Aliens on the Internet
Anthropology of the imagination in online speculative fiction.
In April 2009, I was browsing the Something Awful forums when a particular thread caught my attention:
I am an alien, and I would like to talk to you about it.
The thread began with a simple greeting: “Hello. As I stated in the title, I am an alien. More specifically, I am from a planet two arms away from this arm of the galaxy.”
The self-proclaimed alien went on to explain that we should address him as Mr. Boone, a name he had taken from the first person he had encountered after landing on Earth. He said he had been visiting our world since 2007 and was doing so recreationally. He had landed in the United Kingdom and chose Something Awful because it was the “Internet area comprised of the largest mix of differing and open-minded intelligences.”
He continued by describing his planet — called Ulath — as very similar to Earth, except that it is slightly larger, 40% water and 60% land, and is much colder. His species — known as melrins — were similar to humans in that they had two arms, legs, ears and eyes as well as a torso, head and mouth. However, they lacked noses, instead smelling with their mouths, and had thicker keratinous skin on their backs that developed due to the large hailstones that fell to the surface during storms.
I was hooked. And I was not the only one. Soon, the thread exploded with users asking questions ranging from galactic politics (a sort of anarcho-socialist utopia comprised of a network of cooperative decentralized planets) to how his race pooped (the same mechanism as humans — but more liquid than solid due to a vegan diet). In all he answered 531 questions over the course of three months, along with several lengthy posts describing his world, his life, and how these life-forms capable of star travel interact with one another.
What really impressed me, however, was how the author — or Mr. Boone — approached the little details in his† story, particularly the linguistic differences between his language and English.
“I am here on a [recreational] and exploratory visit, as is one of my personal [hobbies]. (I use square parenthesis to denote where I have used a word or phrase that is not entirely accurate, but the closest approximation in English)…The phonetic spelling of my name is approximately awr-bt-n[yi]-ah. The ‘yi’ is in square parenthesis as it is not quite representative of the vowel sound my language has that yours does not. While on Earth, Mr. Boone is my preferred name. I am 58 years old, identify myself as an unskilled [scientist], and have travelled to 7 [lonely] planets and nearly all planets of the [network], of which there are more than 20. My excursions to [lonely] planets last between six months and three years, and I produce no in-depth scientific reports when I return from them. I intend to stay the full three years and perhaps even longer on Earth, as your planet is in extreme turbulence and I find it engrossing.”
This clever use of brackets helped add an additional layer of depth to his story and allowed for quick transliteration on the fast-paced medium of an internet forum. He skirted around more complicated questions about astrophysics, mathematics and demands of proof that he was an alien by blaming humankind’s current violent attitudes. According to Mr. Boone, before having the ability to travel the stars, humankind must eliminate violence or the network would intervene.
“If I were to prove that I were an alien, your government would come looking for me and I would be forced to go home. After that, they would know for sure that there was extra-terrestrial life, and so would everyone. It would shake up your society violently enough to change where you are going, and you might develop things before you normally would have, and maybe get out into the galaxy before you stop blowing shit up. That wouldn’t do, so no. No proof.”
Although the network that Mr. Boone describes sounds great on the surface— no war, total cooperation, and a society built for the betterment of everyone regardless of any differences — it also had oppressive elements, such as the total eradication of religion and belief as well as carrying out eugenic genecide.
“You are talking about eugenics, and yes, it happened. In a big way, and not in a way you would consider ethical…The eugenics happened shortly after war was all but eradicated, and were nothing to do with skin colour. They were more about what was, at the time, considered ‘disease’. Genetic disorders, and some people were prevented from breeding in case they spread certain viewpoints.”
He also described a system of “civilized development” that — much like the Kardashev scale — had an uneasy similarity to inaccurate, colonialist anthropological ideas of primitivism, and Eurocentric ideas about how a “civilization” develops (i.e. tribes to city-states to nations, etc.). Included in this scale is vernacular that would make any anthropologist cringe (i.e. using the term ‘savage’). Mr. Boone claimed that “all planets we’ve discovered so far follow this general pattern.”
A condensed explanation provided by Mr. Boone:
• Class 1 societies are equivalent to the prehistoric.
• Class 2 develop class hierarchy, slavery and war.
• Class 3 is defined by warfare and battling between religion and science.
• Class 4 has significant atrocities that bring rebellion by the people.
• Class 5 develops widespread space travel and abolishes trade.
• Class 6 is — essentially — utopia.
On July 31, 2009, Mr. Boone decided to leave Earth to a chorus of gratitude and wishing of luck from the community. He signed off by telling eastern UK residents to look at the light side of the moon because they may see a “shooting star” that would be his ship. He left our planet with an: “Adios, aloha, auf weidersehn, goodbye!”
In 2012, Mr. Boone resurfaced by sending an email blast to all those who had previously emailed him. Another thread appeared on Something Awful announcing: Mr. Boone is back! Supporters and critics began to emerge from the recesses of the community. Mr. Boone posted that he may create a separate thread to update the community on his travels and allow for more questions and answers. He also indicated that he had “friends in tow” this time.
That thread never materialized and it was the last anyone has heard of Mr. Boone. However, user Leovinus revealed that he was the one who — in 2009 — set Mr. Boone up with a laptop computer and a Something Awful account. Whether or not this is the truth — or a continuation of Mr. Boone’s fictional legacy — is irrelevant. What is relevant is the realization that online community-based speculative fiction is an on-going process rather than a traditional project with a beginning and an end. It exists within a collective imagination that can be fed-into and drawn-from symbiotically by the entire community.
Mr. Boone’s epic is not the first time that an internet forum has hosted interactive speculative fiction. In 2000, the story of John Titor swept across the internet. John Titor claimed to be a time traveler from 2036 who lived and fought in Central Florida after the United States had broken up into five regions and World War III wiped out nearly three billion people. Ironically, this brief but intense WWIII is supposed to take place in 2015.
I have been puzzled why these pieces of speculative fiction have stuck with me for so many years. I enjoy reading — especially science fiction — but I could not tell you what sci-fi books I read 15 years ago. However, I can recall minute details about the story of John Titor and find myself drawn to re-read Mr. Boone’s 58-page forum thread every few years.
I believe the reason for this is a combination of several factors: a) the intrinsic element of anonymity granted by internet communities, which increases the suspension of disbelief — sometimes to the point where one actually believes the stories to be true; b) the ability to actually interact with the storyteller and influence the story — this is why Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books were so popular during my childhood; and c) immediacy — the knowledge that this is “flash-in-the-pan” fiction and one only has a brief period of time to participate before it ends. Although you can achieve some of these elements in a traditional book, the unique experience of melding these three components can only be created utilizing an online community-based platform.
On March 26th, I attempted to contact Mr. Boone at an email address he had provided to the Something Awful community. I introduced myself and told him I was writing an article about his online activities and although it had been three years since he last emerged, I was hoping to get an update on his adventures.
I have not received a response. Maybe Ulath does not have access to Gmail.
Please Cite as: Genovese, Taylor R. 2015. “Aliens on the Internet: Anthropology of the Imagination in Online Speculative Fiction.” Space+Anthropology, April 13.
† I have been using the pronoun “his” in order to make it less confusing since the character is called “Mr. Boone.” However, I want to make it clear that I fully acknowledge that the author may not identify as male.
If you are interested in reading the entirety of Mr. Boone’s story, a member of the Something Awful community had the foresight to archive all of Mr. Boone’s informative posts as well as all 531 questions and answers. You can access them here.