By now our alien is getting rather "down on" us humans, and his long green finger is creeping toward the Death Ray. Hold on there, Zarcon 13! Earthlings can also be good! Proof: Jhumpa Lahiri's "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine." I taught this to an undergraduate class a few years ago, after a number of dark and murderous contemporary stories, and it led to a great conversation about how difficult it is to make dramatic action from people's behaving well and caring for one another—and how satisfying when someone pulls it off.

Do aliens have mothers? I know some aliens reproduce spontaneously, by ripping off parts of themselves and then putting those parts on the floor and watering them, but let's say our alien isn't that type. I'd give him "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen (in which a working-class mother reflects back, fiercely, on the way being poor has complicated her relationship with her daughter), to show him that our mothers down here on earth are just as good and loving as any alien mother—and probably better, actually, because down here, pal, we are constrained (not that I'm complaining) by crushing materiality, which makes everything hard, unlike you guys up there, with your "infinity gardens" and "eclair-producing ex-bots" and all of that.

Up there, on your planet, maybe people live forever? Well, not so down here. And that makes things scary, as demonstrated in Leo Tolstoy's great "The Death of Ivan Ilych," inspired by an anecdote Tolstoy once heard: A dying man screamed uninterruptedly for the last days of his life. The result is vivifying and terrifying, like attending one's own funeral—but in a good way! We know from the very first page that Ivan is dead, but we forget, and as the event approaches, find ourselves in a (familiar) state of denial. What can save him? Nothing. What was the sin that caused him to die in such terror? Each reader will answer that question differently and, if I'm any indication, will answer it differently at different stages of his life.

Our alien is looking at us funny. "You poor bastards," he seems to be saying with his four green eyes and three blue ones and that snoutlike thing hanging down from that other smaller snoutlike thing: "How do you survive? Are there any pleasures down there?"


Next Story