Let’s begin with a real downer, something horrible and negative.
Ever wondered why after years of living near someone, you’ve never really spoken to them? We all have non-relationships in our lives; colleagues, neighbours, fellow members of the community, that we see sometimes, and never, ever, want to know. Don’t fret over why, it’s just that you and them have absolutely nothing in common. To even strike up a casual conversation is painful, and both parties cringing, if not simmering, are thinking but never connecting, ‘I shouldn’t be partaking in this obligatory contact’.
And so it will be with alien species, near and far, who see earth and rate it as either Too Painful to Make Contact With or it’s just very, very low on the list of places to visit in the infinite universe.
Because of infinity, or if that’s still too hard to imagine (it is) just the many planets out there supporting more groovier forms of life, there’s an extremely high diversity of fun filled intelligent life forms with ‘lives of their own’, and many, even if they could spare the effort, still don’t want anything to do with us, even if forced into a cage with us.
In the wild, animals co-exist without too much socially awkward interference. Predators and prey tie each other up with the old game of hunt and be hunted, but beyond that game of survival, and excusing parasites, different types of animals don’t seem to be hanging out together; being social and friendly because they feel responsible for the well being of the jungle, savannah or desert.
A superior alien species owe us nothing. Perhaps we should then become parasites.
However, things can’t be that bad can it? If there are supremely intelligent beings that rate us on par with ants and dust clouds, then there must be not-so-supremely intelligent beings that will, out in the infinite, take an interest in us.
Now and then, thanks to syndicated 24 hour news, two minutes of very important prime time television news, sometimes just after the weather report, is devoted not to the latest local and international body counts, but to the re-discovery or major discovery of some long lost tribe deep in the darkest heart of the most exotic jungle (usually the Amazon) or an overlooked island. No microscopic report is complete without a zoom in on a tribal man hurling a spear or aiming a poison tipped arrow at the intruding intrepid camera man and brave reporter. From a distance we can see they're primitive. If they’re menacing or peace loving is irrelevant but just markers, and it makes us warm in our hearts to know that even though our modern lives are confusing, erratic and tiring, there exist a few scattered tribes who have it simple, and bless them, we hope they never have to change.
In the Bay of Bengal on the island of North Sentine is a ‘lost tribe’ of Negritos called the Sentinelese, surrounded by growing economies and trade routes. They’re not that lost; from the beginning they were feared as cannibals by Arab and Persian traders, have shunned all attempts by the Indian government to make contact, survived the tsunami of 2004 (maybe they caused it with a new kind of rain dance) and even as late as 2006 impressed the world’s news editors (and a few ardent environmentalists too) with their archery skills on two fishing men (you’re not a local, are you) fishing illegally within range of their island. When a helicopter came to retrieve the bodies of the fishermen, it was met with a hail of arrows.
Let's assume that's how aliens see us: Primitive, a little bit funny, touching, and living the simple life. When they come and visit us, we scramble our slow, cumbersome, fossil-fuel-fed fighter jets steered by characteristically High Octane Ego Driven Hot Shot Fighter Pilots to do our first stage of diplomacy.
We think our world is advanced and a bit crazy and hectic, but in truth, not much has changed, just the transportation, the communications, and the weapons. We are still a bunch of tribes, most in peace, some in war, and some half asleep. Perhaps we are confused by the concept of the noble savage, that if we came from savages, we’ve left that skin behind, and can triumphantly look back on our ancestors as ‘noble’ to atone our vicious path. There is no noble savage, ‘The Horror!’ of the savage is genuinely cruel: High infant mortality rate, susceptibility to diseases, banging your family and friends on the head with blunt instruments, torturing your enemies, the tribe at the mercy of nature, isolation hinders innovation; severe isolation means you’re stuck in the Stone Age behaving like a pack of dogs even in the 21st Century. Earth's isolation means critical innovation must come from within, and quirks in our own innovation will set us apart from the competition.
But back to the savages, it was the meeting of the Stone Age savages with the 'superior' and 'altruistic' that inevitably led the ‘noble’ savage to be worse off. This is not the rule, yet many aboriginal tribes (Australian Aboriginal, Maori, American Indian, Inuit) were at some time going to encounter explorers, crusading missionaries and finally well meaning settlers of some sort, eventually carving up their land into suburbia. Where the ‘invaders’ came from is irrelevant, history could have served up different outcomes; if the British Empire hadn't so vigorously mastered the seas (by allocating a nice chunk of their 17th and 18th Century GDPs to maritime supremacy), the French or Dutch would have, and I'd be writing in French or Dutch, rather than Australian English, mate. Without going into further gritty details about the clashes of the have-nots and the have-a-lot-mores, history shows that the meeting of the primitive and the advanced is no fairy tale.
Aliens view earthlings as curiosities because to land here and show us the intricate workings of a ray gun and share inter-galactic mutations of influenza will have predictably disastrous results, backed up by reports from similar excursions on similar peoples gagging for intergalactic frivolity. Are abductions part of a controlled process to see what happens when two (or more) species meet in the one room, and whenever a UFO plays catch me if you can with a fighter jet, are they just taste testing the tips of our poison arrows and exploring their delightful findings with an inter-galactic news network that’s gagging for something to fill their own mundane slots? Even aliens need some light entertainment after the Space Weather Report.
If you can assume that aliens have interacted to a limited degree with humans, by prodding our bodies and teasing our most advanced weaponry, then you can digress that there is a next step, and they may hold great expectations for us.
Optimism is intelligence. The trials and tribulations of modern history are akin to that of the teenager. You can judge a teenager as an extraterrestrial can judge earth. ET's checklist for earthlings gets more advanced as we advance:
Earthlings have so far:
1. Invented very, very dangerous weapons,
2. yet have not destroyed themselves with these very, very dangerous weapons.
3. Pro-actively decided to protect their planet from themselves,
4. and avoided the unnecessary loss of too many species.
5. Respected the origins and management of their own species,
6. without interference from the non-verifiable religious beliefs of their own species.
7. Ventured into space, explored the planets in their own solar system,
8. and wish to explore the stars.
9. Visited other star systems, encountered other forms of life (other than their own),
10. and managed not to in all their excitement to bring danger and destruction to these life forms.
Earth's maturity is not so far off, but not that close either. On many fronts there is 'promise':
• We have treaties on the large superpower stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and can sleep relatively easy knowing that the casualties of a terrorist nuclear attack or a rogue statue going to nuclear war on its neighbours would be 'small change', as Napoleon would say.
• Environmentalism has taken an active footing and is evolving from a fringe cause into something it always naturally was: An internal organic drive to protect one's sanctuary.
• The United Nations, European Union and other layers of organisation do bind our tribes, and the timely demise of radical religious groups will herald a new period of international harmony.
• The Moon landings, future Mars landings, the upcoming age of exploration and commercialisation of our own solar system will take time but the fundamentals are there.
When Earthlings do venture out there, we'll probably be quite pacifist – indeed any civilisation that hasn't killed itself off in its formative years will be passive, perhaps explaining why earth hasn't been invaded yet.
Perhaps the sign that we have matured is when, like teenagers, we’re over ourselves getting over ourselves – and then we’ll be ready for the ultimate coming of age party: Space.
All notions of goodness, tree-hugging and harmony aside, modern history is stained by the lethargic bungling of the Middle Ages. Why couldn't Rome have kept its course, and if it had, we'd be exploring the stars by now and trading slaves with aliens. Sadly, the lost millennium of the Middle Ages happened because it's a lesson: It can happen again. And there's little reason for it not to.
A few slips in geopolitics can cause rifts deep and wide enough that the plentiful use of nuclear weapons, and weapons not yet invented, could cause the decades of decay that Rome went through in, a matter of weeks or months. Be it general nuclear destruction and nuclear winter, or a meltdown of civilisation and dawning of anarchy, it is all tangible. The proof that it is possible is in the stockpiles of nuclear weapons, that actually act as deterrents. Yet the nuclear threat may never dissipate, this yoke around our necks may follow us into space, but to a visiting alien who wishes to make a lasting impression other than gathering specimens, what incentive is there to deal with a species that can wipe itself out? It's almost like teenagers subconsciously shunning loner destructive teenagers: Awkward personalities breed their own problems. Proof that we are really ‘so over’ the destructive capability of ourselves will be an internal Rites of Passage that leads us to external adventures.
What, apart from specimen taking, is of any worth on earth? Because of the isolation of earth, there is no trade between earth and some other planet. If an alien wishes to break into the earth market they really have to do their homework; raw materials are available in asteroid belts, we're only as credit worthy as our Gross National or Intergalactic Product, we trade amongst ourselves, and we have enough salty water to drown ourselves with if the earth overheats. So what would an alien culture really value on earth? Why would they come so far and make contact? The answer is simple: What they can't generate themselves.
Look around upmarket antique shops in the wealthier quarters of towns and you will find artefacts from far flung places you're probably not brave enough to venture to. If you fancy the carved pieces from Papua New Guinea, you’re impressed by the originality of the depiction of whatever it is; crocodile, God, warrior, mother, something phallic. It may have been carved last year, or five hundred years ago. All you know is that where that thing was carved, you probably wouldn’t survive more than a week. What you don't purchase is an ubiquitous object that you can pick up anywhere. You want something unique, and whether it is an artefact or a piece of art, it adds another reference point to your collection. We seem to relish anything from some exotic culture, so earth artefacts would be no different. Somewhere in the culture quarters of a city that lies at the heart of a grand alien civilisation, is the Earth Museum. It’s only opens Monday to Thursday between 10AM and 3PM (except for lunch between 12 and 1:30), is funded by a dribble of generations (ex-astronauts who after visiting earth and returning several thousand years later, decided to allocate a tiny fraction of their pensions to something memorable), and staffed mainly by volunteers (who dreamily entertain themselves that they were meant to be born to live the simple life on earth). In this Earth Museum are artefacts: An ape called Lucy, a Neanderthal, a Homo Sapien, a Roman Centurion, a Samurai, a cat, a dog, a condom, a Coke bottle, a sabre and an Exocet anti-ship missile. The collection is just ‘stuff’ that visiting aliens have managed to pilfer without upsetting the inhabitants. Next to the Earth Museum is also the Earth Bar, where you can meet private collectors of earth and other inhabited planet artefacts.
If there is a trade out there, some of our stuff is changing hands.
We all collect art. Even if your only collection is a stack of low-IQ films, what you collect mirrors your own retarded ways and your seasonal attempts to address it. Now transplant your brain into an alien culture that is so over itself, so over everything it knows, but the thirst for knowledge never dies. It lives on knowing more, it thrives on new discoveries. It may even thrive, on modern art, from earth, the type of modern art that looks like vomit, no matter which way you rotate the canvas.
Apart from modern art, which is sadly almost a non-art; more like a performance, art is robust. An oil painting from 500 years ago can be viewed by anyone with eyes. A mobile phone video clip uploaded to YouTube exists only as long as there exist the software and hardware to view it.
At another extreme, we may be art, a creation, and in the end, our DNA a string of code.
While our output is interesting relative to our development, digital output and the explosion of it, is also collectible. Everything is art in the eye of an alien, much like when a tourist visits a far off place everything looks so amazing and interesting, even street signs and street lamps. However, durability, a solid art form (like a painting or a sculpture) is better than a digital creation because digital requires power, and the power that an alien culture would use will be way beyond what charges your iPad.
The innocent splendour of primitives is an ageless attraction. We gape at apes in the zoo, whales in the open sea, and surviving stone-age cultures that haven’t fully morphed. We crave simplicities (stick that in your Tweeter account). It would be no different for a visiting alien when they look down on us. Therefore, any of our artefacts, be it a Big Mac or a hand grenade, a pair of high heels and leopard skin tights, it has value to some collector back at the Earth Bar or in his alien hometown.
For us though, we have to accept that we are viewed as primitive, there can be little digression beyond our incapability.
Compare an ancient single-hull Viking boat, with a twin-hull Polynesian craft, and a Super Oil Tanker. Visit a museum containing pre-modern medical instruments; saws, forceps, and other contraptions we hope to never ever see, because thankfully these days we have effective anaesthetics and modern sterile medical instruments.
For those who like to collect, art is one brand, and technology is another. Viewed from afar, old technology is art, it definitely surpasses bad art, and it easily slots into the narrative of development, discovery and ingenuity.
What different aliens races would value from earth is hard to speculate, but you could suppose all the craft that have vanished from the Bermuda Triangle are bottled up in a giant collection somewhere, complete with crew and pilots.
As earth continues to develop, we will remain a target for technical artefact hunters. However, if the exponential rate at which we develop new technical marvels continues the surface of the earth will be covered with patents, the wires leading to their devices, and earth will resemble a metal clad ball. So, even as our development levels out, we will always have something to offer.
While we can pride ourselves that if aliens come they come explicitly for us, it is worth remembering that 99.9% of all life on earth died on earth. The vast list of species is obliterated by time, but there are fragments of fossils, that tell a story.
Our story, the recent and most exciting to us, is perhaps 5,000 years old. And while our story accelerates, our species doesn’t. A visiting alien would be interested in the species that preceded us, as much as the most intelligent of earthly species, us.
An alien fossil hunter would also be interested in recovering evidence of life that might predate their own (if possible) and that runs parallel or ahead of their own. The comparison would be valuable as a reminder that life anywhere is a struggle, a grind, full of many dead-end species, but we are not alone, and made it. Champagne!
Our aces are the unique things that we produce. Does this mean that if aliens arrive in a cordial and pompous fashion we shall offer gifts of our finest art, artefacts and fossils? Why give something away for free when the true value is yet to be ascertained? How much is the oldest stone age wheel going to fetch at auction on the other side of the known universe?
In any event where aliens are coming and they appear friendly, the best gifts we can give are not our most precious, but just a few levels below. Sure, give away a partial dinosaur skeleton, some three billion year old fossils, jousting swords, duelling pistols, a centurions helmet, a Warhol, a Picasso and an iPad – they’ve probably already got them. But there is no need to impress by giving away the best.
Some of the best cities are traditional trade hubs; New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Venice, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, to name a few. An enterprising alien, and an enterprising earthling, should see that above the diplomatic niceties (giving gifts of cultural importance) is the gift of inter-galactic independence – the ability to make a dollar from foreigners. What is this shopping mall, other than selling earth art, artefacts and fossils? Does it become a pawn shop for struggling aliens who make it here and can’t afford to go any further? Who cares. All that matters is that for earth to get out and over its self, it needs to start trading with others. Most minerals can be found in asteroids, but pretty postcards can only be found on tourists strips. If anyone can make pretty postcards of earth, it’s earthlings. If the aliens do arrive, make a t-shirt or a hat for them, use a silk-screen to print on the slogan “I Love Earth and Earth Loves Me”, and then you can sleep at night knowing you’re made a difference.
Great art depicts scenes and emotions. Great books and movies follow the changing of emotions and situations. The usual hits are love, contest, and hate. The act of love is depicted by romantic kissing or to the other extreme, hard core smut. When it comes to contest, it’s the heat of the competition; from plays about family rivalries to television series about professional challenges (picture in your mind televised glossed-up high-powered lawyers unleashing their power-egos). Then the act of hate, from sweeping paintings of ye’ old Man of War cannon laden ships going toe-to-toe, to trench warfare, gas chambers, to B-grade chainsaw massacre movies, there’s no shortage.
As the audience we are tricked into feeling an emotion; we’re not really in love with the fairy tales Princess nor are we running instilled with fear from her chainsaw wielding tormentor. But we do pay a lot of money to feel these things. They are integral to our well being. Emotions are also universal in intelligent life. What drove the great explorers to the ends of the world must propel the great space explorers to this side of the galaxy. And for a superior race that has seen it all; explored it all, tasted it all, shagged it all, and exploited it all, what apart from specimen collecting do they have to do? And what would be the best specimen to collect that is alive? Objects, like art, are dead. They are static. But for a superior alien race to freeze time on emotions in action, and re-run them in their own little galleries, would be a feat that is technologically possibly and possibly as boring and mundane as a modern art video installation. The act of two humans making love, or in a duel, frozen in the moment through some mind and body control, can’t be that different from re-watching in slow motion a boxing match or savouring the close-up on an Alpha Bitch (e.g. Heather Locklear in Melrose Place) in a soap opera. We enjoy it. So must they.
The great colonial land grabs by Portugal, Italy, Spain, Belgium and the imperial masters France and Britain, left Germany, by the time it was unified enough, with little to grab. As late as 1884 it annexed the Bismarck Archipelago, a group of islands off the north eastern coast of New Guinea in the western Pacific Ocean. The islands and a few other small conquests were in comparison to other empires a small consolation prize that Hitler, seemed to try to rectify with World War Two.
The area around Papua New Guinea is rough, at the end of the known world, and the people are as far removed as you could imagine. As a fledgling colonial power, explaining to them that they are being conquered because ‘everyone else has been conquered, enslaved or enlightened’ and that ‘if I don’t someone else will’ must be a bit humbling, so let the Bible lead the way and face the consequences later.
Fast forward to the now or the future and we have earth, possibly far removed from the geo-political action of the universe, but still a destination and an object worth something. Like a tribe on an island in the Bismarck Archipelago, are we destined to be sucked up by some species who think they have no other option but to get in first in case someone else does?
If we are the bait for an alien’s civilisations jealousy, it gets even worse. We may have even be overlooked by the very advanced alien species, so our first real contact will be with a lesser of the alien species (think: Klingons!) who are out to prove a point. Prepare to be enslaved, and thankful for it.
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.