What Is Alien?
We were very excited about NASA’s recent discovery of organic matter on Mars, stronger evidence than we have ever had of the presence of life in the red planet’s history, and perhaps even now. And sure, that life is nothing more complex than a light dusting of bacteria, but it’s hope for a future off-world, and even more incredible, it cements the notion of alien life. That’s life within our own solar system, so it’s no Faster-Than-Light travelling alien sapience that look like somebody’s been gradually improving the same sloppy prosthetics job over the last couple of decades, but it’s a start.
Science fiction writers have considered the possibility of how our interaction with alien life might go. Though the real tragedy is that the War of the Worlds destruction-by-disease is the most likely outcome, we can dream. Here’s a rough breakdown of the more optimistic possibilities.
We Are Alone
Firefly and Battlestar Gallactica are major players in this category, vast interplanetary universes in which the only race to have risen to prominence is us. At most there are a few low beasts, nothing to have gained sapience, perhaps not even sentience, but most life is bacterial. This might be the variation closest to the truth, if you’re familiar with the Fermi Paradox and the filters of life you know that intelligence itself is pretty unlikely, and it may only exist in a narrow window of a planet’s history before wiping itself out, or spreading into the stars before diversifying too much and fading away.
It’s a bleak outlook, that not only leaves us incredibly lonely in a very big universe. It may be the safest likelihood, as intelligence in a competitive, thriving, and space faring species might spell our doom. This kind of universe gives us a new frontier, a new colonial and exploratory kind of human future that sees us spread and diversify, approaching the creation of culture from a new beginning.
The classic that we know and love from Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5, Mass Effect, and even Futurama. Humans reach the stars only to find that they are far from the first race to do so, and their skies are filled with interstellar conflicts, political disputes, and astonishingly familiar cultures, blossoming and thriving in the infinite frontiers. This type of science fiction tends to address matters of tolerance and multiculturalism, uses alien races to explore our own culture from an outside perspective, or simply plunges itself deeply into realms of fantasy.
This tends to be the more prolific science fiction, and the most idealised form of alien life, I went into greater depth here discussing how many recognisable components we find in such alien cultures. Why does everyone record information in books for example? Are paper, ink, and a symbol-based language a necessary step to space travel? It makes our galactic neighbours more palatable, creating characters with whom we can associate more deeply. In fact there is one sci-fi feature within this category that must take a little credit…
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens with a montage of our race meeting a bunch of others, and while it starts out with some basic people-shaped creatures of different colours, maybe some mandibles, it shifts rapidly to sentient jellyfish and cephalopods, and later on, oozes. Many species required encounter and environment suits (spot the mondoshawan tribute) to survive the shared atmosphere, and had to be taught our most basic custom, the handshake. The film might have been rather disappointing, but their alien menagerie was superbly assembled.
Giants In The Playground
Here’s a personal favourite. We emerge from our idyllic hatchery to find ourselves surrounded by celestial titans, beneath the notice of creatures that step between planets, drift the void between stars without need of metal shells to protect their immortal forms. Lovecraft did it best, with his mad, infinite gods, uncaring of the toils of mortal folk. Babylon 5 touched upon this with the First Ones, Vorlons, and Shadows. Mass Effect did something similar with the Reapers, and their progenitors. However, there are a couple of properties I’d say bring something truly unusual to the concept.
Contact, remember the Jodie Foster film? 1997? There was a lot of religious subtext in that film, enough that it bubbled over from sub and became text. The gods reached out to us and invited us into the universe, gave us a glimpse of possibility through advanced technology. It’s a stepping stone method of bringing us into the universe.
Borderlands on the other hand takes a far more interesting approach. The Eridians are ancient, their civilisation lies in ruins on Pandora and Elpis, but they have clearly not fallen to decadence and complacency. Their weapons – though ancient – still overpower everything our technology can produce, their ancient vaults hold immortal monstrosities and impossible boons of wealth and power, and they have abilities that far outweigh our own. Have they shrugged off the ties of planetary life? Do they exist in their extra-spacial vaults and the gulfs between? Or are they so widely spread that they now exist everywhere?
Goldilocks vs Goldblum
I don’t know if I’ve ever shared this theory on here, I’ve had a peruse of my back-catalogue, and yet can’t seem to find it. Not to worry, I shall keep it brief. Two theories of the emergence of life:
Goldilocks: We need water, we need a specific temperature bracket, we need a particular composition of atmosphere, and we need a solid planetary body with a suitably strong gravitic pull. In short, everything needs to be just right for a stable chemical process to become recognisable as life.
Goldblum: Life… uh… finds a way. Any system capable of producing masses of chemical reactions has the capacity to create something we might recognise as life; the heart of a nebula might generate a living process from heavier elements; seas of liquid helium might boil with fragile single-cell colonies.
I do not pretend to understand the deepest complexities of biology and chemistry, but I do know that under extreme conditions we find surprising qualities of certain elements and chemical compounds. But we’re toying with the notion of alien life here people! Can we please explore the astounding possibilities that the sheer size and scope of our own meagre galaxy affords us as creative types?
These are the considerations I’ve been making when trying to compose a sci-fi universe to work with. Science fiction is not a creative forte of mine, and something I’m endeavouring to work on, partially because I have acquired a few sci-fi role-playing books and systems over UKGE, so if I ever plan to use them, I need to get creative.