So deep is our conviction that there must be life out there beyond the dark, we expect them to come across space at any moment. Then, mulling over the immensity of time, we wonder whether contact came long ago. Perhaps a bright projectile plunged into the swamp muck of a steaming coal forest. Maybe a probe was clambered over by hissing dinosaurs. Delicate instruments running down with no report …
If Darwin was right, and, further, if the principle of evolution reigns supreme in all worlds, how does man measure up?
The question had clicked with Johannes Kepler almost as soon as Galileo discovered our Moon might be liveable. And H G Wells had quoted Kepler at the very start of his Martian invasion, “But who shall dwell in these worlds if they be inhabited? Are we, or they, Lords of the World?”
Wells created the myth of a technologically superior extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). War of the Worlds features the ‘men’ of the future in alien form. They are what we may one day become. They are the tyranny of intellect alone. And Imperial Britain, for once, is on the receiving end of interplanetary Darwinism. Wells destroys the idea that man is the pinnacle of evolution, though, curiously, the Martians were also complacent; earthly microbes eventually trounced them.
Are we alone in the Universe? The subject of alien contact and man’s place on the cosmic evolutionary ladder became a twentieth century obsession.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that astronomers realised the potential future shock of discovering extraterrestrial intelligence. Writers like Olaf Stapledon and Arthur C Clarke were twenty years ahead of the game. Through fiction they were preparing the public for a close encounter of the third kind: physical contact. It would be the final great demotion for human arrogance and the assumption that man is the measure of all things. Books like Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937) and Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) stressed the insignificance of humanity in the face of alien biologies and ETIs.
As a result, scientists started searching for the alien. The emotional question of our place in the Universe was woven into all scientific discussions on ET. The fiction of alien contact had a profound effect on working scientists, such as exobiologist JBS Haldane, physicist Fred Hoyle, and the founders of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in the early 1960s, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake. Drake became the first radio astronomer to contemplate the transmission of an alien contact signal, greatly influencing the design of listening programmes using the largest radio telescopes on Earth.
But perhaps the biggest influence of all is this: for over 100 years, fiction has been firmly pro-SETI and pro-life in the extraterrestrial life debate. In the words of Arthur C Clarke, ‘the idea that we are the only intelligent creatures in a cosmos of a hundred billion galaxies is so preposterous that there are very few astronomers today who would take it seriously. It is safest to assume, therefore, that They are out there and to consider the manner in which this fact may impinge upon human society’. But in the last thirty years or so, things have changed. Pioneers of biology, such as Theo Dobzhansky and Ernst Mayr, have emphasised the incredible improbability of intelligent life ever to evolve, even on Earth.
Nonetheless, fiction has swayed an entire generation of future SETI-hunters. It is astonishing that millions of dollars have been spent on sober scientific projects in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. There can be no greater testament to the power of science fiction.