Aliens might not be real, but my childhood fear of them was.
In 1987, when I was thirteen, I purchased a copy of Whitley Streiber’s Communion with my Hanukkah money. Whereas his previous works had all been fictional, Streiber published Communion as a memoir. In the book, he claimed to have been visited multiple times by extraterrestrials. For months after reading it, I lay in bed at night scrutinizing shadows, which looked even creepier in my eyeglass-less state. Was that an alien lurking in the corner of my room?
I wasn’t sure whether I believed Streiber’s claims, but I’d had a Star Wars childhood. I’d watched reruns of Star Trek and Doctor Who on the small screen and seen ET on the big screen. Aliens were well established in my imagination.
More importantly, I lived in Las Vegas, Nevada. Residents of Southern Nevada in the mid- and late-1980s noticed — and discussed — aircraft that hovered in our desert skies, followed peculiar flight patterns, and sometimes disappeared mid-air. Folks who worked out at Nellis Air Force Base muttered about areas they weren’t allowed to access. The US government kept denying there was any testing of experimental aircraft at Area 51, out at Groom Lake, even though people regularly witnessed planes taking off from behind the fence.
Many times, I stared up at the night sky with my sister, and sometimes a neighbor or two, speculating about strange lights overhead. What if they were UFOs? What if those UFOs were flown by aliens? Why were they visiting our planet? Did they have benevolent motives or threatening ones?
UFOs, aliens, and conspiracies associated with them became my fandom. I tore through both nonfiction books about space and sci-fi novels at the local library. I attended lectures by so-called experts on UFOs. When a local reporter interviewed an individual who claimed to have the scoop on what was going on, I made sure I tuned in. I wanted answers, because information gave me something to protect myself with — or so I hoped.
By the time the mythical connection between Southern Nevada and aliens entered pop culture — largely due to Independence Day and The X‑Files—few people living there were still worried about UFOs. The government had unveiled stealth aircraft to the public, providing a rational explanation for the nighttime sightings of lights over Las Vegas. Several prominent ufologists admitted that they’d lied about what was going on at Nellis and Area 51, and no concrete evidence emerged to support the claims of the rest. The billboards for “Fresh Alien Jerky” that cropped up along I‑15 in the early 2000s were playful, not panicked. The rebranding of the Las Vegas Stars as The 51s was a joke we were all in on.
From its inception, speculative fiction has been used to introduce moral questions and philosophical inquiries without the emotional baggage of history or current events.
My latest book, How to Welcome an Alien, is out in August from Kalaniot Books. It details the crash-landing of a UFO on a moshav in Israel. Its friendly crew needs human assistance to get back on their way. In addition to earning some giggles, I’m hoping my picture book inspires young readers to extend a warm welcome to aliens literal and figurative.
It felt natural to use an allegory to teach about hachnassat orchim—the mitzvah of hospitality — since allegories are common in Jewish literature. Among the more famous biblical mashalim (“allegories” or “parables”) are those about the theft of a poor man’s lamb by a rich man and the Song of Songs. In each case, a biblical character (Nathan and Solomon, respectively) uses fiction to explain a deeper moral truth. Later Jewish figures, including Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Rav Shalom Schwadron, and contemporary teachers like Rabbi Paysach Krohn and Rabbi Fishel Schachter, have employed similar techniques.
Science fiction lends itself well to the mashal. From its inception, speculative fiction — a genre composed of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror — has been used to introduce moral questions and philosophical inquiries without the emotional baggage of history or current events. We read Fahrenheit 451 and know Ray Bradbury is teaching us about the liberating nature of literature. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale introduces us to the dangers of misogyny and religious extremism. Likewise, many of us have strong feelings about refugees, strangers, and foreigners. By making figurative aliens literal ones — and adorable, to boot — in How to Welcome an Alien, I set all that baggage aside.
My teenage children are amused by my childhood fear of aliens. I’ve tried to explain what it was like living with mysterious flights overhead and the paranoia of the Cold War, and how anxious I was in general at that age. Whenever government investigations of UFOs or reports of mysterious downed aircraft hits headlines, one of my teens wants to know the latest news, not because he believes ALIENS ARE HERE!, or because he’s afraid, but because he shares my fandom. We discuss the Dark Forest Hypothesis. We bond over our mutual fascination with alien-related conspiracy theories and snicker over the ridiculousness of most of them.
One time, though, my son was scrolling through the library catalog, looking for books to put on hold. “Hey, Ima,” he asked, “mind if I check out Communion?”
“Please don’t,” I said. I told him I didn’t want his little sister getting her hands on it, reading it, and having nightmares; I told him that I think the book is bunk.
The real reason: I didn’t want to see the book’s creepy cover in my house at night. So maybe I am still scared of extraterrestrials — just a little. But I hope that when confronted with “aliens” of the human kind — strangers, refugees, and those who are treated like outsiders — I practice the same exemplary hachnassat orchim as my characters do.
Rebecca Klempner is the author of A Dozen Daisies for Raizy, Adina at Her Best, and Glixman in a Fix. She lives with her family in Los Angeles, where she welcomes a wide variety of guests…though, so far, no aliens.