BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS VIII: THE EERIE SILENCE

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think science fiction and fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the SF/fantasy author, so worth looking for.

The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) is an accessible piece of narrative nonfiction by Arizona State University physicist Paul Davies, and a book that no science fiction author should miss—and I think there’s more than a little to interest fantasists as well.

The Eerie Silence by Paul Davies

The book covers the history and methodology of the serious scientific inquiry that falls under the banner of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). What started out as a sort of crackpot, fringe element among serious astronomers, SETI managed to catch the attention of some serious scientists, while at the same time igniting the imaginations of science fiction authors everywhere. In one famous case, SETI inspired a scientist, Carl Sagan, to become a science fiction author himself, and in his novel Contact (a book that’s referenced more than once in The Eerie Silence), Sagan gave us his take on how the success of the SETI program might shake out.

And Contact is far from the only work of science fiction mentioned in The Eerie Silence. Paul Davies, the director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science is obviously a well-read SF fan as well, and I’m sure fellow fans and authors will find his recognition of the SF genre’s influence on the core ideas behind SETI as refreshing as I did. I’ve heard far too many scientists dismiss SF as impractical (that’s why they call it science fiction, people), and I’m always on the lookout for those astronauts, astronomers, and astrophysicists who got into their profession by way of Star Trek, or Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, or what have you.

I’ll let him tell you himself, from the book’s hopeful final chapter:

“Finally, there is Paul Davies, the human being. One of the things that influenced my choice of carreer was my fascination with the idea that there might be intelligent life out there somewhere. Like all teenagers, I read the flying-saucer stories, and wondered whether there might be something in them. I devoured science fiction by Arthur C. Clarke, Fred Hoyle, Isaac Asimov, and John Wyndham, and pictured a galaxy pulsing with alien activity. I watched Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey and rejoiced in the notion that humanity might have an astronomical dimension, soon to be realized. I know other scientists who followed the same path into their careers.” (page 208)

Oh, man, do I love that. Science fiction inspires real science—never allow anyone to tell you SF is in any way trivial.

The science in The Eerie Silence is communicated in plain English, and anyone with a reasonable background in the basic sciences won’t have too much trouble comprehending it, and for those of you who really haven’t been paying attention, Davies provides ample background on the SETI basics. Science fiction authors will be inspired by the book’s wide open attitude to the serach for extraterrestrial intelligence, which so far has relied on a very narrow definition of “life as we know it.” Davies goes into some detail on the so-called “shadow biosphere,” including mentions of the NASA efforts to identify arsenic-based life in Mono Lake, California—he was just a few months away from the actual discovery, and I finished the book only eight days before NASA’s announcement (on December 2, 2010) that they had indeed identified the first members of the shaodw biosphere on Earth.

This is what I think will be of particular interest for SF authors, the wider range of possible climatic and chemical conditions in which life could evolve and thrive. The book will spark your imagination and help inform your creation of alien life both sentient and primitive.

I was also fascinated with Davies’s stories of being part of a team that has actually developed protocols for first contact. He’s open about this team’s findings and goes out of his way to assure us that there is no government conspiracy, no direction from on high to keep the discovery secret, etc. If anything, that was sort of disappointing, since he seems to be under the impression that the government is entirely uninterested in the prospect and therefore isn’t concerned with trying to control it.

I guess you have to take the good with the bad, and vice versa.

Davies is obviously a pro-SETI voice, hopeful and excited by the prospect of intelligent life in the cosmos, but he’s careful not to be too certain, too strident in his language. He presents cases against, then knocks them down with a mix of fact and theory, while at the same time being mature and balanced enough to reiterate the caveat that the chemistry underlying the development of life seems unremarkable, but so far no one has ever been able to recreate it from scratch in a laboratory. The chemicals may be abundant in the universe, but just putting the chemicals in a bottle together doesn’t seem to be enough.

The discovery of extrasolar planets made the case for SETI a bit stronger—at least we know there are any planets out there at all for E.T. to have evolved on. Extremophiles on Earth widened the range of possible climates. Now there’s the arsenic biosphere to contend with, making it seems as though it’s “easier” for life to appear on a particular planet. All this stuff tends to back up prospects that there is life out there, somewhere, but as the title The Eerie Silence implies—where is everybody and why aren’t they ringing us up?

We’re still confronted with the reality that the nearest star is still unaccessibly far away, any sort of radio conversation between star systems would be painfully, impractically slow (it’ll take 20 years to get a phone to ring on a planet orbiting a star 20 lighty-years away, then another 20 years before you hear E.T. say, “Hello?” and 20 more years, still, before E.T. hears you say, “Hi, E.T., it’s Earth calling”—that’s 60 years, almost a human lifetime) and what if we’re the only sentient species within a thousand light-years that uses radio? How much of our history passed before we even invented radio? What if all the other sentient species in the galaxy are still in what would be our medieval period, or at least just barely pre-Industrial—or what if they’re so far beyond radio that they’re just not sending anything but, oh, say, cable TV, fiber optics—all the stuff we’ve already started using that doesn’t leak signals into space?

It’s enough to make your brain hurt, but Davies helps. There’s more to SETI than sitting on the hood of your car listening for radio signals.

It does seem unlikely that we’ll be getting that “WOW!” signal any time soon. But if we do, Davies discusses what happens when we do make contact. And that’s where I got pretty sad, because I think he’s right about this:

“There is no doubt that an announcement of an intelligently modified object in space would cause a sensation.” He goes on: “But after a while the newsworthiness would begin to fade, and the media would return to their usual fare of politics, sports and celebrity trivia. Life would carry on as before. The vast majority of people would go about their daily affairs with only a residual interest. It would, after all, make no difference to the price of beer or the outcome of the next big game: it would merely be a scientific curiosity.” (pages 178-179)

I can see it now, painful details of Charlie Sheen’s latest erection while “scientists make contact with alien civilization” is relegated to the crawl along the bottom of the screen.

Still, Paul Davies holds out hope that we will find evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life, and even someday find a way to start a conversation with one or more neighbors in the cosmos, but the current reality is way, way less fun and inclusive than, say, Star Wars. But then that’s true of more than just the SETI part of Star Wars, isn’t it?

I guess we’re going to need science fiction for a while longer.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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