The Science Behind ETERNAL SHADOW #1: First Contact
Am I starting too many series here? I think one can’t have too many series for a blog, especially when it all revolves around science fiction, the sciences, writing, or a mix of all three.
With that said, here’s another series!
“The Science Behind ETERNAL SHADOW” will be another ongoing series which will explore the various concepts I introduce in my novel. During the course of writing this book I’ve spent a lot of time researching the many subjects which coalesce into the story you’ll be reading. If I were to throw a number into the wild, I’d say I spent about four to six months conducting all the research. This includes reading various papers (and more importantly, understanding enough to translate the info into something readers could understand), spoke with a handful of professionals, and just running a ton of numbers to ensure everything that would be presented was as accurate as possible.
Our debut article focuses on a core element presented and explored throughout Eternal Shadow: how humanity reacts to first contact with an extraterrestrial. In my book, however, it’s not that simple: this extraterrestrial, in just three days, destroys Pluto, Neptune, and Uranus. After these unprecedented events, the incredibly large object advances toward Earth, giving humanity ten years to figure out what, if anything, can be done to save themselves.
I knew, out of the gate, this variant of the “first contact” scenario would be very different from what I’ve read in sci-fi literature and seen in movies. Several novels tend to explore first contact taking the form of a radio signal (Carl Sagan’s Contact) or alien ships literally parking themselves over metropolitan areas around the Earth (Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End).
With stories like this, one aspect of humanity which is frequently explored is how we would react, both as individuals and collectively as a civilization - as a species. Though I’ve read many novels that explored these themes to varying degrees, I had to see just how people would really react. And with Eternal Shadow’s scenario, the situation isn’t as easy to identify since the planets that are destroyed are so far away that you’d normally require a telescope to see them under ideal nighttime conditions. In addition, the source of this destruction doesn’t appear over Earth just days later - or even a month or a year later. It moves slowly, to the point that we determine it would take it about ten years to arrive and destroy the Earth.
These details may not seem that important, but it’s the reason why the research conducted by Dr. Michael Schetsche was crucial to how I depicted humanity’s slow-burn reaction over the years my novel spans.
The Unsettling Realities of First Contact
Dr. Schetsche wrote a research article in 2005 about first contact scenarios and how different variants of them could play out if they occurred. One aspect which permeates throughout his paper was the idea that scientists and researchers who’ve been tasked with trying to identify advanced extraterrestrial life (another civilization similar to ours in terms of technological development) all focus on one idea: that any plausible first contact scenario would be radio-based. That the idea of “them” coming to us is, for the most part, largely dismissed as an avenue not worth exploring.
Why discount all non-radio first contact scenarios from a professional standpoint? Most reason stem from the fact that we have no baseline for determining how a lifeform which evolved on another planet could respond to us if we met them face-to-face. Homo sapiens is the only species we know to have developed an advanced civilization - therefore all we can do is make assumptions based on our understanding of ourselves. Everything outside of that is pure hypotheticals (example: maybe aliens could arrive to Earth using a form of interstellar travel which we simply do not understand or can conceive using our present understanding of the universe).
Therefore, given how large the universe is and how much space exists between us and other stars which may harbor life, the most logical conclusion is that first contact will almost certainly be via radio waves.
One part of this conclusion which has darker undertones, however, is why radio-based contact is preferred over all other forms. We see this play out in Contact. Though the main characters were profoundly impacted by the discovery of extraterrestrial radio signals coming from a species somewhere near the Vega star system, society across the globe continued forward as if nothing happened. Yes, major government agencies got involved and people talked about the implications, but the world continued as if the alien signal didn’t exist.
If the distance between us and the alien civilization is interstellar (separated by several, if not hundreds of, light years), a radio signal discovery would not have much of an impact on society. As Dr. Schetsche states, “the further away we know the aliens to be, the less threatening their existence appears to be.” In the end, the threat of them coming to us is largely rendered moot.
The word “threat” will begin appearing more often because of human territoriality and wanting to protect what we perceive as ours. When we learn about casualties in a war occurring overseas, we aren’t disturbed, but we’d have a very different reaction to witnessing a shooting occurring in our neighborhood. One’s feeling of being threatened is at its highest when said threat occurs within one’s home.
How humans react to threats is crucial to understanding the sociological and psychological impacts from first contact if the aliens are much, much closer when it occurs. In this case, “closer” would mean literally in orbit around Earth, if not making a landing somewhere on the planet to meet us.
If we cannot see them, they might as well not exist. If communications with an alien civilization takes years for messages to be received, they might as well not exist. All of this is from the perspective of the “mass psyche” of humanity. Though there would be individuals who would be continuously involved with the management of alien communications and impact on society, the world can continue to function - so long as said aliens do not breach our atmosphere.
There’s a term Dr. Schetsche uses when describing what could happen when aliens make first contact in the form of physically coming to Earth. “Asymmetric Cultural Contact” occurs when two different cultures encounter each other for the first time in where one discovers the other. The “discovered,” throughout most of human history, were considered the inferior culture, but not because the “discoverers” were technologically or militarily superior, but simply because they were discovered to begin with. The example given was a significant one: when the Spanish found the Americas. How many Mesoamerican cultures soon collapsed due to the existential shock upon being discovered? Even cultural groups in South America which didn’t face the swords of the conquistadors suffered extensive damage to their collective psyche.
The idea of being “discovered” would apply to the first contact scenario as well. In this case, the aliens arriving here, parking over Earth, would be the “discoverers.” Just by their being physically present so close to Earth - in our galactic house - could trigger incredible loss of life from sudden socioeconomic and religious instability and collapse.
And all of that is before the aliens even step off their ship. They could have the most benign intentions, and yet may wonder why we’ve suddenly started wiping ourselves out.
There are three directions our species could go in order to prevent a disastrous first contact - to reduce the likelihood of humanity suffering from a debilitating existential crisis.
“Protective Isolationism.” In short, invest in ways to literally hide our existence from the universe. This ranges from reducing the amount of omni-directional radio waves our civilization produces to ceasing all SETI activity around the globe.
Preparing and educating the public. The majority of the problems which could arise from an asymmetric first contact scenario stem from our base nature (protecting what’s ours; feeling threatened by the unknown). However, we know a great deal already about human behavioral psychology and how societies can react to external forces. We have thousands of years of history to reflect upon to better understand ourselves. Expanding initiatives towards educating the public regarding what could be out there as well as global efforts to prepare society for emergencies which result from first contact could be possible.
Leave our cradle. First contact with an extraterrestrial, if it occurred today, would trigger an existential crisis. This is, in part, because in the end Earth is the only place in which we live. Humanity has yet to leave the home that birthed us, and that is a problem when you’re being discovered by another species which has mastered interstellar travel. Therefore, to help with reducing asymmetry and improving our mass psychological reaction to the “discoverer,” we must establish permanent human colonies on other planets in our solar system while expanding all that we could do in space.
Taking all that Dr. Schetsche’s prepared in his paper, I felt that the representation of humanity in Eternal Shadow, given the scenario presented there, is realistic. Of course, that’s just my opinion - I cannot wait to hear your thoughts on the alternate Earth I’ve created.