How to Use Technology in an Alien Invasion Novel

Technology, especially future technology, is some difficult stuff. When even our modern EMP technology could wipe us out with relative ease, it’s a bit hard to conceptualize what aliens capable of traveling to our planet (traveling capabilities which are far beyond our own) can do. Weapons, transportation, communication, culture – all those things like iPods to microwave ovens to Slinkies… all of it has to exist even if it’s not in your novel. I’d recommend that, unless your aliens are big, bad, one-dimensional monsters (and maybe even then), you flesh out the extra-terrestrial world with a particular eye towards technology. How it’s actually in your story is up to you and who you choose for your audience.


Why First Contact is Bad

You know what would be cool? Being alive when first contact occurs. Certainly the months and years following first contact will be full of wonder and excitement as humanity strives to understand what the existence of extraterrestrial life implies as well as what it means for us. However, while it would be nice I don't believe humanity will be ready for contact with an extraterrestrial species in my lifetime for a number of reasons.


Environmental Artist Misses the Point

…and helps add to the idea that people would be wiped out without technology. This video by Ross Ching (promoted by treehugger.com) shows Los Angeles without cars. He puts quite a bit of effort into it – Photoshopping cars out of video can be as obnoxious as hell, and he got rid of them all with minimal CGI/Sims-ish effects – and also adds some generic Radiohead music to the background, presumably to highlight the beauty of nature without our personal smog machines -- and, you know, us.


Kardashev Terrors

Alright, so today I'm gonna go over one of the most commonly used (and thus misunderstood) measures of extraterrestrial life, the Kardashev scale.

So, what is the Kardashev scale? Basically the Kardashev scale is a system used to measure a civilization's level of technological achievement. The basic (and paraphrased) scale itself is rather simple:

Type 1: A civilization uses all the energy a planet can produce.

Type 2: A civilization uses all the energy a star can produce

Type 3: A civilization uses all the energy a galaxy can produce.

Now, this scale is nice and everything but what about a civilization that's in between 2 stages? Luckily, the late, great Carl Sagan developed a formula for determining a civilization's place on the scale:


In his formula K refers to the level of the civilization, and MW is the civilization's energy usage for interstellar communications measured in megawatts. He then calculated that at the time (1970) we were around a .7 on the scale.

There also exists several hypothetical additional levels to the scale that usually follow the same pattern as the previous three. For example, a Type 4 would be a civilization that uses all the energy its universe can produce. One particularly interesting aspect to a Type 4 civilization is the fact that any action they take would be indistinguishable from nature due to the fact that there would be no “natural world” to compare it to.

Unfortunately the Kardashev Scale has several massive flaws. One of the major ones is the energy issue. Kardashev's scale rewards civilization's not by their knowledge or efficiency, but by their energy usage. What this means is that a civilization with incredibly efficient technology and massive amounts of knowledge will forever be a Type 1 civilization if they make no use of extraterrestrial energy. On the other hand a massively inefficient, Mordor-like civilization will rank higher on the scale as long as they take advantage of several planets.

There are ways around these flaws though. One common way is to use another method alongside the Kardashev Scale to measure a civilization, similar to using several units to measure the size of a car. Common methods include using technological efficiency, information usage, and scarcity measurements alongside the Kardashev Scale to gain a more complete and accurate understanding.

So what does the scale really mean? Well, if we assume that there's at least some basis to it then it can mean a lot of things. If you're an optimist like Mister Michio Kaku then it means we're just a couple hundred years away from reaching Type 1, at which point we'll be forced to really start focusing on space travel if we want to avoid massive problems. If you're a pessimist though it means we don't even have a glimmer of hope against an invading civilization that's even a quarter of the way to Type 2 (every second the sun gives off enough energy to power our civilization for thousands of years).

One thing to consider with the Kardashev scale is what it actually means for the civilization. As a civilization approaches the next level resources will become more scarce. For example, as a civilization's energy consumption approaches the maximum its planet/star/galaxy can provide the cost of the energy it produces will also increase. One similar “real world” example is the use of oil and other fossil fuels here on earth. As new energy is needed (for example, to power automobiles in China, India, and Brazil) the value (prices) of the energy increases.

One of the major implications of this scenario is the possibility for massive political and social upheaval. In fact, one common explanation for the previously addressed Fermi Paradox is that civilizations might have a high possibility causing a Malthusian catastrophe or destroying themselves every time they approach the next major milestone. If this were the case and the probabilities of destruction were reasonably high then the number of civilizations beyond Type 1 would be drastically reduced, even more so for any following levels. 

In other words, don't put money on humanity ever getting to Type 3.

P.S. Is anybody else freaked out by the idea of a Type 4. The implications of one existing kinda scare the crap out of me.

Rusty is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and gets up to all kinds of shenanigans planning for any and all kinds of apocalypse when he's not busy reading, writing, or yo-yoing. Keep up with him and Rachel on Facebook and Twitter to get cool, space related news or click here to read more of his thoughts on the terror of alien invasion novels.


The Human-Alien Spectrum

What happens when aliens aren’t aliens and humans are the ones invading the earth?

Despite what the above might sound like, this is not an anti-anthropocentric rant about people destroying the environment. It is instead a question about the difference between humans and aliens once humans spread out beyond the Earth in a serious sort of manner.


Intergalactic Property Values

A couple posts ago I started going over potential motives for an alien invasion (assuming of course that our future overlords' system of logic is similar to our own). Now that we've gone over the (wrong) idea that aliens would invade us for our resources, lets move into more likely reasons.

They Could Be Seeking to Colonize Planets Suitable to Their Species

Now, I know this seems to conflict with the Principle of Mediocrity. For those of you who don't want to read the link, basically the Principle of Mediocrity (similar to the Copernican Principle) is the assumption that the characteristics that allow life to exist on earth aren't all that rare and that we (as a planet) hold no special place in the universe. So, if we hold the principle to be true its quite likely there are may planets out there that are fairly similar to earth.

It is important to remember though that the Principle of Mediocrity doesn't mean there are earth-like planets all over the place throughout the universe. In fact its possible (though debatable) that there are only a couple earth-like planet in our little (though still massive) section of the galaxy, thus any traveling civilization looking for a new home in our area would be more likely to choose us.

Like usual though, there are a couple assumptions we need to make:

  1. If an alien civilization is interested in colonizing and living on our planet they must have evolved to live in a similar environment.
  2. Said Alien civilization must either be unable to terraform or limited in their ability to easily do so.

These assumptions are important for a couple of reasons. The first one is just basic logic. If an alien civilization wants to colonize the earth and live here for an extended period of time then its necessary that the earth is at least slightly more similar to their original planet than any other planet they are capable of reaching. After all, if they can reach a planet they're more comfortable living on then they would logically choose to colonize that planet rather than ours (unless the planets better suited than earth are also better defended).

The second assumption covers one of the major holes left by the first one. If a civilization is capable of easily terraforming a planet to their needs, then it doesn't really make sense for them to travel the massive distances of space in order to reach our planet (unless of course the distance means nothing to them, though at that point we're screwed anyway).

There are a couple of different outcomes (some of them contradictory) that can arise if these assumptions are valid depending on what other assumptions are made. For example if life in the universe is more common on earth-like planets it means our intergalactic property values (and our odds of being invaded) go up quite a bit. On the other hand if life on earth-like planets isn't exactly the norm then while our property values might decrease our odds of survival increase.

I guess that means you get to take your pick, though I for one wouldn't mind the lower property values.

Rusty is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and gets up to all kinds of shenanigans planning for any and all kinds of apocalypse when he's not busy reading, writing, or yo-yoing. Keep up with him and Rachel on Facebook and Twitter to get cool, space related news or click here to read more of his thoughts on the terror of alien invasion novels.


Superman is an Alien: When Aliens and Their Invasions Aren’t Really ‘Aliens’ or ‘Invasions’

We all know that Superman is a alien. He’s practically unstoppable (unless you happen to be the right sort of alien organism, a mythical being, or Batman), he’s the son of a guy who – depending on your source – has relative degrees of ‘overlord’ in his messages to Kal-El about improving the world and he is not opposed to using his superpowers against humans. Then there’s the Martian Manhunter, a lone survivor of an alien invasion himself, and Darkseid, who really seems to be the most likely candidate for aggressively invading Earth; luckily, he is usually content shooting his omega beams around and mind-fucking Superman. I don’t even want to start on what Granny Goodness is.

But it’s not just superheroes and the complementing villains that slip under the ‘oh, my god – these are aliens’ radar. In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, we are certainly aware that Aunt Beast and her fellow fuzzy tree people are aliens. The trio of Mrs.s occasionally ping off of our alien filter, too, but since they’re usually described as stars or shape-changing aliens, they’re not alien aliens. But the Medium? The people on that anal-retentive planet? The man with the glowing red eyes and that creepy-as-fuck brain?


There are even roving bands of atmospheric, corruptive aliens that make people evil.

But aliens and their invasions aren’t the central issue in the novel, despite the fact that the dark cloud is clearly invading and Margaret’s dad was fighting that off before being imprisoned. Bizarre science, free will, love and coming-of-age are the matters at hand. So, for an alien invasion novel to be an alien invasion novel, certain things appear to be necessary besides the seemingly sufficient requirement of aliens invading.

  1. The invasion must be the main problem. Or at least the source of the main problem. That last clause allows for more than just a War of the Worlds scenario. The conflicts that could be at hand aren’t simply the ‘fight off the alien hordes’ variety, but post-apocalyptic survival, rebuilding the world, and maybe even cloning their technology and launching a counter0attack. Or, more optimistically and pre-invasion, trying to communicate with aliens and organizing diplomatic/political efforts.

  1. Aliens taking over the world must actually be a problem, a conflict. There are not too many examples of this, because there is no plot possible aliens encounter no struggles taking over the world. This sort of scenario would occur if there was absolutely no way to fight back – imagine the first few chapters of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, just without Ford or Arthur or any sort of explanation at all. While I’m sure the whole thing was problematic to the billions of humans (let alone the other species), it’s not a problem. It’s an event. There’s no build-up, struggle, or even much in the way of a response: the end of the world just happens. Another example would be if we all accept the aliens as our masters without a hitch. Considering we can’t even accept ourselves as equals, this is a bit outside the realm of possibility. Even if this were practically possible, and it’s fairly emphatically not, it could never be a focus of a story. It’s brogan. We all like our stories full of conflict (a singularly crucial element of a plotline), and most readers like a healthy chuck of tension rather more than to have heroes be blessed-out or accepting doormats. Acceptance and pacifist surrender does not gritty alien invasion literature make.

  1. Humans have to have a shot. This is vaguely related to the point above, particularly with regards to the Vogon example. If humans are simply crushed or left with nothing to fight for, we the readers have got nothing. I’m not saying that people should have a shot at success: chances are that we won’t. But a chance at some scant survival, event he delusional belief in such a chance, makes characters act, have a plan, or otherwise entertain us.

Sadly, aliens invading aren’t enough in the genre-busting literary world. The alien invasions have to be important, but still unrealistic enough for us to maybe, in some small way, survive.

And by survive I don’t mean have caped aliens or star-centaur witch angels fighting on our behalf. That’s not quite it, either.

Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.