Thursday, September 07, 2006

First Contact

What will happen when we have our first meeting with intelligent beings from another planet? Will we have to wait for this event until we achieve interstellar travel? Or will the extraterrestrials come to us? If the latter, will they be gentle creatures who come in peace, only to find themselves pursued by agents of our government, as in ET and STARMAN?

Early science fiction often envisioned aliens as invading conquerors, as in the prototype of this genre, H. G. Wells' WAR OF THE WORLDS. That scenario provokes the question of why creatures from another world would want to conquer ours. For territory? Maybe. For some resource their species is running short of? To eat us, like fairy-tale ogres? (That's what the villains in C. S. Lewis's OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET thought the Martians wanted. It's not too likely that our biology would be compatible with theirs, so they probably wouldn't find us edible.) Because Earth happens to be located in a strategically important part of the galaxy, and they want to establish a base here? The motif of interstellar war raises a logistical problem: Unless warp drive or some other form of FTL travel exists (not to mention instantaneous communication), interstellar distances could make war, much less an organized empire, impractical or impossible.

In a short story by Zenna Henderson, aliens invade our space, resulting in war, because their planet has run out of salt, the one substance essential for their reproductive biochemistry. Due to imperfect understanding of each other's language, however, the ETs are unable to explain their motives. The peace talks remained stalled until the wife and child of one of the human diplomats accidentally become friends with the aliens' families and discover the facts of the situation. In contrast, in Henderson's classic "People" series, the human-appearing, psi-powered alien refugees on our planet live among us without making their presence known to the world, apparently for fear of persecution.

Isaac Asimov considered the interstellar war/conquest scenario highly improbable because he maintained that any culture advanced enough to travel across the galaxy would have grown beyond violence to become enlightened and peaceful. How anyone who'd lived through the twentieth century (especially a person of Jewish background) could hold this belief boggles my mind, considering the devastation wrought during his lifetime by one of the most scientifically advanced nations in the world.

The classic movie THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL presents another common SF scenario, the aliens who arrive on Earth to warn us that if we don't cease our violent ways, we'll have to be subjugated or destroyed for the protection of the rest of the galaxy. People who believe in UFOs maintain that extraterrestrials have been covertly watching us for decades. Skeptics reply that if they're advanced enough to travel across interstellar space, they should be able to observe us without being noticed. Moreover, why haven't they made contact by now? The only reported encounters of the "First Kind" have comprised random kidnappings and crude experimentation, leading most people to conclude that the alien abductions described by supposed witnesses arise from either hoax or delusion. It's occurred to me that the aliens might watch us without caring whether they're noticed, like Jane Goodall observing chimpanzees. What I've read of the contact and abduction stories, though, sounds to me like SF written by somebody who doesn't know much about SF.

The most optimistic scenario is that the aliens are observing us without contact until we're advanced enough to be approached safely. They will announce their presence when they're ready to invite us to join the Galactic Federation. Maybe, like the Federation in the Star Trek series, they obey a Prime Directive against interfering with "primitive" cultures.

My personal guess is that when the aliens arrive, they'll have less lofty motives. It seems likely they might come as prospectors and/or traders. If they want to establish a military base on our planet, they won't need to conquer us. The United States maintains bases all over the world in countries we've never defeated in war. If the ETs forcibly make us part of a galactic empire, I'd expect a rather laissez-faire form of rule, leaving most of our culture and government unchanged, like the Roman Empire in its remote provinces or the British Raj in India.

Or they might have motives incomprehensible to us. In practice, we wouldn't write about alien contact of that type. Fictional aliens are almost always modeled to some extent on Earth biology, and their psychology and culture have human parallels. If they don't have emotions and motives we can understand, no true "contact" can occur; we'd find ourselves in the position of termites during a visit from an exterminator, or the rabbits whose warren is destroyed for a housing development in WATERSHIP DOWN.

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