You probably know this story. A flying saucer lands in D.C. Klaatu and his robot Gort have come to warn Earth about the perils of the nuclear arms race. Klaatu is shot, captured, escapes. Two Earthlings befriend him--the lovely Helen and her young son Bobby. After contacting a famous scientist, Klaatu gets the world’s attention by causing a global power outage. Before departing on his spacecraft he issues his message: “Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration.”
The Day the Earth Stood Still has always been a favorite of mine. Considered a classic sci-fi film, it was directed by Robert Wise and starred Michael Rennie as Klaatu, Patricia Neal as Helen Benson, Sam Jaffe as Dr. Barnhardt, Billy Gray as Bobby Benson, and Lock Martin as Gort. The screenplay, by Edmund H. North, was based on Harry Bates's tale “Farewell to the Master” published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940.
Released in 1951, at a time when American Cold War paranoia was nearly at its peak, The Day the Earth Stood Still was remarkable for its antimilitarist, “one worlder” point of view. At the same time, its protagonist Klaatu, a "Christlike" figure who takes the symbolic name Carpenter, and is "killed" and then resurrected, is hardly a pacifist, or a sacrificial Lamb. If Earth steps out of line, everyone on it will pay with their lives, including Helen and Bobby, little babies, and other innocent parties.
The following stories are “what if” conjectures based on the film's premises told in the manner of various sci-fi sub-genres since the early 1950s.
The Moon is Taboo
When the lunar weapons installation vaporized on 26 June 2032, leaving a big glassy crater that covered 5 per cent of the Moon’s surface, it took Roy Broussard, a pioneer astronaut now doing a boring stint as head of NASA in Houston, a few moments to understand what had happened. When he understood, his gut twisted and his extremities felt like lead. In 1949, the ill-treated extraterrestrial envoy Klaatu had promised that Wardens would punish Earth if humans should take nuclear weapons into space. Now they had made good on their promise, in the very day and hour that the system had become operational.
Broussard’s mind registered this understanding for a few seconds, and in those seconds he relived the entire saga of the conquest of the moon by the Columbus program’s pioneers, his own Artemis expedition that founded the lunar colony and built its great Dome, the staggering loss of the first Dome to a saboteur’s bomb, the resurgence of the colony on a grander scale, and finally the construction of the weapons platform in defiance of Klaatu’s warning.
Then Broussard disintegrated, in a big pulsing “whoom” that left a glassy depression the size of Texas into which the Gulf of Mexico bounded madly, sending plumes of salt spray seven kilometers into the air. In quick succession, all of Earth’s major population centers became state-sized craters. Salt rain and hail fell in Nunavut and on the White Sea, and then all over the world.
The Wardens destroyed the Moon base and Earth’s population centers. Following standard procedure, they salted down the planet with a compound to interdict indigenous plant life. They did this in preference to burning the planet to a cinder or using drastic pesticides against the human remnant, having learned over millennia not to render valuable real estate completely useless. They sowed a dense-growing, grasslike exo-botanical species that covered Earth's arable lands. The saltgrass was inedible and contained an irritant making it inutile to terrestrials.
The island Tasmania received, by accident, a light salting. Terrestrial food crops still germinated there, though slowly, and only where humans tended them in makeshift greenhouses. Thus a small human remnant subsisted on the island. “They burrow in; it’s amazing what they can withstand," a Warden noted. "We hardly ever kill a species off all at once. There’s a regular schedule; Wardens come back periodically and interdict them again. It keeps them down to a minimum.”
The calamity destroyed all human infrastructures. On Tasmania, civil society was extinguished and the nearly extinct human species fought viciously for mere survival. Technology regressed to medieval levels.
After years of rough strife, with the hand of almost every man against his neighbor, a small band of Tasmanian men, women, and children emerged from this state of nature. They made a compact to live by rules and under a leader, Adam Locke, whom the people granted authority to enforce the rules. Thus organized, they reasoned, they stood a better chance of protecting their lives and crops and few prized possessions from outside marauders, who were persistent, and vicious.
Forced to fight outlaws who produced nothing, lived by plundering, knew no rule of law, and respected neither life nor innocence, Adam Locke’s band fortified the saltgrass perimeter surrounding its village and greenhouses. Locke led his warriors to defeat—to exterminate really—a band of cannibals led by a deranged former Navy cook, and then waged another exterminatory war against a messianic religious cult that had inveigled Locke’s impressionable, orphaned niece Martha into its horrid mysteries, which proved to include human sacrifice.
Having secured, for the time being, their lives, liberty and property, the Tasmanians prepared their little domain for the next challenge: the dreaded return visit of the Wardens.
In the middle seventies, a Boy Scout troop from Alpine, Texas went on a three-day hike into the Davis Mountains. There they encountered an old “prospector,” who shared the Scouts’ campfire and told them the story of how the flying saucer landed at Marfa many years before they were born.
In December of 1949 a flying saucer touched down near Marfa, Texas, where the government ran a secret underground research complex. The spaceman came to warn Earth people not to endanger the galaxy with nuclear experiments. The spaceman asked the officials there to hold a meeting of world leaders and scientists. A trigger-happy security officer shot the spacemen. His guardian robot then vaporized the shooter, some jeeps and their drivers, and a two-star Air Force general. The wounded spaceman got away, and a young woman named Hansen helped him elude the authorities until he could get back into his saucer and fly away, which he did.
The remote quarter where these events took place made it possible for U.S. security officials to cover them up by suppressing news reports and drugging or assassinating every known eyewitness. “A lot of people around these parts just up and disappeared. That’s a fact. That girl disappeared too. Maybe that saucer blasted off with her in it. She acted pretty goofy about that spaceman.” So the old prospector’s story went.
The old man’s story, embellished here and there, was substantially true. Parts of it sounded oddly familiar to some of the boys, who had seen a old movie called The Day the Earth Stood Still on television.
The similarities were not coincidental. Government security agents had worked with Hollywood filmmakers to produce a disinformative screen version of the event called The Day the Earth Stood Still, to encourage the public to confuse science fact with science fiction. The Hollywood version was a much splashier story, set in Washington, D.C, with sensational features added (like the worldwide standstill) that clearly marked it as fictional. Helen Hansen became Helen Benson and was given an imaginary little boy named Bobby. The opening scene’s shots of the Washington Monument and a baseball game, calculated to touch the mystic chords of American memory, were put in at the suggestion of a patriotic CIA man, Everette Howard Hunt.
The “Edmund H. North” of the screenplay credit is a fake name. Two blacklisted writers were kidnapped, held incommunicado and forced to write the screenplay from a dictated storyline. In order to spite their CIA or Air Force supervisors, the screenwriters gave the script a leftist, anti-military slant (unwittingly echoing the real “Klaatu’s” ethos). This was the last hurrah for these former Popular Front artists, one of them a card-carrying Communist. The writers were quietly put to death after completing the screenplay—which would have been their fate even if they’d been Republicans for Taft.
The next morning after hearing the old prospector's tale, the Boy Scouts struck camp and hiked further up into the Davis Mountains. On their return trip, they chose a little-used hiking trail. Near sundown they came upon the old man and his mule, both dead, and killed in a strange and terrifying way.
In 1988, the Wardens destroyed the lunar weapons platform, the crown jewel in the Strategic Defense Initiative's diadem. The power jolt vaporized an impressive chunk of the lunar mass, and knocked the lopsided remnant into an eccentric orbit. Before Earth's depopulation could proceed, however, an electro-magnetic pulse in the Wardens’ home quadrant knocked out communication with the spacecraft and left it disabled. The stranded Wardens prudently destroyed all Earth's nuclear warheads, missiles, and stocks of fissionable materials but left the planet unharmed.
The American and Soviet leaders knew they had been disarmed but since neither could be sure about the other side, they bluffed, going about their normal procedures as if they still had nuclear weapons. Nevertheless the Third World sensed that the global hegemons had become paper tigers. Led by Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi, the nations of the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa formed a grand alliance. The price of oil rose until gasoline was $22.99 per gallon at the pump in Maple Shade, New Jersey, where the long riots began. Mexico took back the Gadsden Purchase. Congress enacted an emergency draft, but most draftees were unfit for service because of dizzy spells and puzzling PMS-like symptoms.
The lopsided moon’s eccentric orbit was causing weird tides, cataclysmic bad weather, earthquakes, volcanic activity, debilitating dizzy spells, and PMS-like symptoms in men. Moreover, the orbit was decaying, and scientists agreed the Moon would soon crash into the earth.
Religious apocalypticism surged as governments lost legitimacy; law and order degenerated into Hobbesian chaos. But a Ghanaian woman named Miriam Okoji created a mind-body exercise called M’koji: a blend of African spirituality, Tai Chi, and the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Spread like wildfire via simple, catchy pop-music videos, M’koji became a unifying global movement. Because it was billed as a self-help process, not a religion, even Islamic and Christian fundamentalists could safely practice it.
At the eleventh hour, M’koji brought the world's billions together. The human race crossed the threshold of self-knowledge and began to make permanent changes in its way of doing business. But the lopsided Moon was still falling, menacing the Earth.
And then something happened to arrest the moonfall. But what? What happened to the Moon? Did benign aliens decide that human beings were redeemable after all, and use their superior technology to rectify the Moon’s path? Did billions of minds conjoined through M’koji create a force-field that stopped the Moon’s advance and actually guided it into a safe new orbit? Was it the power of worldwide prayer that propelled the wobbling orb back into a sustainable circuit? Did angels waft it back into its proper sphere? Did a stern but forgiving God command the Moon to retreat? Various people advanced all these interpretations, and more besides, and the present author does not privilege any one interpretation above the others.
Whatever the cause, the Moon did stop falling into the Earth. It stayed up there in the sky, and a hopeful new era of peace and cooperation dawned all over the world.
Thy Hyacinth Hair, Thy Classic Face
An older, ailing Klaatu, forcibly retired from diplomacy, remembered his time on Earth. The Earth was only one of many planets, primitive or advanced, that he had visited in his career as an intergalactic envoy. But he remembered Earth well, partly because Earth is the only planet whose inhabitants tried to assassinate him, inflicting the gunshot wound that would shorten his life. Though the Earthlings disregarded his warning and weaponized their Moon, they survived. He had heard that some of them did, anyway. This was quite amusing, really, because the EMP that saved the Earth destroyed his home world Khlobaria. Only its outermost colony survived—where he now lived. The Khlobars of the Diaspora had neither the space-fleet nor the desire to go about warning remote worlds not to vaunt their crude weapons beyond their own tropospheres.
But Klaatu’s main reason for remembering his visit to Earth was Helen Hansen. Only after he had left Earth could he permit himself to think about how powerfully she had attracted him. Even now his inner eye dwelled with pleasure and pain upon the simple symmetry of her face, the elegant curve of her cheekbone, the soft, dark trivial waves of her artificially-waved hair, and the unbearable purity of the expression in her eyes.
He knew what her expression meant, even though he had never seen an expression like it on any face before or since. Helen had loved him, but not his office or his lineage or his ability to sublimate all personal desires and idiosyncrasies into a steady, impersonal love whose fruits were unfailing loyalty and courtesy, which was the standard foundation for a personal relationship in his milieu. Helen loved him body and soul, and with all her heart. Helen’s love was wrong, it was weird, it was decadent, it was tragic. Beauty, symmetry, purity, selflessness, transparency of soul, coupled to such crude, ephemeral biochemical drives: how long could a man survive ground between those grindstones before disintegrating into a sort of adoring, dependent jelly? And after that, disillusionment would set in. Helen, a creature of a culture so toxic, so irrational, infantile and self-deluded that it placed Earthlings, to him, on about the same moral level that Earthlings placed rodents. And yet, how was Helen a “creature” of this culture? It was her radical difference from those around her that had drawn him to her. Or had it been her face that drew him first? That was part of her difference.
He remembered the lines of a bad poem by somebody famous on Earth, which her dead husband had inscribed on some object she had in her home: “Helen, thy beauty is to me, Like those Nicèan barks of yore…” The poetaster went on to connect this “Helen’s” beauty with the “glory” that was Greece, and the “grandeur” that was Rome—fallen empires known for their abominable cruelties and crass self-regard. Klaatu’s Helen abhorred cruelty and violence. And yet her very purity of heart was, he knew, an integral component of that toxic sludge Earth called civilization. Helen might as well have fired the bullet into his chest herself; it was for Helen, he supposed, that Earthmen built their warplanes and atomic bombs. It was deadly to think about Helen Hansen, and yet even now at the end of his life, on his deathbed, almost, he could not help returning her love.