by Joe Pitkin
Science fiction writers love aliens. We believe in their existence; we dream of hearing from them. As a boy, I remember seeing Carl Sagan’s explanation of the Drake Equation—a string of variables that estimates the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the galaxy—and being struck both by the possibilities of interstellar neighbors and by the tremendous uncertainty in the variables.
Those of you who have spent time meditating on the Drake Equation know that its variables fp and ne, representing the number of planets in the galaxy and the fraction of those planets harboring environments suitable for life, have been pinned down with greater and greater confidence in the last two decades. You know, too, that the value of these variables is very, very high. But many of the other variables in the Drake Equation remain highly uncertain, even suspect in a couple of cases.
Science fiction has filled in the gaps of our knowledge imaginatively, in much the same way that renaissance cartographers populated the oceans in their maps with pictures of sirens and sea monsters.
Both fear and hope live where there is uncertainty. Science fiction has filled in the gaps of our knowledge imaginatively, in much the same way that renaissance cartographers populated the oceans in their maps with pictures of sirens and sea monsters. As with all things science fiction, some treatments seem more convincing than others; however, the seeming realism of some treatments masks the deeper reality that all depictions we can come up with are creatures of pure imagination.
A truly different kind of intelligent species, one that is thoroughly alien to our experience, we may not recognize. Indeed, the root of the word recognize is “to know again,” suggesting that we can only recognize that which bears some relation to what we already know. And so we imagine extraterrestrials temperamentally related to ourselves, to the hopes and fears we bear for our own species. Sometimes, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, or Sagan’s Contact, the aliens are angelic beings of transcendent wisdom, a kind of wish fulfilment for a world in which the arc of the moral universe has bent fully upon justice. Other times, as in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds or Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem, the aliens behave like true heirs of our own species’ recent millennia of imperialism, conquest, and slaughter: War of the Worlds, which came out during the height of the partition of Africa by the European powers, reads to me like a long meditation on the lines Hilaire Belloc wrote about the relation of the Western world to the rest of humanity:
Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.
For now, we are alone. Perhaps for many years, perhaps for the rest of our species’ existence, we will have only ourselves to talk to. In those years, the alien civilizations in our stories will be very much like the gods and demons of our ancestors’ stories. Like Zeus and Hera, like Quetzalcoatl and Coatlique, the aliens of our stories are essentially humans of monumental power. They have the same quarrels and passions as teenagers—all that distinguishes them is the terrible thunderbolts they can unleash. (I suppose that one could watch a pilot take off in an F-18 and conclude much the same thing about modern Homo sapiens: except for our thunderbolts, we have exactly the same brilliance and folly of our Neolithic forbears.)
The aliens we devise in our stories and movies are clothed perhaps to look like insects, or mollusks, or some other earthly creature that humans have a visceral reaction to. But the aliens’ desires are our desires; their aim to conquer the cosmos, or to bless it, comes out of our own misunderstood heart.