The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

The Space Jockey and Our Endosymbiotic Destiny


There is an interesting tradition in science fiction of examining the idea of a symbiosis between the ship and its crew, specifically its pilot. The once-human Spacing Guild navigators in Dune, whose drug-induced trance folds space for the heighliners’ faster-than-light passage, leaps immediately to mind. And there are hints of this idea in Norman Spinrad’s Void Captain’s Tale, in which the physically wasted, addict-like body of the pilot is integral to faster-than-light travel: Her orgasm is literally the “jump,” or the jump, her orgasm—it is a chicken-and-egg thing. (In both of these cases, it is not only sentience but also the transcendence of everyday consciousness—addiction, orgasm—that is essential, that literally closes a circuit and makes the ship go.) Reflections of these ideas can also be found in the sometimes interesting late-1990s TV series Farscape and the later reboot of Battlestar Galactica.

But undeniably, the most original, beautiful, and disturbing icon of symbiosis between an organic being and the ship it pilots is that found in Alien. The film’s most haunting image is the giant fossilized star pilot, whose derelict ship on a remote moon bears the dreadful cargo that ends up killing most of the Nostromo’s crew. When the camera pulls back to reveal this ancient dead thing—dubbed the “Space Jockey” by the filmmakers—merged with his seat, gazing eternally into his cockpit instruments, it is one of the great moments in sci-fi cinema (or, for me, any cinema). I always cherished not knowing where the Space Jockey came from, where he was going, or what exactly befell him on his mission.

Knowing that Ridley Scott had in mind to explore exactly these questions and was building his prequel Prometheus around this race of alien giants, I hoped that at the very least their physical strangeness would be respected. My worst fear was that Scott would let the Space Jockeys out of their seats, and thereby obliterate the most genius aspect of designer H.R. Giger’s creation in the original movie: a sentient being fused to its technology.

My fears were, of course, fully realized. I think the most regrettable part of the film was the ruination—or really, the wholesale erasure—of everything that made the Space Jockey wonderful. Not only do the creatures indeed run around just like humans (the mysterious “seat fusion” is visually explained away as just a bit of high-tech strapping-in) but they are revealed to look reassuringly just like us. The bizarre elephant-like head turns out to be … just a helmet. (The scriptwriters even felt compelled to add in a whole convoluted “bringing back the head” action set-piece to the story to explain this fact—as though they were embarrassed by the Space Jockey’s morphology, or felt too daunted by the prospect of telling a story about aliens with trunks.) The resulting creatures (called Engineers in the new film) end up being basically big pale humans who look like they spend all day at the gym.

To me, it is important to ignore Prometheus, pretend the film actually doesn’t exist, because this is the only way to preserve one of the most interesting ideas embedded quietly in Alien. The lonely star pilot, the long-dead alien who aeons ago suffered the same grisly fate his human discoverers are about to, also portends something else—something far more interesting—about the trajectory of our entire species. The Space Jockey is a unique and powerful object lesson in a very particular kind of alienation that may be the next phase in our own evolution: becoming a mere component in our machines.

The Space Jockey appears that he could have had no existence, no purpose, no life, independent of his function as a perceiving and deciding element in a ship—a pilot, but one who could not ever leave his cockpit, never get up and walk around. Giger was fairly explicit about this at the time Alien was released. He was quoted in Cinefex magazine as saying that the dead pilot is “biomechanical to the extent that he has physically grown into, or maybe even out of, his seat—he’s integrated totally into the function he performs.” Scott seems originally to have thought of the space jockey the same way; in a DVD commentary he says “this Space Jockey I’ve always thought was the driver of the craft [who] has started to look like a perfect example of Giger’s mind, which is ‘where does biology end and technology begin?'” Sadly, the aging Ridley Scott forgot all about Giger’s original vision and allowed Prometheus‘s oblivious young scriptwriters to ignore the singular essential fact about the Space Jockey in concocting their story about “human origins.” They completely missed the point of the material they were given to work with.

The idea of symbiosis between organism and machine is everywhere in Giger’s art, and it is a big part of what makes all his work so interesting as a meditation on post-humanity. Partly it is interesting because the symbiosis isn’t peaceful or benign, but violent and erotic, a kind of bondage. The artist notes that his pictures “always depict straps and cords and fettered bodies.” His figures are fettered to machines, to the environment, and to each other in ways at are sadomasochistic or simply cruel. Biomechanoid I, one of the paintings in Necronomicon, his collection that originally inspired Ridley Scott and Alien’s creative team, shows three deformed babies strapped and bound; Giger describes: “The three children wear an iron headband which holds the feather. The band is held together by a screw, so that they must play at Indians whether they like it or not…”

This describes perfectly what is so strange and even sad about the Space Jockey: Just as Giger’s biomechanoid children have to play at being Indians whether they like it or not, the Space Jockey, in his “lifetime,” had to play at being a star pilot whether he liked it or not. He is commanding, giant, and powerful but also, at the same time, shackled, enslaved, and infirm, and that makes him fascinating. We are left wondering about his role and his frame or presence of mind as he fulfilled it. What did he think about? Was he lucid, writhing in pain as the xenomorph burst from his chest, or was he far away in some star navigator’s trance?

I care about this—too much, perhaps—because Alien, and specifically Giger’s images as brought to life within that film, were for me the seed of what became some sort of personal Gnostic mythology, the most perfect expression of the secret science-fictional surreality I always believed (or hoped) lurked behind the curtain of the everyday. That overused two-word phrase “ancient astronauts” sums up this mood and this idea, as long as you don’t render it too literally, and especially as long as you divorce it from the 1970s pop-archaeology writer Erich von Daniken. Von Daniken popularized the idea of prehistoric alien visitation in paperback accounts he later freely admitted were made-up, but the real father of the ancient astronauts idea was H.P. Lovecraft. Ridley Scott admitted being inspired by von Daniken when conceiving Prometheus, but it happened to be Lovecraft who inspired those early works of Giger that resonated with Alien‘s creators. (The most disappointing irony is that Prometheus caused Universal Studios to drop Guillermo del Toro’s superficially similar-sounding but much more promising project to adapt Lovecraft’s eerie and wonderful At the Mountains of Madness.)

How is the Space Jockey Gnostic? The Space Jockey and his fate seem to me to embody the ancient “fall of spirit into matter” and the profound existential problem—physical, mortal existence—that arises from that fall. The star pilot, perpetually gazing into an instrument that he grows into/out of, seems almost a perfect model of consciousness as self-alienation, as kind of a gap in the flow of things, a break in the circuit. Somehow his crashlanded ship, symbolically equivalent to the machinery of matter (appropriately, its U- or cup-shape is alchemically/astrologically the symbol for the soul as vessel of the spirit), needs this organic creature to be its mind, and by the same token the ship is far more than a simple conveyance for him—the whole point is he can’t get up and walk out when he reaches his destination, or even physically put up a struggle as he is dying. Ship and pilot are a unity, yet separated by a slight gap, and it is tortuous, painful, tragic. (In Christian iconography, the painful “bondage” of spirit to matter is symbolized by Christ nailed to the cross, but I like the Space Jockey better…) Without that gap, there would be no consciousness, and without consciousness there would be no gap. That gap, and why it would be necessary, or how it could have arisen, is the eternal mystery. I think it’s a much bigger and more interesting question than “where do we come from?”

What little we know so far about the real origins of terrestrial life is actually far more mind-bending than the bioengineering scenario Prometheus’s scriptwriters came up with as an answer to that question. We owe the wild theory partly to Lynn Margulis (incidentally, Carl Sagan’s first wife): Early in the evolution of life on earth, simple bacteria gradually came to be coopted as organs (the term is “organelles”) functioning within more complex single-celled organisms. What this means is that all the cells in our bodies have complex internal structures like mitochondria that were originally independent life forms. On the early earth, these independent creatures somehow “grew together.”

The term in evolutionary biology for this growing-together is endosymbiosis. Giger’s biomechanoids, especially the Space Jockey, suggest what I think is a very real possibility for our own future that mirrors, perhaps painfully, our distant unicellular origins: When machines prove capable of everything except self-awareness—which I think is the likelier and more interesting path than the much-vaunted Singularity—will our withered, legless descendents become endosymbionts, or sentient organelles, in our machines? Will future humans’ only purpose and function within larger biomechanical constructs (including spaceships) be their useful (but perhaps not essential) capacity for feeling, judgment, and free will? The Space Jockey in Alien represents a race of beings that has made a rather, well, Promethean trade-off, gaining mighty reach and perhaps even a kind of immortality (when things don’t go wrong, at least) at the expense of the joys and freedoms and pleasures of having an independent, biological, walking-around existence.

This “choice,” to merge with our machines, seems like it ought to be conscious and deliberate, yet there is more than a hint in Giger’s addict-like biomechanoids—and we see it in the way we are already enslaved dependently to our devices—that this path may be taken, followed to its end, without our intending, without our being able to really see the big picture or the long-term. To me, this unconscious evolution of our future endosymbiosis is far more fascinating, troublesome, and realistic than the self-directed apotheosis Singularity fetishists dream about. The Space Jockey is somehow our own future, and that, if nothing else, is the reason we should pay attention to him—and thus, ignore any Alien prequels.

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About

I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at] gmail.com.

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