Sunday, April 7, 2013

"It's life, Jim, but not as we know it."

Ever since I was a young boy I have enjoyed science fiction, and speculating about the kind of life that we might encounter in the wider universe. That there would be life on other planets has never really been in question for me. Matter has an inbuilt capacity to generate patterns and complexity. Some of these patterns fall into configurations that result in self-duplication, and the passing on of information. Our definition of life is inevitably based on the process of information exchange and self-duplication that has evolved on this planet. There may be a vast number of other ways in which this can be achieved; so life may take forms that we would not even recognize as such.

I grew up with Doctor Who and Star Trek on the TV; then 2001: A Space Odyssey at the cinema. I devoured Asimov, Clark and Heinlein. Not surprisingly, even my musical tastes were affected by this: I fell in love with Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

I have always been more interested in what I suppose would be called “speculative” science fiction, than that which I would describe as “cowboys and Indians” science fiction. In other words, I like my science fiction to have a philosophical/ethical edge, rather than being about battles and adventures. Some of the latter is fine, as long as it is within a more speculative framework. I suppose I share with Gene Rodenberry this insatiable desire to envision the future. If I had a time machine, it would be to the future that I was bound, not to the past. Not the near future, however, and certainly not my own future. My dreams are of the most remote times and places, the more removed from the here and now the better.

Speculation about alien intelligence and alien civilizations seems to oscillate between extremes. On the one hand, these civilizations are seen as a threat to our own. The aliens are irredeemably hostile and, well, alien. This extends our current human fear of the different, the alien, even on our own planet. These kinds of science fiction stories usually end up as “good guys/bad guys” stories, and are just extensions of this genre into other times and places. Generally, human beings are the “good guys”. At the other extreme of the pole, alien beings and civilisations assume an almost godlike stature: they are vastly more advanced and morally superior to us. This seems to satisfy the religious craving within human nature, trying to hide itself under the guise of super technology or super evolution.

One thing is certain: if human beings ever do encounter other beings and civilizations out there (and I would love for that to happen in my life time), whatever they might be like, we will still be ourselves. That should give all of us (and you out there, if you are listening) pause.

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