Arthur C. Clarke
The first chapter of the Bible is called Genesis. It is a story of how the earth began and how we humans, and of course all the wildlife in the world, were created. Although it is as much a work of fantasy as an Aboriginal Dreamtime story (where giant snakes slither through the land creating the paths of rivers), we shun the illogical aspects and keep on with the story, because without the Bible, we wouldn’t have Christianity. It’s not too sensible pulling religion into any debate about Alien Contact and Diplomacy, but it is worth noting that it was Christian oriented countries that led the way in the space race. That these countries are also ‘drinkers’ is something else not worth muddling over when you sip your vodka, patriotically scanning the night sky for a Soyuz capsule.
Religion offers an easy explanation as to why we’re here. The renaissance unshackled us from religious subservience and led to a scientific explosion that now allows us to probe the beginning of the universe, our DNA, and secure our future. In a parallel universe perhaps the Roman Empire never faded away, it prospered and tinkered and without the slumbering Middle Ages in the way, perhaps the Roman Empire would about now be dispatching a legion to Alpha Centauri or going head-to-head with some alien species you’d read about in an obscure science fiction novel.
Instead, it’s just us looking up with powerful tax-payer funded telescopes, scratching our heads, obviously alone, many questions completely un-escapable, and we believe we are not alone because it’s a good topic to keep us awake at night and it seems an unbelievably (and illogical) curse to be the only ‘intelligence’ in the entire universe. Then there is the disparity between the unproven and the very, very improvable theories about who and what is ‘out there’ and what they’re doing down here, even what they’re doing to us. This self-generated noise may eat into the deafening silences that we hear from the universe, but we are genuinely curious to know the reality and our place in the cosmos. To date that’s as good as it gets, and yes we can better ourselves by reaching and exploring the cosmos, but we’re not there yet. We prefer to spend our money on other things, like pet food, because our four legged friends do a good job at keeping us company. We could elect to spend more of our money on technology that would enable us to listen in a lot better to the noise of the universe (SETI is leading the way in this front) and then maybe we’d pick up an alien phone call. Even when we do detect something intelligible, and manage to unravel it, what would the contents be but a snippet of conversation between two aliens who are having nothing but a mundane chit-chat:
“How are you?”
“Been awhile, huh?”
“Seen any funny black holes?”
“So.... What are you doing for the next 3.164 thousand years?”
“Not sure, might visit earth, for like, a laugh, know what I mean.”
“Oh yeah, how about we meet there?”
“Uh, well, hmmm.”
“Go on, we’ll tear the place up.”
“Sounds neat then, see you there in let’s say 2.691 thousand earth years?”
“Hang on, I’ll just check with the misses.”
“What? You are such a fossil, really.”
We could even shovel more of our money into technology that could shoot our dreamy minds out of this solar system and into another. At the time of writing, NASA’s Voyager 1 probe, which is about 17.7 billion kilometres from Earth, is entering a "transition zone" at the edge of the solar system. Voyager is going where no man-made object has ever sailed – the space between the stars – and out into the galaxy. That’s as far, and as good, as we’ve got, and at the moment, Voyager doesn’t boast much of a plan.
And what, if beyond our trite efforts, ‘they’, them aliens, are here, over there, or ruminating on how to talk to us? The reality of their existence and efforts crush our efforts and if ignored, becomes our loss, and even our peril. The quirky possibilities of how and in what form they are out there shape the parameters of any potential diplomacy. It’s up to us to pre-empt the unknown.
Creationists, swallow your pride for a second. We could be the offspring of aliens. Remember the Sky Gods the ancient scripts banged on about, well they’re our great grandparents. Try re-wiring your faith around that.
We may be part Neanderthal, part something else. We could just be a refined version of our shaggy haired, sloping browed, dull ancestors. Or, by alien design, they’re not our ancestors at all! Thank God, we can relax! We may be an experiment or an insurance policy, we may be the pets and we’ll never know the truth until we pry it out of the universe.
So what happens if this is the truth and what do we say to it?
From a legal point of view, if we were designed by aliens and planted here on earth, are they our parents? Do they have, in the eyes of an intergalactic court, rights over our souls? If so, we’d have to fight to establish a sense of uniqueness that separates us from our owners, and a right to exist unmolested from our ‘breeders’.
On the plus sign, if we are the product of a successful breeding experiment, then the master hands that guided us would surely be looking after us? If we are in times of need, would they help?
If geopolitical fisticuffs escalates into the widespread use of nuclear arsenals (battlefield use of tactical nuclear weapons on a limited scale won’t annihilate us), with the forecasted result that life on earth would be snuffed out under a radioactive cloud, would Alien Mummy and Daddy come down and negotiate between the warring parties?
Another catch to being the property of some unknown species is that if we prove too troublesome, we can always be sold or passed on. We can use nuclear weapons on the battlefields of tomorrow and never wipe ourselves out, we can pollute our ecosystems with less than apocalyptic results, and we can over populate our planet to the point or catastrophe, yet earth will bounce back in the long run. We may tarnish planet earth as damaged goods, and inevitably play a hand in forcing the hand of our owners into doing something completely unforeseen, like making an appearance to enforce some discipline, or yes, selling us to their neighbours at a discount.
This scenario drives the need for alien diplomacy to new levels because we need to know our own rights when they own the rights to us.
Aliens have long been suspected to walk amongst us. Those hyper-sensitive to the issue will claim that persons in high places were placed there by certain races of aliens. Others will tell you that they are indeed the aliens, and for a fee you can join their little group that has VIP tickets to the mother ship, which incidentally is coming next Tuesday after morning tea.
On a more prosaic note, if aliens are amongst us, we are left to wonder: What are they doing here? And if you are an alien amongst us, reading this, many people feel very sorry for you: What did you do to deserve to get this job? Draw the wrong straw? Say something that at the time seemed funny, but ended up infuriating or embarrassing your superior? Is being sent to earth a demotion or punishment? Or are you the anthropological type, gathering information? What a tough job, wearing a human skin (unless of course you designed us), sometimes eating crap food just to appear to fit in with suburbanites. Or perhaps you’re a high ranking alien embedded in the United Nations or something just as lethargic, the European Union. We feel your pain for all those bureaucratic meetings your super intelligent brain would have to sit through, biting your tongue every time some career public servant makes some mind numbing point that triggers two hours of non-stop nauseating banter. Human suicide may be simple compared to your suicide process – do you have ‘a way out’ from walking amongst us? We may never know the full tragedy of being an alien operative on earth. Many unexplained suicides may be alien operatives who’ve just had enough and couldn’t wait for the mother ship to pick them up and send them on a well deserved holiday.
However, if there is a job to be done, then the aliens amongst us must get it done.
They’re objectives may be surveillance, information gathering, or being the silent hand that guides us to a better future.
Our relationship with them may be so open we may not even know it. After all, they would be well aware of our distressed situations and be able to implant the required means to pursue solutions. For example, new technology that has aided us to explore our earth may have been passed down by a superior race; much to the annoyance of our own scientists.
If aliens do walk amongst us, then they also have near complete control over us. They do not require diplomacy; they only need to influence us in their direction. The chilling aspects of this situation is the basis for many science fiction horror stories and for good reason: It just sounds too horrible to be true. Alien(s) would control our thoughts; run all the lobbying firms and high-end PR companies, plus the banks... Let’s not get started.
A safe place at the table to meditate on ‘aliens and us’ is that they come and visit, in the name of science, having a holiday, or even a cute little picnic.
It’s a safe punt because it involves little commitment to engage with them, and there is minimal action required from outside. Humans like things just the way they are. We don’t want the concept of super-intelligent life out there arriving and shattering our belief systems. It’s just too much of a headache, yet when we’re bored of our earthly existence, we can get excited, much the same way as our peasant ancestors did with dragons, about UFOs.
Many UFO sightings are faked. With an early version of Photoshop, an hour of creative thinking and application, then 5 minutes uploading your creation, you can implant on the internet a blurred, obscure UFO buzzing some out-doors place on a nice sunny day. Why is that most UFOs are seen in standard weather, and never in the rain, or in a storm? Why can’t UFOs fly in the rain? What’s wrong with their technology? Lack of windscreen wipers?
Then there are, as we all know, the piles of evidence which point to UFOs as very unexplainable objects with true intelligent design and very unknown intent, which draws out the question: How do we deal with them? You can’t, or to date, they won’t. So, sit in that safe place and enjoy the speculation and entertainment. At least they visit, and this will lead to a climax, some sunny day.
Statistically, someone is out there. The exact parameters (and there are many) that enabled us to crawl out of the primordial sludge were the same somewhere else out in the universe, most likely (10 billion years ago) before our planet started forming (5 billion years ago).
If an alien species conquers space travel and bothers to say hello to us is one scenario, yet the other is a touch lonely – we may have to do the exploration and forcing of ourselves on alien cultures. Either way, we’re over here, they’re out there. Sounds like two frigid teenagers at a really lame party.
Accepting that aliens are indeed out there is the safest place to be because it requires no effort. The universe is accelerating outward and the party is just warming up. As long as we survive we can encounter them, and vice versa. Viewed in this light, it almost seems too easy that an alien species should arrive, let us in on their world, and gleefully answer some of our greatest questions. Perhaps an alien species only makes itself present when we’ve actively proved that we’re out there too, and we’ll meet you in the middle.
The nearest star is Alpha Centauri, 4.242 light years away. We won’t get there in my life. We won’t get there for a very, very long time, and it’s the same with most stars: Between them is the void, space. Travelling through space is not just skipping from here to the moon, it requires the conquering of time and distance. If an alien species can do that, who knows when they passed through and what they left behind. And if they’re not here on earth, then for the sake of stereotyping, let’s squint at Mars; Mars forever bearing the brunt of our fears. Mars, where until better telescopes extended our view and imagination, seemed like the best possible place from which organic extraterrestrial malevolence could spring from. On the assumption that aliens, and this could be a civilisation or a listening post, are in our Solar System, we can concur that they know we’re here, yet they’re reluctant to open up an Alien Burger Franchise and sell us bottled water containing the finest asteroid water in the solar system. If they were close and numerous, they’d want to trade something. If all that’s in our Solar System is an automated drone ticking boxes as we evolved physically and mentally, and as our civilisation advances without snuffing itself out, then we just have to wait until we do something proactive that triggers the drone into action.
For those with a vivid imagination and a powerful telescope at their disposal, there is talk among the believers that on Mars in the Hebes Chasma there is life. If you spot life, well done! If you can spot a row of heavily armed flying saucers taking off, call your local emergency services number.
You get the picture. You feel the vibe. You’re just not hip. Hard core alien civilisations evolved well over 10 billion years ago, some right after the big bang. And earth? Well, 5 billion years ago earth came together and managed (or did it?) to coax some chemicals into life. There’s not much you can say to an alien intelligence that is 5 billion years ahead of you. Anything you say will be un-cool.
We earthlings will either have to find other aliens just like us, or that are a tiny bit older and don’t mind the attention of a younger cousin or friend. If we’re over here, they’re over there, and just as lonely, shunned by the older, ancient, cooler alien cultures.
Finding a slightly more advanced than us, or just a less advanced than the most advanced old school aliens, band of benevolent aliens that genuinely wants contact is probably the only realistic end game when hunting for contact.
While the desire to make contact from at least two races is required to get anywhere, the technological means to do so and where we meet in the middle is where the magic will happen: Contact is a meeting in the middle. Contact, like receiving a signal (SETI is working on this, and you can too by joining them) relies on the alien sender having the technology that operates on a wavelength that we know how to receive. Forget for a moment that if we do pick up a packet of data we’ll be scratching our heads like Muppets trying to make sense of it (unless it comes with a translation or Rosetta Stone), contact from far away, via detection, means that we’re on the same wavelength, until of course they grow out of it, as we have done – analogue gives way to digital and then what?
If they exist (they do), and how close to us they really are (who knows), are nice starting points. So let’s say the gap is closed and we have contact. The best way to formalise a meeting of cultures is with a meeting, and here comes the crunch: What are they?
All the old highly identifiable signs of body language during moments of diplomacy will probably have to go right out the window, or airlock, when dealing with aliens. They may read into our body language, because they’ve studied us by sending a scout to craftily watch and takes notes of the actions of desperate humans at the card tables in Las Vegas. Therefore, we can assume that in any face-to-face meeting, that the greatest tricks and ruses of our orators, mediators, and television savvy politicians, will be close to or near useless. Our inter-human diplomacy techniques are all about us; reading us, lying to us, bonding with us. This is not to say an extraterrestrial race that has endured the journey here doesn’t want to communicate, it just means there are obstacles even before we can shake hands, break the bread, and send our favourites concubines into the others’ beds.
Spare a moment and examine your thumbs. We humans have opposable thumbs that can touch any digit on any finger. Some animals also have a kind of opposable thumb, or even toes, and opposable thumbs are a feature of the primate family. Unsurprisingly, the humble opposable thumb played the crucial role in allowing us to use crude tools and then later the invention of more cooler, craftier tools. No opposable thumbs equals no axles and therefore absolutely no wheels. No wheels equals, way, way, way down the line, no wheels for space shuttles to land on. We, at this stage, rightly assume that to get anywhere in evolution, like off the jungle floor, a species needs opposable thumbs, or maybe just more arms and hands, or maybe just a neat row of impressively long, slender, eloquent yet sturdy fingers that enables a species the ability to ‘tool’ its way out of a very predictable and possibly dead-end existence. So, the next time you’re abducted by an alien, be sure to prod his or her or its hand and see if the thumb is opposable. If it’s not, some of us are very wrong and we have much to think about after dinner. If the thumb is opposable, science fiction speculation wasn’t that wrong: Yet why do we assume aliens will look like us? Why do we assume they’ll have two legs, big brainy heads, and arms, with fingers! And opposable thumbs!
Take a dip into the water, and while no known species under the waves has developed the wheel, there are quite a few species that have bodies completely different to ours. It’s therefore perfectly logical that out there in the cosmos there are planets with widely different atmospheres and seas, birthing wildly different species to that of ours on earth. At least one of these unknown species will have had the drive to break out of it cosy little world, create its own kind of space craft, and push the limits, perhaps billions of years before our distant relatives wormed out of the seas.
Regardless of the wild planet and the wild body of this Unknown Species, all it has to do is tool materials to get going: How it does it is as yet no concern to us. However, it may very well be a jellyfish that does it.
Now comes the crunch: How will you react to a superior being that may look to us like a misplaced bowl of translucent spaghetti? Will you be able to believe in love and peace with an extraterrestrial force if they arrive looking like conjoined octopus, each scooting around in its own anti-gravity powered glass bowl that contains a liquid that looks and smells like a drug addict’s urine? Will our leaders of our most advances cultures and masters of our media, including those that have kissed snotty nosed babies for pre-election posing, be able to shake hands with a scaled, three-eyed, giant bug-looking thing, from outer space that reeks of sulphur and breathes only methane?
Nightmarish body contact aside, successful exopolitics will rely on some good old chin-wagging between Earthly Elites or whoever is around at the time, and our Brand New Friends from Very Far Away. How to break the ice when there are not only cultural difficulties, but a complete difference in language, and even a perception of time?
The difference in communication methods are limitless. They may speak through channels we can’t detect, or in wavelengths we’re not use to, like tones of light, by touch (via their mucus covered, fish smelling, 17 fingered, hand thing), or by a squelchy sound only audible to dogs (which would enable man’s best friends the upper hand and then we’d be their little pets). They may prefer inter-galactic ceremonies to take an hour or two so they can slither back in their Super Star Cruisers and zoom over to Mars in time for teatime at their Forward Operating Base, or it may take decades, conversing in milliseconds every few months, just to build a shimmer of trust.
Without proper preparation, we’ll have to let them learn Earth ways, pick a language or two, and they can stutter their way to some middle ground. Their language may simply be beyond our scope, we may rely on an ET invented translator. In any case, as we’re not reaching across the galaxy learning their language, we’ll expect they’ll be apt at it, or if it’s their first time, ready for it. As English is the language of international business, it may well be quotes from Shakespeare that are chewed over by alien tongue.They have been at a great feast of languages,and stol'n the scraps.‘Love's Labor's Lost’, Act 5, scene 1, 32–39,
It’s important to ponder if they’re out there and what they look like, parallel to the question of, are we even remotely in the right place? Think of space as from here to eternity, and then some more. Are we going to meet anything vaguely interesting in the middle, and vice-versa? The vast distances of space are sometimes conveniently ignored, and you only have to look at the space between the visible stars to get some idea of how gigantic space really is. But aside from this slight misery, it is worthy to highlight a few physical restrictions which shape the parameters of an alien diplomatic envoy suavely touching down in Times Square and handing out the blueprints for top of the line, energy efficient, interstellar propulsion systems.
To those who still need to be reminded, space is, well, space: Massive, empty, cold, and to us, inaccessible. Most astronauts get as far as low earth orbit (about 320 kilometres) and the last time anyone kicked the moon was about 40 years ago. For us earthlings, the cost to counteract gravity hinders our space activities. Sure we have better things to spend our money on, and if you're on the receiving end why complain, but if you are, please bear in mind the exorbitant cost of space travel. There are tonnes of reams of paper written and to be read on this subject, and only commercial space initiatives can change our ways. Now cast your mind to an interstellar civilisation that has conquered this distance and lives to explore. Some enterprising spark replies to a round table discussion on who to visit next with: “Planet earth!”
And then the bean counter accountants assess the situation: Who should be taxed to fund this venture? Pick on the least wary.
Meanwhile, a crew is being asked (or programmed to respond to) a question like, “How do you feel travelling for seven hundred years in a deep freeze to see a blue planet?”
What if it were a ten millennium ride? To a free thinking space traveller, would you sign up for a mission that would be a great sacrifice, or perhaps space travelling species factor in the tyranny of distance. While we bang our heads against low earth orbit and think a mission to Mars is long (years, not months), aliens are zipping around the universe, and most probably their bodies are built for the task, enduring missions that span an epoch of history that covers the time between our ice ages.
Why is this so painful to assume? Because it makes die-hard science fiction and fantasy fans cry themselves to a bitter sleep: Sorry guys and girls, but travelling faster than the speed of light breaks the laws of physics. If it was possible to zip through space our little blue planet would be bombarded by intergalactic tourists and intrepid alien theme-park executives searching for the next galactic attraction. You wouldn’t be reading this, you’d probably be enslaved to one of these forces, polishing their boots, cleaning their toilets, or at its best taking them on whale watching cruises and wearing a dumb T-shirt. So, thank the limitation.
Now that we have swallowed that bitter pill, look around the universe. Stars are anywhere between 4 and possibly infinite and thus incalculable light years away. Imagine coasting along fast as a sun beam. That’s the speed of light. Does the ability to travel twice, or even half, the speed of light, change much? Until an alien gets here and lectures us on one or the other or both, assume not.
If you were a civilisation on a distant star and you gave the green light for a venture to earth, your craft's top speed and travel duration might be longer than your crew's life spans, sanity limits, and the craft’s technical expectations. Out there in deep dark space, anything can happen.
Just look at the voyages of the early explorers, many of whom we don't even know about because they set off across the ocean and disappeared; fell off the edge of the known earth. Their place in history is missing because so are they: They never returned to regal us with tall stories and grotesque specimens. And for the alien trippers, it might not be much different, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say they made it here. It took them 10 years or 10,000 years, and time isn't what it is to us, but still they made it.
After travelling so far, and resigned to the fact they may never return the same, or if they do return their world will not be the same, are these aliens expected to behave? They could be robots of some sort, programmed for optimal best behaviour, and even then the creators and investors of the venture would want something in return. Are specimens enough? Apart from information (like the saturation and mind numbing data flood of the internet) and technology (which are still primitive to a higher and dangerous intelligence) the nature of specimens from earth haven't changed much in the last 10,000 years. When it comes to flesh, what more can you find, except for lesser species, than before?
Whoever, whatever, and whenever they get here, we must understand they’ve come a lot further then we ever have and in the immediate future, will. We’ll be mindful of their conquering of space, but not forgetful: The depth of the journey for many early explorers, like the Christian Crusades and Spanish conquistadors, shaped the outcome of their exploits.
OK, Assume Space Travel is Relatively Simple
The author can acutely hear the groans as the readers, scattered throughout the world and hopefully one day the Solar System, and then perhaps in an inter-galactic beer garden, contemplating the preceding section and sigh, then moan, “But travelling faster than the speed of light just has to be possible! It just has to be!”
Well, OK, you win. Travelling faster than the speed of light, jumping in and out of worm holes, riding the chocolate tunnel of a black hole – it can happen. And a whole lot more. Freaky alien beings can flip between dimensions like a hooker doing multiple tricks in a night. Supreme beings drift, in their lifetime, from the centre to the outer rim of the universe and then back again, absorbing and wiping wisdom about all along the way. The universe is not only as fantastical as all the steaming creative produce of science fiction writers who have actually made money out of their work, but it is also incredibly amazing as the steaming creative product of science fiction writers who have made absolutely zero money from their work. The universe is wild, limitless, and we’re still sitting in the corner, alone, wondering, picking our noses.
Have we been left behind, or are we yet to catch up? Did someone drop by and then leave, and we can only decode the trivial evidence left among the ruins of ancient earthly civilisations that are buried deep, or at the moment jack-hammered apart to make way for high-rise apartments? Who knows, who cares? All that matters is that in a reality where aliens do travel faster than the speed of light, and therefore faster than a whole lot of other things which will pester our scientists for a long time, we’re still here, alone.
Indeed, aliens might be here on earth, whizzing about unseen, but as the public don’t have any real contact with them, what’s the use? Again, until an inter-dimensional craft that can travel 10,000 the speed of light (and a whole lot of other things) arrives and takes some of our modest leaders for a ride (and hopefully deposits them far, far away), we have no idea of this kind of capacity. We may be so far behind this capacity that any species that has mastered it, simply drives on by as you do, through the countryside, completely unaware of a certain ant colony on your right, only 300 metres away, called earth.
Copyright 2014 Simon Drake
Simon Drake.com contains information about my science fiction and non-fiction, (including where to paperbacks and ebooks), plus some short fiction.