Why Aren't Aliens Talking to Us?

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Several of the most imaginative minds in science fiction (and science) gathered at this year's Readercon to discuss a fundamental question of our existence: Why does it seem like we're alone in the universe? Writers Jeff Hecht, Steven Popkes, Robert J. Sawyer, Ian Randal Strock, and Michael A. Burstein offered their recommendations for the best fictional explorations of this question, commonly known as the Fermi paradox. See their picks, and find out more about one of the greatest paradoxes in human existence.

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Illustration for article titled Why Arent Aliens Talking to Us?

Stephen Baxter's Manifold Trilogy

In these three novels and a few related short stories, Baxter explores possible solutions to the Fermi paradox. His first Manifold novel, Time, operates under the conceit that we really are the only ones around, despite high-probability estimates to the contrary. Space, Baxter's second Manifold novel, asserts that there have been a multitude of other civilizations, but various cosmic disasters destroy them before they are able to make connections. The third novel in the series, Origins, posits that intelligent life is actually separated into parallel universes, so that it is impossible for two different civilizations to contact each other. Baxter's Manifold short stories, which are collected in the book Phase Space, explore these and other possible answers to this perplexing question.

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Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey

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Everybody knows this famous novel of space exploration and the pitfalls of advanced technology. In this story, Clarke postulates that intelligent life does exist independent of our planet and our species — but we're not smart enough to understand their messages. The limited awareness of humans is probably the most plausible explanation for the Fermi paradox, but it's also quite a depressing one.

Terry Bisson's "They're Made Out of Meat"

This Nebula-nominated short story, which Bisson has made available online, is at once hilarious and chilling, an all-dialogue portrayal of intelligent extraterrestrial beings who decide that we're far too primitive to even contact. "What is there to say? 'Hello, meat. How's it going?'" That's one solution of the Fermi paradox — the aliens are here, but they're too snotty to pay us any mind.

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David Brin's Uplift series

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Brin's Uplift stories, beginning with the 1980 novel Sundiver, contain another assertion that humanity is vastly simple compared to other lifeforms. In this universe, civilizations are not permitted to interact with other intelligent life until they have been "Uplifted" — and that only happens when a vast galactic society decides that they are not only sentient, but sapient. Since every other species in Brin's novels has been found by a far more advanced civilization, genetically modified for thousands of years, and then uplifted, the evolution of the human race seems something of a mystery. Our unique independent development would explain our puzzlement with the Fermi paradox.

Stanislaw Lem's Solaris

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In Lem's novel, which has twice been translated to feature films, he explores the idea that alien intelligence operates on a totally different level from our own. Humans who venture to the planet Solaris do discover an intelligent lifeform there, but they are incapable of communicating with it in any way that they understand. Instead, the organism manipulates their emotions and their thoughts without revealing its own, and in the end the planetary researchers are left confused and half-insane. Though this is, again, a depressing idea, it still leaves us with the hope that our society might one day advance enough to commune with others and move forward.

I'm sure you have even more recommendations for Fermi paradox stories, and I urge you to share them with io9 in the comments — but do it quickly. As panelist Michael A. Burstein pointed out, "Wouldn't it be funny if we got a signal from aliens tomorrow and this whole conversation was moot?"

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DISCUSSION

braak
Chris Braak

@Asari:

1. The problem with crop circles is that it posits that the aliens are retarded. See, any aliens that have been to earth would have to know that we don't communicate by making designs in our cornfields.

Trying to make contact with us that way would be as stupid as if I went to China and tried to communicate with the Chinese by spray-painting LA gang signs onto their cars. There is no reason for me to think that this would work, at all. I can figure that out, and I haven't even invented faster-than-light space travel or anti-gravity flying saucers.

2. This kind of doesn't make any sense, but speaking as someone with a degree in ancient religion, let me say this: no ancient religion "catalogues" anything. You cannot look at, say, the Homeric Hymns, or the Dead Sea Scrolls as being the equivalent to modern-day scientific research. In addition to many of these peoples lacking any kind of thorough methodology, the intention of producing work like this was completely different.

Given, however, that all of the ancient religions DID represent contact with "extraterrestrials," those alien language skills have really gone down the tubes, huh? I mean, the gods of ancient Egypt all spoke Egyptian—now they can only communicate through crop circles and anal probing? What happened there?

3. Of course, there are also plenty of startling inconsistencies from account to account—not to mention glaring inconsistencies in accounts from the same person. And it sure isn't the first time that disparate people have reported similar experiences—migraine sufferers often have startlingly similar hallucinations of architecture or fortifications; it's not proof that they're all seeing the Invisible College.

4. Personal experience is, of course, personal experience. But even the most thorough observer has to admit that a lot of what he considers personal experience is actually extrapolation and conjecture.