First Contact: a retrospective

For a couple of days after the announcement on December 14th of last year, everybody ran around screaming.

The sky is falling. The sky is opening. The sky is populated. The universe as we know it is not vacant, standing empty, potentially ours. There are other people out there with their own potential claims. Other eyes looking in our direction, thinking other thoughts. Fantastic! Company! Fellowship! We can communicate with them! Share ideas! Maybe we will be as significant a discovery for them as they are for us! Humanity had lost its virginity. Science fiction became the new Bible. It seemed like the whole point of ever writing science fiction had been as a single gigantic long-term investment plan for this single moment of payoff, when the whole thing abruptly came absolutely true. Star Trek and Star Wars and Stargate, Contact and Close Encounters and Independence Day.

Great.

Then the news sank in properly.

We got one signal. There was no doubt about its origin point, its coherence, and the fact that other minds than ours had put it together. It was not a hoax. It was a proper alien message. When we pulled it apart we even got a small amount of meaning out of it. Lucky us. But were there answers in that message? Were there secrets? Instructions? No. Atomic numbers. We focused every form of detection device we could muster on that star. Have we found other messages? Additional evidence of that race's existence? Messages from other stars? Planets orbiting that star, even? No. We found NOTHING.

They are tens of thousands of light years from us, which means millennia have passed since the message was sent. In that time, they have not come to us. They have not, as far as we can detect, reached other nearby stars. They have not sent follow-up messages. They have not made their existence known in any way. Which means they are still stuck on their homeworld - if, indeed, they are still alive, and didn't just evolve and live and transmit and die in that single star system, which seems rather more likely. It means that they never figured out FTL despite having centuries longer than us to discover it, which means that FTL is very likely completely impossible in our physical universe. It means they died alone and unheard. It means that right now, we are still alone.

And so we came to our senses. This didn't affect us. Here on the ground, stuck to planet Earth, the faraway existence of a radio-capable alien civilisation - well, let's be pragmatic, the successful one-time operation of a single alien radio transmitter - has no bearing. None at all. Tensions in the Middle East are not alleviated as a result of knowing that we are not alone in the universe. Gas prices have not fallen. Global CO2 output has not abated. God's existence has not been proven or disproven. We have not realised how petty our troubles are, magnanimously put aside our differences, agreed to disagree, united as a species and started climbing towards the stars.

Because goings-on in heaven do not affect us. And all the evidence suggests even more strongly than before that we are, now and forever, stuck on this dumb little rock. So why bother?

At the turn of the 2000s there was hoohah about the Millennium Bug. So much build-up. Aeroplanes would drop out of the sky and nuclear reactors would explode and missiles would launch unbidden. But we saw it coming, fixed the whole thing way in advance, and the digit rollover went down without a hitch. And the same thing has happened again. We were ready for aliens. We've been waiting for so long, those of us who ever remotely cared, that we've already explored all the possible consequences of alien contact, the philosophical ramifications, the scientific implications. We explored them from every angle from the preposterously Americanised gung-ho Hollywood angle to the lovey-dovey Stephen Spielberg angle to the hardest and most practical scientific angles there are. In this sense, first contact has already happened for us. Thousands of times over, with every conceivable consequence. And so this, the reality of the matter... could never have proven to be anything other than anticlimactic.

We found a signal. Then, nothing happened. It threw us. No story. No human interest angle. No deeper implications for the man in the street. One week later, somebody famous did something outrageous and the headlines changed again. And the defining moment in human history was over, and the Common Era continued.

We will never find other aliens. We will never see flying saucers and we will never go to other worlds and be those flying saucers.

All we have left is science fiction.

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Discussion (6)

2014-03-03 03:32:06 by William Brennan:

You don't need FTL to go to other stars. 10% of c, w/acel-decel time, is currently close to attainable (in theory) with a Project Orion design, gets you to A. Centauri in 100 years at most. Generational ship or hibernation would work.

2014-10-08 02:30:10 by DanielLC:

This was the first signal. It will take time for them to send more and build Dyson spheres and travel to other stars. If the signal was sent via. a slower-than-light method, like if we got the alien equivalent of Voyager 1, that would be a different story. All they learned was no FTL, which they had a lot of reason to believe anyway.

2014-11-02 01:31:26 by Isaac Solum:

Still one of my favorite short stories after all this time.

2014-11-26 06:49:17 by 28chaos:

I like this, but I was expecting humanity to decide to end its SETI programs at the end of the story, which would have had some poetic irony, somewhat similar to what happened in your Playing God is A Big Responsibility story.

2014-12-04 04:30:21 by Bacchus:

This doesn't mean there's no FTL either; just as likely is that WW3 broke out and set the aliens back by 50.000 years or by \infty. Not sure if I prefer this scenario or Daniel's.

In either case the Long Now Foundation now has its work cut out for itself: Set up a continuous reply for the next 100k years, consisting of a live stream of the news. (Plus maybe current journal articles, patents, books, music, games, ...). Ask for a reply in kind.

2015-09-02 18:41:26 by Richard:

Ah, it seems like the speed of light is the invariably cock blocking barrier preventing us from practical one-lifetime travel.

This discussion is closed.