This piece originally appeared in the quarterly newsletter for the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers, which I edit. I thought it would be of benefit to the science fiction writers in our group. But I think horror writers could find plenty of material here. Bottom line — the existence of alien lifeforms in the universe is pretty much a statistical certainty. And they’re probably a lot more like something out of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination that Gene Roddenberry’s. *Shudder* By the way, the eye-popping photos that accompany this are from the Hubble Telescope.
Unfathomable Distances, Unfriendly Locals
By Tom Joyce
Editor’s note: Ray Villard is news director for the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, which operates the Hubble Space Telescope. He’s also the former associate editor of “Astronomy” magazine, an editorial contributor to Discovery Channel, and the author of numerous articles for magazines, encyclopedias and Internet blogs, and scripts for several syndicated science programs on public radio.
Ray Villard is a science fiction fan himself, so he understands why writers for page and screen sometimes do
what they do. Maybe they just need to tell an entertaining story. And it’s not like 1960s-era Star Trek had a multimillion dollar CGI budget at its disposal for rendering alien lifeforms.
Still, he can’t help but get irritated sometimes at science fiction in which the writers seem to have no familiarity whatsoever with the scientific phenomenon they’re ostensibly writing about.
The movie “Deep Core,” the disaster/science fiction movie from 2000, based on the premise that the Earth’s core has stopped spinning. In terms of physics, that’s about as plausible as a disaster movie premised on the Empire State Building falling down after a fly hits it.
“It’s one thing to suspend the laws of physics,” Villard said. “But it’s another thing to completely ignore the laws of physics.”
And it’s not like incorporating some real science into your fiction has to render it dry and unpalatable. An article in Omni magazine inspired Michael Crichton to write “Jurassic Park,” which enjoyed a modicum of popular success.
So what suggestions would he make for speculative fiction writers who want to inject a little verisimilitude into their stories?
First of all, enough with the meteor storms.
“Space is really empty,” Villard said. “You’re never going to hit meteor storms. That’s the least of your worries.”
You know what else you’re not going to encounter in space? A life-sustaining planet, just like Earth, that’s uninhabited.
“If a planet is inhabitable, it’s inhabited,” Villard said. “And it’s not going to want you around. It’s going to bite your head off.”
Any alien beings that inhabit such planets would likely be different from us. Not different as in blue skin or funky-looking eyebrows. Different as in we literally wouldn’t have the cognitive ability to comprehend them.
And no, they wouldn’t look like the “greys” that purported alien abduction victims are fond of describing.
“All these alien drawings are caca,” Villard said. “They go back to the days when people saw witches and demons and things like that.”
Any inhabited world would almost certainly contain dangerous microorganisms. The macroorganisms wouldn’t be any picnic either.
“Complex life by its nature is predatory,” Villard said. “Any intelligent life we meet out there would be descended from predatory animals. Predators have to outsmart their game.”
One of his favorite depictions of alien life in science fiction is the 1979 movie “Alien.” That depicts both the predatory nature and sheer other-ness that would probably characterize a complex lifeform from another planet.
No matter what the aliens look like, none would reach us here from another galaxy, the nearest of which is more than 2 million light years away.
“They need to be in our own city of stars,” Villard said.
While he can see the narrative necessity of using faster-than-light travel in some stories, that’s probably not going to happen in real life either.
“If you could exceed the speed of light, the universe would be a mess,” Villard said. “That’s a pretty rigid law. I can guarantee you that we have never been visited in human history by somebody from another star.”
If you want to incorporate outer space into your stories, a more plausible scenario would be man-made environments. A society advanced enough to “build its own place in space,” Villard said.
Could an interstellar alien species come along into such a scenario? Sure. But such a species would necessarily have to be more advanced than we are, and the statistical probability of their advancement being anywhere near ours is pretty much nil.
So we’re not talking metallic suits, ray guns and personalized jetpacks advanced. We’re talking aliens from “2001: A Space Odyssey” advanced. Beings of pure energy or pure intelligence that might exist beyond our sensory capacities.
“It would be like trying to imagine four dimensions,” Villard said. “And you can’t predict the way a mind evolved on other worlds might think and communicate and perceive us.”
Wherever those alien beings are, we’re probably better off if they stay there. In light of the fact that our galaxy contains about one hundred billion stars, there’s a high statistical probability that it is indeed a matter of “wherever those beings are,” as opposed to “wherever those beings could theoretically be.”
Regardless of their nature, they probably can’t get to us and vice versa. The sheer distances of space would almost certainly preclude that. The space probe that took 10 years to make it to Pluto would take 80,000 years to get to the nearest star. A vehicle that traveled a tenth of the speed of light might get there in 40 years, but that would require about a hundred trillion dollars in today’s economy.
“The reality,” Villard said, “is that we’re prisoners. We’re in a cosmic quarantine because of the incredible distance to get to another star.”
Does that quarantine confine us? Or protect us?
Learn more about the Hubble Space Telescope here.
Where to learn more …
Interested in learning more about current scientific developments, maybe to get those creative juices flowing? Ray Villard says these are some good sources: