Sunday, 6 June 2010

Stephen Hawking's Aliens

I'm not usually one to blow my own trumpet, but it seems there are some scientific grounds to support what I had to say before about generation starships and bioships. Looking through a recent issue of the Journal of Cosmology, I was particularly interested in Blair Csuti's response to physicist Stephen Hawking's comments about the probability of alien life forms being hostile toward us. For those in need of some more context, you can catch up here:

In his contribution, entitled "Darwinism and Hawking's Aliens", Csuti makes much play of the fact that natural selection would compel alien species to place their own interests above those of the indigenous population of Earth. This programmatic assertion means less to me though than his argument that:

" to Earth at near-light speed, it would take our would-be exploiters tens of millions more years to turn up on our doorstep. Unless they have very long life-spans, that would require a generational space ship with little prospect of returning to their home planet with whatever booty they had considered valuable enough to undertake a long and expensive expedition".

So I was right to suggest the meeting could only take place on an exoplanet. Therefore I'd like to add another twist to my Alien scenario, by suggesting that the Space Jockeys and their xenomorph cargo were the products of the evolution of the "astrochickens" originally dispatched by humans to explore the exoplanets (Freeman Dyson style). However, their evolution is so advanced that it takes considerable time and effort for a human to understand. I think back on the ending of the original Planet of the Apes movie, and there are some similarities to what I am proposing here for the Alien prequel. I just think my idea is a bit less obvious and therefore not as open to parody. You might recall, for instance, The Simpsons' musical version of Planet of the Apes, in which the sole surviving human astronaut breaks into song after at last discovering the shocking truth that the planet is not so alien afterall, but merely a future Earth where evolution has gone haywire: "You see I was wrong/it was Earth all along/they finally made a monkey out of me".

I won't comment here on Quatermass and the Pit either.

The added kick is that my version plays up to the importance of the Precautionary Principle that is supposed to regulate science, which is now generally regarded as "post-normal" because of the potential dangers it poses. It is this aspect that the evangelical presentation of Dyson ignores. Dyson goes out of his way to "blind" the audience with the wondrous nature of science, suspiciously resembling a telepreacher shaking down the true believers for the donations that will fund scientific research and shore up the expertise of scientists. So I hope Science Studies can make something of the latest instalments of the Alien franchise (remember, Social Epistemology once ran a piece on Kim Stanly Robinson, so sci fi can be useful in reinforcing critical attitudes).

Incidentally, the respective contributors to the issue in question of the Journal of Cosmology, provide more than a series of reading strategies to apply to the Alien prequel. They might also serve as useful templates for sci fi authors and readers interested more generally in how to characterise our potential relationships with alien lifeforms.

They sure make for more compelling reading than the works of Erich Von Daniken, which are not only racist in their assumption that the non-European peoples did not develop any science of their own (arguing instead that it was bestowed upon them by alien races), but also a direct ripoff of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. As this article proves, Von Daniken was an opportunist who noticed the warm reception of the mythos among French sci fi fans, which he in turn exploited to his own ends.

I hope my reimagining of the Alien universe is more compelling too than the "ancient astronauts". For me, it is not necessarily any conscious alien intervention in the evolution of the "astrochickens" used for exploration and/or terraforming, shifting the focus to our own inability to understand the contingent nature of the processes we've set in train. All of this was missing from Alien, where the emphasis was on the company's deliberate acquisition of the lifeform for military purposes. Sure, the plan was sinister, but there was a rationale behind it one could at least understand. I am suggesting, drawing on Hawking, a failure prior to this series of events to even recognise something as a form of life. The latter might gradually coevolve in more dramatic ways with our space exploration; thereby affording us a monstrous glimpse of the next stage of our development as a species.

To uncover this truth results in madness.....will the prequel capture this Lovecraftian sense of "cosmic horror"? To do so, it would have to effectively dispose of the character who learns the truth, otherwise the "unique" hybrid status of Ripley in Resurrection would appear more implausible. Only time will tell.

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