Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Close Encounters

As I noted here, aliens are somewhat out of fashion in science fiction, for several reasons. One is that they are inherently hard to write convincingly - they're supposed to be alien, after all. On the one hand their behavior should display a different ecological and cultural heritage; on the other they have to be human enough in some sense to identify with as characters.

Another reason for fewer aliens is discomfort with the closest historical analogy to alien contact, the encounter of New World and Old World peoples starting in 1492. As sobsister and cambias hint in their replies to my last post, we all know how well that worked out. For the peoples of the New World it didn't go so great at all, nor for some people in the Old World either, such as the ones who became colonists in chains.

In the Golden Age of SF people were not much troubled by all this - Indians back then were still mostly "hostiles," who showed up to shoot a few settlers before getting shot themselves in satisfying large numbers. Only occasionally did one get to say something vaguely profound and (in those pre-Earth Day times) even more vaguely ecological before being dispatched to the Great Spirit.

Heinlein was at heart an enlightened contemporary of Teddy Roosevelt. In Between Planets, Venus has been colonized under agreement with the native dragons; Cyrus Buchanan is a model of enlightened imperialism. To a human born on Venus there was never any doubt that there existed another race - dragons - as intelligent, as wealthy, and as civilized as their own. British India never had it so good, but what would have happened if the dragons had not been so accommodating?

To his credit Heinlein touches on that too, taking out for a test drive what in 1951 was still a recent grim addition to the English language: "Mars and Venus have their own intelligent races; we can't crowd them much more without genocide - and it's not dead certain which way genocide would work, even with the Martians."

Which way genocide would work? You don't have to be overwrought about the West's misdeeds in its age of imperialism to recognize that for a good question, and Clarke made even a better one of it. In the Golden Age, and still in Hollywood SF today, powerful, hostile aliens have just about the tech level that we do, so that Zorgon star destroyers and Earth battlecruisers can zap it out on more or less equal terms. Given, however, that the Universe is some 13 billion years old, Clarke argued that not only would we not run into another race just now building interstellar pre-dreadnoughts, we'd encounter "apes or angels."

If the angels aren't nice - as we define nice; who knows how angels do? - we could find ourselves in a real jam.


Kedamono said...

I still wonder about the truly alien aliens. Because we're dealing with a data point of 1, we're not in a position to know if humanoid aliens are farcical or the norm.

Truly alien aliens might be living in our solar system already, but because they are truly alien, they don't acknowledge us and we don't even know that they exist. (Check out Ken Macleod's Engines of Light trilogy, the aliens are extremophile bacteria living on asteroids.)

We may run into a lot of Apes out there, because that's what we can communicate with. The Angels can wait.

Bernita said...

Very interesting, Rick. Modesitt's "Adamiante" has an interesting take on the alien encounter.

Nyrath the nearly wise said...

There is a summary of Clarke's "Apes or Angels" argument here

Kedamono said...

So the chance of meeting another alien race concurrent with mankind is pretty much equal to the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy?

Hmm, of course that doesn't cover a race that reaches a peak, for whatever reason, and proceeds to colonize worlds the hard way, at VMSTL speeds, perhaps jumping from Oort Cloud to Oort Cloud, taking thousands of years just to go from Earth to say, Alpha Centauri.

If that was the case, then we might actually have a chance to encounter that race in our travels, or even have them show up at our proverbial doorstep.

Anonymous said...

Can a less advanced group resist a group at the level of "Angels?"

Thinking about those who tried to resist, and I can't help but wonder if Angels can be fought. When three Roman Legions were smashed at Teutoburg Wald, or when the British were building Alliances with native tribes after the American Revolution, the differences in technology and social organization between the two sides were miniscule compared to the potential, differences between different species.
Comparing a space-faring species within a few thousand years of us, development wise, and one that has traveled the stars for Billions of years, makes cultural exchange unlikely and the outcome of conflict a foregone conclusion.

Part and parcel of the shift in the way history is viewed is the loss of emphasis on the dominant narrative. As a result *we* are no longer necessarily called on to self-identify with the settler; we can identify with other groups according to the area of study. But if history is Science Fiction's secret weapon then *we* no longer have to be Romans or American settlers in the narration of the future; *we* can be Native Americans or Africans, or Germans or Celts trying to avoid falling beneath Rome's sandal.

But if the aliens we meet are so powerful that we can't affect them then it ruins the metaphor. We can't be the noble savages of Romantic Literature if we are so far beneath the notice of everyone around us. Babylon 5 got around this by having the Vorlons and the Shadows run their game of trying to force the younger races to pick sides; both sides had the technology to wipe out the other's pawns but that wasn't the point of the contest. This allowed the human and humanlike alien characters to have some relevance when caught between vastly more powerful beings.

But if some game of this nature is not present than there is no need for the hyper-advanced to treat the less advanced as cats paws, or instruct them in philosophy, or treat with them at all. Keeping Angels as an interesting part of the story means coming up with a way the less-advanced are relevant; because chances are we will fall into that category.

That doesn't mean the plucky humans have to be successful, but to include aliens in a story the human characters have either got to talk to them or fight them; Aliens who are just there and act snooty might as well not be there, and ones who wiped out the human species before breakfast just aren't nice.

Rick said...

This will give me plenty to post about in the morning!

Nyrath the nearly wise said...

I fear that the angels won't even notice us. The same way you don't notice the ants you run over on the freeway.

The Terran Empire might encounter an advance alien civilization, and engage in trade or battle with them. Only later they may discover that the "alien civilization" is the cosmic equivalent of a hyper-advanced entity's immune system. The entity would probably never become aware of the Terran Empire, much as you are never aware of the many tiny infections that are quietly taken care of by your immune system. The members of the "alien civilization" might be intelligent, but they are as unintelligent compared to the hyper-entity as your white corpuscles are unintelligent compared to you.

Kedamono said...

Or the "Angels" are busy talking to each other in low band radio frequencies... until this upstart race on this little dirt ball started broadcasting across those frequencies, much like the noise from ships' screws has screwed up the Whale's global communication system here on earth. Then they will simply pick a likely Kuypier belt object and send it in for a wake up call...

Anonymous said...

One great example of Real Aliens and the challanges, frustrations, and human (and alien) responses to contact is Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead and its sequels.

I like the idea that humanity, in its zeal to make up for the mistakes of its past, goes the Prime Directive Approach (well, at least until the plague breaks out. But thats why you need to read it.)