first contact

November 8, 2013

Some of the Best from Tor.com 2013 is now available for free on Kindle.

This includes my story, “The Best We Can,” and it gives me an excuse to talk about my thoughts on possible first contact scenarios, and why I wrote the story at all.

First off, I do think we’ll find evidence of extraterrestrial life within my lifetime.  Fossil microbes on Mars or something swimming under the ice on Titan.  Something.  But we may even find extraterrestrial intelligence.  It’s not going to happen at all like it does in the movies, or like it has on any number of Discovery Channel mockumentary scenarios.  In fact, it’s probably not going to be very cinematic at all.  It’ll come from the examination of tiny pixels, and the analysis of mountains of data.  It’ll take years to confirm.

The search for exoplanets — planets outside our solar system — has been more successful than anyone dreamed.  According to Exoplanet.org, 755 planets have been confirmed, along with 3455 unconfirmed planet candidates.  That’s over four thousand planets, and the number is constantly growing.  (This is one of the reasons I get cranky when people insist that not having a space shuttle means the U.S. doesn’t have a space program.  You want a space program?  Here, have FOUR THOUSAND EXOPLANETS, BITCHES.)  You use this data to extrapolate the numbers in the Drake Equation for determining the likelihood of finding alien civilizations, and the results start to look ridiculously probable.  Which leads to the attendant question of course — why haven’t we been able to talk to them yet?  And the answer is, to quote Douglas Adams:  space is big.  Really big.  Hugely mindbogglingly big.

Astronomers use a few different methods to find planets:  with the transit method, they can track changes in light that occur when a planet passes in front of its star.  Tiny little eclipses.  They can measure the gravitational pull that planets and stars exert on each other.  Direct imaging has also become possible.

I think at some point we’re going to find a star system that obviously has planets, but the data is going to be wonky.  Astronomers will find light where it shouldn’t be, on the shadowed side of a planet.  They’ll find something orbiting something else that predictions say shouldn’t be there — because it’s artificial.  It will be evidence not just of life, but of civilization.  And it’ll be dozens and dozens of light years away, and it’ll take a lifetime for our message saying we know about them to get there.  Maybe we’ll finally get that radio signal SETI’s been looking for — but it’s not going to be a message meant for us.  It’s going to be a random alien thing, noise sent to the stars, like what we’ve been sending out for the last 80+ years.  Plus — it will likely have been traveling for many, many years.  Whatever evidence we find, whether light or radio or something else on the EM spectrum, will be old by the time we get it.  Maybe ancient.  It will be a message in a bottle, and likely an accidental one to boot.  Discovering extraterrestrial life is going to be like archeology.

And it will be so bloody frustrating, won’t it?!  We’ll turn to the heavens, shouting, because what we really want is to talk to them.

This is what was driving my story:  the idea that we’re going to find the holy grail, incontrovertible proof of alien civilizations.  And we’re not going to be able to do a damn thing about it.  We’re not going to be able to talk to them.  We’ll just have to gather and catalog the data and try to figure out what it means.  I know the story depressed a lot of people because of its depiction of bureaucracy overwhelming the wonder of discovery.  But really, I meant there to be a thread of hope as well:  because hey, we found life.  We found civilization.  We aren’t alone.  And that’s very likely going to have to be enough, at least at the start.

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6 Responses to “first contact”

  1. Mom Says:

    It’s available for Nook, too.

  2. Adam. Says:

    I read an article a while ago that suggested that there’s a blip in accidental radiations.
    Way back at the beginning of broadcast radio (before TV) there were few big transmitting masts radiating like crazy.
    Now there are more masts, each serving a smaller area, and with less transmit power (because the transmitters are closer and because receivers are more sensitive), radiating less wasted energy.
    I Aliens are going to pick up unintended signals from us, it’s more likely to be ones from the 1920s and 1930s than the lower power transmissions from last Tuesday.
    Even Airport and Early Warning Radar systems waste less energy upward now.

    Will Alien colonists show up expecting our civilisations to have collapsed following the Jazz age? :-)

  3. WanabePBWriter Says:

    Exoplanets are great and all, probes to Titan and Europa all well and good. And yes that is a true space program, but ultimately all kind of pointless, unless and until we can get ourselves off this rock. If we are ever going to get the big shiny ships we want, we have got to master our own orbital environment.

    It’s great that we have a “Space Station” and we will and do learn from it, but as it stands it will never advance our presence there or in the rest of the solar system. To advance we need more than a few boxcars tied together where we can huddle together and not die.

    We need engineering and for that we need space, facilities, power and mass. Until we can live in orbit we will never truly advance in space. We need the space elevator or analogous system that will allow us to really get established in orbit and on the moon.
    To quote A. C. Clark “50 years after we get everyone to stop laughing we’ll have it.
    (Sorry for the tone, I have a large soapbox on this issue.)

  4. Calico Says:

    Looking forward to reading your story!

  5. Tim Schmidt Says:

    The only way we are likely to actually meet aliens is if they come here. Could be that they’re already but keeping a low profile while they give us a look over.

    As for getting into space, some of the private efforts are starting to pay off. We may be less that a decade away from sending people into space on a regular basis (other than the International space station)
    Tim

  6. Byron Dormire Says:

    Love your hope in it all. If we can continue to pursue the course Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (a.k.a. Deep Space Nine – just part of the oversimplification of how things could matriculate by the 24th century with our engineering and technological progress) we will, as Tim Schmidt suggests above, need to have our welcome mats and hospitality spiels arranged so the Vulcans (or some not-so-benevolent planet eater) won’t feel compelled to ignore us because, compared to them, we’re still in the stone age, or worse, we’re not ripe enough (yet) for the picking. Let’s hope the good guys find us first and we’re intelligent and gainful enough to accept their opportunities.


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