 10 years, not a hundredth of those wretches will be left; even if they had never drawn the sword, famine, fatigue, or intemperance will sweep them almost all away. Besides, it is not they who deserve punishment, but rather those armchair barbarians, who from the privacy of their cabinets, and during the process of digestion, command the massacre of a million men, and afterward ordain a solemn thanksgiving to God.”

So here we are, 260 years later, and still the “armchair barbarians” send other people’s sons and daughters off to the slaughterhouse. The Sultans try to kill those who wear hats, and the Caesars try to kill those who wear turbans. Over tiny clots of earth.

As another Frenchman wrote in 1849, “Plus ca change, plus la meme chose.” The more things change, the more they remain the same. How about peace, for a change? That would be real change.

It will come as no surprise that Micromegas left our world with a feeling of distaste:

Micromegas addressed them again with great kindness, though he was disgusted to the bottom of his heart at seeing such infinitely insignificant atoms [we humans] so puffed up with pride. He promised to give them a rare book of philosophy, written in minute characters, for their special use, telling all that can be known of the ultimate essence of things. He actually gave them the volume at the time of his departure. It was carried to Paris and laid before the Academy of Sciences; but when the old secretary came to open it, the pages were blank.


Alan Grayson