“We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligence greater than man’s…across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.” So began actor Orson Welles’ chilling Mercury Theater radio performance on October 30, 1938 that Martians were invading, leading terrified listeners to believe that Earth was under attack by hostile aliens.
Welles’ chilling performance was a dramatization of the H.G. Wells science-fiction classic, “The War of the Worlds,” and was part of a weekly series of dramatic broadcasts created in collaboration with the Mercury Theatre on the Air for CBS, according to a transcript of the program.
Though the program was peppered with reminders that it was theatrical, many people who tuned in thought that the alien invasion was real, and breathless newspaper headlines later described widespread panic caused by the prospect of an alien invasion.
“Thousands of listeners rushed from their homes in New York and New Jersey, many with towels across their faces to protect themselves from the ‘gas’ which the invader was supposed to be spewing forth,” the Daily News reported the next day.
84 Years Later–China’s foremost philosopher of first contact
So how would today’s far more sophisticated Internet Era human population react to an encounter with a more technologically advanced civilization? ”One such encounter occurred during the 19th century,’ observed Liu Cixin, China’s foremost science fiction author and philosopher of first contact, “when the ‘Middle Kingdom’ of China, around which all of Asia had once revolved, looked out to sea and saw the ships of Europe’s seafaring empires, whose ensuing invasion triggered a loss in status for China comparable to the fall of Rome.”
The “appearance of this Other” might be imminent, warns the author of The Three-Body Problem, and that it might result in our extinction. “Perhaps in ten thousand years, the starry sky that humankind gazes upon will remain empty and silent,” he writes in the postscript to one of his books. “But perhaps tomorrow we’ll wake up and find an alien spaceship the size of the Moon parked in orbit.”
However, no civilization, Liu Cixin told The Atlantic’s Ross Anderson, should ever announce its presence to the cosmos, he says. Any other civilization that learns of its existence will perceive it as a threat to expand—as all civilizations do, eliminating their competitors until they encounter one with superior technology and are themselves eliminated.
This dark cosmic outlook, Liu says, is called “dark-forest theory,” because it conceives of every civilization in the universe as a hunter hiding in a moonless woodland, listening for the first rustlings of a rival.
Liu told Ross that he doubts that China’s new FAST Radio Telescope, now the world’s largest and most sensitive dish, will find one. In a dark-forest cosmos like the one he imagines, no civilization would ever send a beacon unless it were a ‘death monument,’ a powerful broadcast announcing the sender’s impending extinction. If a civilization were about to be invaded by another, or incinerated by a gamma-ray burst, or killed off by some other natural cause, it might use the last of its energy reserves to beam out a dying cry to the most life-friendly planets in its vicinity.”
Arthur C. Clarke Center for the Human Imagination explores alien contact
An amazing podcast from the Arthur C. Clarke Center for the Human Imagination explores ideas of alien contact with Jill Tarter (SETI Institute) and Jeff VanderMeer (bestselling author of the Southern Reach trilogy) discuss the Drake Equation, the faulty math of the film Contact, manifest destiny, whether we’re alone, flawed assumptions about the concept of intelligence, what fiction can do to help us think about the very alien-ness of alien contact, and how it may be happening all around us.
The Daily Galaxy via The Atlantic, China News and Xinhuanet
Image at top of page: ESO Observatories