WHETHER we are a significant minority or a bare majority, many of us seem to have a problem with aliens at the moment. Pressing at our borders, threatening our jobs and identities: a surface target that takes the blame for much deeper structural problems.
Yet that’s only human aliens. Non-human ones? Going by our most popular entertainments, we are all at least ambivalent about them – certainly fascinated, but not always phobic, and often clearly progressive. Rogue One, the Star Wars prequel released last month, has its usual diversity of encrusted bipeds on the Rebel side – and note how the fascist forces of the Empire are creepily and uniformly human.
Arrival, a more cerebral alien encounter movie, even begins on an acutely political note.
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The linguist (Amy Adams) chosen by the US military to decipher the alien visitors’ language, has done work for them before, translating videos made by foreign insurgents. She makes explicit her displeasure at their use of her previous work. However, the chance to talk to real aliens … The whole movie belongs to the genre of “benign advanced extraterrestrials patiently dealing with trigger-happy humans”
(as opposed to ray-gunning them to smithereens). Even in Independence Day: Resurgence – the recent sequel to one of the most gung-ho, SF movies ever – a glowing “virtual” alien plays a wise and instructive role in human affairs.
Well, there’s the Hollywood liberal elite doing its job properly. One would hope that in the movie halls of Trumpland and Brexitannia, some big pennies might subtly drop about the value of difference, diversity and even otherness. Keep going, beautiful people – at least until Jabba the Man-Baby closes you down.
The legitimate scientific pursuit of identifying aliens, whether it goes well or badly, has a huge cultural impact. Ratings-hungry media react to every promising scrap from a fallen asteroid, or every detected radio pulse from a far-off star system, with the same overblown rhetoric. The articles also usually feature graphics of the clichéd alien – willowy, bug-eyed, naked, spindly. Again, it’s worth noting how vulnerable and childlike these figures are. To my mind, they easily invite a “care” as much as a “fear” response. We’re both hating and loving the alien.
But it’s worth a moment’s thought on what it would actually mean, for our values and mental frameworks, if we did verifiably find life beyond Earth (leaving flying saucers and their probe-happy pilots to the tinfoil hat brigade).
Firstly, we have a backyard project: trying to discover bacteria or microbes, somewhere in the potentially life-supporting environments of our own solar system. On Earth, deep-sea studies of what are called “extremophiles” – tiny organisms living in the most inhospitable circumstances, like bacteria that feed off electricity or unusual chemicals – have given hope that other planets (such as Mars, or moons around giants like Jupiter’s Europa or Saturn’s Enceladus) may support similar organisms.
The Cassini satellite probe is passing across Saturn and is active until September. Scientific hopes are high. Yet we know enough about these worlds to accept that any biological life found there will be fleeting, beleaguered, minimal. A grim defying of the environmental odds.
One would hope that the fragility and pathos of their existence would boost appreciation of the wondrous and teeming nature of our own biosphere. Certainly, with climate change deniers currently riding the waves of populist reaction, now would be exactly the right time for something to revive our reverence for nature, in a startling way.
Yet it would be a fight to frame it so virtuously. What if it’s a commercial entity – owned by our current wave of spacefaring hi-tech moguls – that discovers microbial life on Mars, or elsewhere in our solar system?
As Lizzie Wade writes in the online science magazine Aeon: “It’s likely that ‘first contact’ will not take the form of an intellectual or moral back-and-forth between equals.
It will be more like the discovery of a natural resource, and one we might be able to exploit. It won’t be an encounter, or even a conquest. It will be a gold rush.”
This new “line of life” could help big pharma companies produce the most extraordinary new products – super-resistant antibiotics, renewable fuel supplies, or other unimaginable items.
As usual, science fiction is way ahead of us here, blowing the klaxon. The Alien movies – with the next in the franchise coming out in spring – shows an evil corporation (called Weyland-Yutani) seeking to capture the monstrous killer, in order to raid its unique biology for military and commercial gain. If we think we have anxieties about GM foods in our natural system, wait till the spores of Enceladus get us … So if we want the discovery of aliens to be transformational in some way, finding life in our solar system might almost be too domestic and familiar.
Indeed, tech moguls such as Elon Musk aspire to “terraform” Mars back into a state of nature – planning to pump greenhouse gases into its atmosphere to warm it up, and make it biologically viable again.
(Musk recently had to correct his language: he’s now not calling it a “Mars colony”. Nearly gave the game away there, Elon …) My own hope is for something genuinely and cosmically humbling. The discovery of life in our solar system would, of course, massively increase the odds that biological life is pervasive throughout the universe, given the right conditions.
The amount of astrophysical information flowing into labs and computers these days is immense. So the search is on for discernible patterns emanating from civilisations, in this biggest possible repository of “big data”.
Repeating signals are what the scientists and amateurs usually listen for – though there have been false alarms recently. A confident Russian detection last autumn turned out to be one of their own satellites.
This week’s news of FRBs (Fast Radio Bursts) is being carefully corralled by the expert, protected from any implication that these are intentional messages.
Unsurprisingly, politics is baked deep into the dominant theories about alien contact – known as Fermi’s Paradox and the Drake Equation.
If life is ubiquitous in the universe, one reason why we haven’t been contacted could be that most civilisations eventually get to the apocalyptic weapons (or planet choking) stage … and they don’t survive it.
The few that do would have to overcome gigantic obstacles in physics and biology – faster-than-light travel, longevity in body and mind – to spread themselves through the universe.
Yet in a moment where nuclear missiles systems are being recommissioned by small-minded governments on both sides of the Atlantic – who also deride and trash climate targets – Fermi and Drake’s gloomy visions should send a further chill down our spines.
As the late John Berger might have said, this could be the very definition of insanity. A world-system that’s polluting and arming itself to death – while a brand new series of Star Trek (nobly and boldly going all over the universe in their stylish leisure suits) is about to hit the screens.
Make your mind up, hominid!
So no matter what verifiable signals of the alien come our way it seems we humans are fated to interpret them as reflections in our own broken mirror.
I found Arrival to be a beautiful movie – but I think it would be best not to ache for the intervention of wise, smoke-blowing heptapods.
Who knows when the great sign of life beyond Earth will break upon us? But in this crisis, my fellow earthlings, the truth is out there. We’re on our own.