Paul Cornell is really good at putting us in front of aliens.
The novelist, television and comics writer is launching a new ongoing series today from Vertigo titled Saucer Country, a thriller that marries the intrigue of the campaign trail with the other-worldliness of other worlds.
The story opens as New Mexico Democratic Governor Arcadia Alvarado is considering a run for president while at the same time dealing with near-lucid dreams, trauma, and odd gaps of time in her memory. Suddenly, her path becomes clear to her. Aliens are real, we are being invaded, and she must do everything she can to become president and make this known.
This sounds completely bonkers, but Saucer Country #1 sets its premise up mostly through West Wing-style political intrigue, keeping everything grounded in a context we can understand. We meet all of the key players: Alvarado and her ex-husband, her chief of staff, her new and completely mercenary Republican campaign advisor, and a Harvard professor who can’t get his own prestigious university to take him seriously about extraterrestrial life.
The characters themselves are introduced quite vividly and each brings their own personal problems to the tale. The one-page introductions of Chloe the campaign advisor and Professor Kidd are extremely entertaining, especially when you find out later what exactly is motivating Kidd.
Alvarado and her ex-husband have a complicated relationship on their own. They’re both political radicals but she’s the success story; the one who made good on her goals. Alvarado is a very proactive woman but can’t seem to go without occasional attention from her abusive ex. This comes up immediately in regards to the Governor’s plans to announce a presidential run and Alvarado goes back and forth on whether to excise him or use their history to highlight other issues and…
…you know what? I haven’t even gotten to the aliens. That’s how engaging this story is to follow. Alvarado has dreams, weird dreams where she wakes up with open wounds. Or in her car with her bloodied ex-husband beside her. But is this the work of aliens? Or is this Arcadia conceptualizing the abuse from her ex-husband?
“I think that was just a human reaction on her part,” said series writer Paul Cornell about the possible parallel. “We all have some idea that dreams offer concealed meanings, and that was her translation of the feeling that something terrible had happened to her, pushed perhaps by a suggestion planted there, into blaming the most obvious target. Abuse victims of all kinds report similar structures of experience, and the idea that one’s memories aren’t real is a particularly modern concept that’s caught on. It’s like Philip K. Dick released something into the atmosphere.”
By the end of the first issue, Governor Alvarado has made her decision as to where her trauma stems from, but it’s still up in the air in regards to how seriously the series will take the concept of aliens in juxtaposition with how ho-hum bureaucracy can get, even out on the campaign trail.
Cornell says that will be cleared up quickly, however. “We’re going for more exciting political stories. The hope is that each branch of the story informs the other. It’s a political thriller as well as an SF story about ‘aliens.’ Arcadia’s involved in a Presidential race, and she has a secret that would finish her off, so we’ll be playing with that.”
A presidential race that we’ll see the conclusion to? “Yes. We’re just planning now when we want that to happen.”
In regards to actual aliens, Cornell will be playing with alien visitor mythology that has been developing in our society over the past hundred years. “We’ll be dealing with all the many contradictory dimensions of the UFO myth, from 1890s airships to [The Greys and] fairy lore to little green men to lizard conspiracies, Serpo and Nordics!”
For those unfamiliar (i.e. most of us), The Greys is the term for the aliens we visualize whenever someone mentions aliens or UFOs. (They’re also silhouetted on the cover of Saucer Country.) In ufology, they come from the planet Serpo, which has twin suns, and which our military has perhaps been involved in an exchange program with.
“The Greys do exactly what fairies used to do,” Cornell clarified. “Take people out of time, into round spaces, and send back changelings.”
He also explains the other, somewhat oppositional, aliens theorized to be visiting Earth. “The vast conspiracy theories [about Lizards] basically say we’re living the plot of V. Nordics are kindly, long-haired aliens that want to teach us about peace and love.” Nordics are, in essence, exceptionally tall Scandinavians.
The idea of all of these aliens running around behind the scenes in present day is a bit hard to swallow for those uninitiated. Especially for those of us who are used to beings like that existing only in science fiction:
“We’re going to get into how Amazing Stories influenced the earliest version of the myth,” according to Cornell. “And there are some fun SF/UFO crossover stories I heard from New Mexico residents. The way that the media and the myth influence each other is at the heart of the book.”
Considering the complexity of the emotional relationships in only the first issue of Saucer Country, this series is certainly capable of the challenge of weaving a dramatic story out of handfuls of conspiracy mythos. And the series does indeed come off like a cross between The West Wing and The X-Files, which sounds like a lot of fun. Unless the series withers out like The X-Files, or never gives us a definitive answer in regards to aliens.
Thankfully, Paul Cornell and artist Ryan Kelly are mindful of that. “We’ve paid attention to the lesson of how The X-Files painted itself into a corner and then never was awkward with the way it answered the questions it raised. We have a solid ending in mind, whenever that comes around!”
You can pick up the first issue of Saucer Country in comic stores now.
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and really really really wanted to ask Paul about the Greys and the Silence. Just so you know.