I’ve just been reading that ‘a star with two Saturn-sized planets’ has been spotted by the US planet-hunting’ Kepler telescope and that scientists are seeing whether there might be a third ‘earth-sized’ planet also in orbit. (The Kepler telescope, incidentally, was named after the Southend-on-Sea turf accountant (‘bookie’) Jeremy Kepler, who put up most of the money for its development, and not, as you might have thought Johannes Kepler, the 16th-century German mathematician and astronomer, an account of whose life you will find here.)
Fair enough. As a lad now in his late 90s who was brought up on Dan Dare and the Mekons, the mere mention of extraterrestial life is enough to get my pulse racing. But it also reminds me of several oddities which always occur when we discuss ‘intelligent life elsewhere in the universe’. But before I launch into tonight’s diatribe (or this morning’s if, like Olly, you live in New Zealand), I must confess that I find it inconceivable that life, in some form or another, has not also evolved elsewhere in the universe.
This afternoon, on Radio 4’s Material World in a piece about black holes and magnetic stars, I heard that there are something like 100 million stars in every galaxy (with most stars having about it several planets) and that there are several billion galaxies in the universe. Well, do the maths and tell me that ‘life on Earth is unique’. If it is, then in 1966 I was the only teenage alive who thought that existence was shit and unfair, and that all I wanted to do with my life was to make fun of it so that it retreated into its cave red-faced, defeated and full of shame. Such was the scorn of my anger.
When there is talk of ‘intelligent life elsewhere in the universe’ — and future generations will fervently hope that whatever ‘life’ they do come across is ‘intelligent’, because there will otherwise be precious little opportunity to engage in trade with ‘unintelligent’ algae or what an Alpha Censorius takes the place of algae — we always seem to make the same assumptions. On the one hand that we assume that when extraterrestrials do finally spot Earth and decide it might be worth a stopover, they will always ‘come in peace’ (‘We come in peace’). And if peace is rather further from their minds than is laid down by some UN charter or other, that they are always unbelievably ferocious bastards who merely want to rape our women, steal our cattle and then destroy what’s left of Earth’s ‘civilisation’.
Now why do why think either must be the case? Why do we think that the ‘aliens’, the ‘extraterrestrials’, who make it to Earth — and who have presumably survived the vicious interrogation all aliens are subjected to by US Immigration when they arrive — are the sole representatives of their civilisations? When, finally, the US and, a little later, Russia, land four or five of their chaps on Mars (and sorry, girls, but you know as well as I do that it will initially be chaps), did they really consult Sri Lank and Venezuela and Canada and Georgia and Mongolia and Namibia before launch as to what the best approach might be if and when ‘natives’ are encountered? And what exactly will the US’s/Russia’s Mars visitors do if and when they are regarded by that planet’s suspicious natives as invaders and treated accordingly? Will they loudly proclaim in one voice and with renewed vigour repeat the declaration that ‘we come in peace’? Or will they shoot back when they are attacked? For if it is the US rather than Russia which first gets to set its foot on alien soil and which, subsequently, is the first to be made aware that it is not quite as welcome as it thought it might be, will it treat the indigenous populations of Mars and the other distant planets it visits as it treated the indigenous population if America when it first set its dainty foot on the sands of Cape Cod? Most recent reckonings estimate and accept that more than two million Native Americans succumbed as the ‘white man’ who ‘came in peace’ chose to impose his authority on ‘the savage’ in the 200 years which followed his arrival.
And why do we assume that ‘alien’ civilisations aren’t equally as riven by rivalries and paralysed by bureaucracies as the Earth’s ‘civilisation’ is? Why do we assume that the spacecraft which has recently arrived on Earth from Alpha Zeta Beta Phito II (and if it has arrived on British soil, preferably not on a weekend) speaks with one voice for the peoples of Alpha Zeta Beta Phito II? And if the ‘civilisation’ which lands its fleet of UFOs at Cape Cod at some point in the future does speak with one voice, it would be safe to assume that that one voice speaks uniquely for an authoritarian system which will brook no dissent. And thus it is unlikely ‘to come in peace’. Earlier today I read an account of the problem India and China face over deciding on the line of their mutual frontier (although they both might not regard it as a ‘problem’ but, at best, more as an ‘irritation’.) That rather puts our future concerns of how to treat visiting aliens into perspective. Will, it be: ‘OK, your Zorgon bastards, you can have Solihull and Kings Heath, but that’s it, OK, understand? You step one foot — one foot! — north of Mosley and it’s curtains. Savvy?’ I think it was something like that the Patuxet told the Pilgrim Fathers in 1622. Something like that. For all the good it did them.
Alien invasion? Bring it on! We’ll show the bastards.