3.31.2012

Is Intelligence Necessary?


If asked whether you would rather be a human being or part of a layer of vegetative slime, even cool extraterrestrial slime, chances are good that you’d rather be the life form with the brain. And there’s a reason for that: humans think, feel emotions, communicate, and form social connections, and we’ve become rather attached to doing so. Even the willingness to decide between being human and being unicellular indicates that you’re not quite ready for a prokaryotic state.

But as much as we might value our ability to think, there’s not much of a good biological reason for it. In fact, until we manage consistent space travel and stable colonies throughout the galaxy, our intelligence is more of a liability than anything else.

Why might intelligence be a liability?


Because it makes us fragile, on a species level. Humans and mammals in general – all complex life, really, but humans and other mammals especially – require a tremendous amount of energy in order to survive. Our size, complex organ systems, and brain all contribute to a fairly high metabolism. Starting millions of years ago, this high energy usage meant we ate a lot and so had to search further, or with greater difficulty, for food sources, which in turn necessitated more energy input. If there is no way for energy input to reliably keep happening…some fairly awful shenanigans began to happen -- we fight off competition in order to dominate all possible resources, and things go wrong from there. Plants choke out weaker plants, wolves chase other predators away from their territory when they can, and humans wage war.

 If we had stayed photo- or chemo-receptive sludge, we wouldn’t have had these kinds of problems.

There’s also an enormous amount of fragility to keep in mind when you’re towards the top of the food web because there’s so much reliance on others to produce and act as our food. There’s the old truism that if you take a simpler life-form out of the food chain, the majority of what is above it will die out, but if you remove humans all other life will flourish. While this is primarily an environmentalist thing, the panic over the disappearing bees in the past several years has given the sentiment quite a bit of validity: without honeybees, we directly lose large percentages of fruit. Less directly, we start to lose everything that lost the fruit.

Why ask if intelligence is necessary?


This whole thing started with an article about the likelihood of intelligent life in the universe. The article said 'probably not' – that intelligence is potentially just an evolutionary fluke. And this, also potentially, makes a great deal of sense.

Advanced intelligent life spends a lot of time and effort on things that don’t really propagate life or the species as a whole – like thinking about alien invasion novels, for one – and must consume a large amount of resources to stay alive, resources we’re lucky enough to have.

That sludge that none of us wanted to be, however, stands a really good chance of never facing even the possibility of extinction until the Sun consumes the planet. And a several billion years stretch isn’t too shabby. Prokaryotes are fairly stationary, require low amounts of energy, can essentially create their own food, and reproduce far more prodigiously than anything that has separate cells solely devoted to reproduction can – especially in comparison to complex and intelligent animals like mammals, who have pregnancy measured in terms of weeks and months. The only risk they face is the fairly immutable threat of aging stars, another dinosaur killer (and even that might not be enough), or similar events on an astronomical scale.

Stephen Hawking, who I’ve mentioned in a few posts because he repeatedly says contacting intelligent extra-terrestrials is a fucking bad idea (which it almost certainly is), also has something to say about the likelihood of intelligent extra-terrestrial life altogether. Maybe intelligence is just an accident, and organisms on other planets kept it basic. Or, he says, even if you choose to think that some form of intelligence is a universal thing in evolution, intelligent life could still be really rare. The universe is nearly 14 billion years old, and it took us 2.5 billion years for Earth’s life to get where it is now.

And ‘now’ for us, despite quite a bit of intelligence and diversity of life, means sporadic forays into the most local bit of space, as well as sending signals out into the galaxy when we know that they easily break down, fade, or don’t have much of a change of reaching life, let alone life that can catch and understand it.

So maybe the ‘now’ for other worlds is the evolving of complex but not yet intelligent life, unchanging prokaryotic status, or absolutely nothing at all. Or they acting out the constantly creepifying Zoo Hypothesis.

This easily digresses into multiple potential responses to the Fermi Paradox, but the central question is still: is intelligence necessary?


The answer, for he next several billion years, might be ‘not really.’ So far, intelligence has promoted individual (and societal, for a lucky few) longevity, especially in the last several hundred years. But conflicts due to limited resources and a bunch of issues only things that think, communicate, and have social formations can create have put the potential whole of our advanced human species at risk again and again. If overpopulation goes all Malthusian on us, it might have been wiser to stay unicellular.

Until the Sun effectively eats the planet, that is.

The point of all this isn’t to say that intelligence isn’t awesome. It just might be a random evolutionary trend that doesn’t contribute much to the propagation of any given species.

Of course, I’m firmly on the ‘let’s not be sludge’ side of things; I like to think that intelligence is necessary, vital, self-propagating, and all sorts of positive adjectives. We just need to set up a wide array of space colonies to prove it.

If you have an opinion, argument, and or anything you'd like to say about intelligent alien life or evolution, feel free to use your evolutionary prerogative: leave a comment below!


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.

3.26.2012

Review: The Thought War



The Thought War. Paul McAuley, Short Story.

This world can be ours again. It has been many years since the war, and its old beauty is returning. Now that civilization has become shattered, it has become like Eden again. Tell me: is a world as wild and clean and beautiful as this not worth saving? Was the sky never so green, or the grass never so blue?

Background

Paul McAuley is a sci-fi author who can write about anything. Nanotechnology, alternative history, artificial intelligence, dystopian futures, and Doctor Who (seriously). McAuley has written several series of novels and many short stories covering just about every type of sci-fi idea imaginable. Furthermore, McAuley tends to be very good at giving just enough information for the reader to think they have it all figured out before a reveal that turns everything on its head and leaves the reader pondering for days.

The Thought War – not to be confused with The Quiet War from the same author – is a great example of how McAuley takes a common idea – extraterrestrials – to the next level by making the invaders dimensional travelers. The Thought War seems to draw some of its ideas from the Copenhagen Interpretation, a common quantum mechanics theory that states observing something that does not have a 100% probability of occurring instantly and automatically causes one of the probable options to occur. Thus The Thought War places a great deal of imphasis on the value of observers, something vaguely reminiscent of the famous anime Noein.

Premise

The story starts off with the reader being told to listen to the tale of an ex-science journalist as he recounts the first encounter with the extra-dimensional travelers. Later dubbed 'Zombies' because of their strange, fake-human appearance these travelers quickly begin to overtake the planet, not through any violent means but simply through sheer population growth and tenacity. As the story continues we learn that the reader is sharing the perspective of a human that has been captured by the journalist, gagged and bound and hooked up to machines for an as-of-yet unknown reason.

What makes this story truly memorable is threat that the invaders present. They don't appear to be openly hostile, nor do they seem to actively attempt to harm humans. Rather, the aliens slowly adapt to their new environment becoming more and more human-like. However, that's not to say the invaders do nothing. By acting as opposing observers to humanity, the aliens slowly but surely begin to rewrite the fundamental physical laws of the universe. In this way McAuley gives a truly terrifying enemy, one that becomes less clearly defined yet more powerful as the was wages.


Who Should Read This Story

The Thought War is worth a read if you're:
Looking for a thought provoking short story
A fan of the invasion stories
A fan of Paul McAuley
Somebody tired of the normal, “Aliens invade and we fight back” plot
Looking for a western (and darker) take on the Noein plot

Final Verdict

Everything considered, The Thought War is a nice little story that does exactly what a short story should do, take a short time to read and a long time to think about. Its also a good way to get your feet wet if your trying to make the jump to “hard” sci-fi and a great way to introduce yourself to Paul McAuley. Definitely worth the read. To get it click here and order it from amazon as part of a collection of extraterrestrial themed short stories (including two other short stories I've reviewed, The Road Not Taken, and The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything.



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.

3.25.2012

Review: Micromegas


Micromegas. Voltaire, 1752. Short story.


“But there was, unfortunately, a little animalcule in a square hat who interrupted all the other animalcule philosophers. He said that he knew the secret: that everything would be found in the Summa of Saint Thomas. He looked the two celestial inhabitants up and down. He argued that their people, their worlds, their suns, their stars, had all been made uniquely for mankind. At this speech, our two voyagers nearly fell over with that inextinguishable laughter which, according to Homer, is shared with the gods. Their shoulders and their stomachs heaved up and down, and in these convulsions the vessel that the Sirian had on his nail fell into one of the Saturnian's trouser pockets.” 


Background of Micromegas

This one is the first. It’s the first short story about aliens, the first short story questioning the position of humans in the universe relative to extra-terrestrials, and the first to suggest that aliens might be our equals, even our superiors. It’s also, being 260 years old, one of the first science fiction texts out there.


This is aliens-come-to-earth, sci-fi Patient Zero right here, and it certainly didn’t keep its ideas to itself.


Since it’s one of the founding science fiction works, you can see quite a few quintessential elements throughout it: aliens think a bit differently than we do (though anthropomorphism is a bit rampant), Voltaire uses the aliens to make a point about human civilization, and it raises questions about why we matter, philosophy in general, and what else is out there.


Plus, it’s Voltaire. He unashamedly pokes at war, religion, romance, and arrogance, and has quite a bit of fun doing so.

Premise of Micromegas

The story begins with the introduction of Micromegas, a 120,000 feet tall alien from some unnamed planet around the star Sirius, and a much shorter (6,000 feet tall) and less sensorially advanced (at 72 senses, as opposed to Micromegas’s almost 1,000 senses) Saturnian. They come to Earth and, due to their rather unimaginably huge size compared to our typical height, at first believe the planet is uninhabited.


Soon, however, they see a whale and believe it to the top, if not only, form of life on Earth. But then they come across a boat of explorers in the Baltic Sea and spend a while discussing philosophical and scientific differences with the humans.


Voltaire being Voltaire, he primarily focuses on the stupidity of war. He prefaces it by wowing the aliens with our practical science, which wasn’t too shabby in the 18th century, but then turns to our penchant for fighting and the dozens of conflicting philosophies about meaningful existence. This contrast confuses the aliens quite a bit – they know we’re intelligent but can’t figure out why we’re also so stupid – and then leave, presumably to continue exploring the universe.


The story is short (half an hour, tops), to the point, and spotted with quite a few digs at established authorities. It also uses a few conventions that writers today can’t, like unabashed anthropomorphism, unexplained alien powers, and humans rationally accepting the existence of aliens and talking politics with them while being trapped on a fingernail at least 60,000 feet above the ground, but it’s the first alien, fictional anything: we’ve got to give a little leeway.

Who Should Read This Story?

Everyone. Seriously. Not only is Micromegas ground-breaking alien fiction and a short glance into the 18th century and Voltaire’s philosophy, it’s free. More specifically, I suppose, I’d recommend this short story to anyone interested in the intersection of extra-terrestrials and philosophy, as well as anyone looking for Voltairian political snark.

Final Verdict on Micromegas

While Micromegas probably isn’t the kind of short story you’d want to curl up with and reread on a rainy after noon, it’s definitely worth your time. I really like the implications Voltaire raises, as well as the opportunity to examine them without a war-torn or potentially explosive backdrop. There are also quite a few good one-liners about whales, hats, and self-importance.


The short story is free (and in English) here, courtesy of ReadBookOnline.com. Also, LibraVox has a free recording of it here alongside of a few other science fiction short stories.


If you liked this post or want Micromegas to garner a bit more attention and readers, please recommend us to StumbleUpon – all it takes is a click!


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.

3.18.2012

Predation, Part I



"Only sophisticated predators like rats, cats, mongoose, and humans that colonize island biotas whose members had no previous evolutionary experience with enemies of comparably high performance are capable of wiping out entire prey species." - Geerat J. Vermeij, Department of Geology, University of California at Davis



In Jurassic Park III, the big (and, let’s face it, only) ‘oh, shit’ moment is during Dr. Grant’s presentation: velociraptors are sophisticated, communicative, and intelligent predators – if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out, we humans would either have had to share our top position on the planet, or end up in second place altogether. And that’s assuming that the raptors would have left any of our predecessors alive long enough to evolve.

How to Survive Seeing Aliens from a Non-Anthropomorphic Point of View



Aliens aren’t little green men.

They don’t maneuver flying saucers around the Bermuda Triangle and the New Mexico desert, and I seriously doubt they have an over-abundant interest in our cows; they especially don’t look like Keanu Reeves with even less of a facial expression than usual.

Well, that’s not entirely true – maybe they are, maybe they do, and maybe they are preoccupied in such a way. But these cultural representations of aliens are so like us except for a few superficial and pointless differences that it just doesn’t seem right. Our ideas of aliens are completely anthropocentric, based on some sort of integral precept that aliens anywhere near our intellectual equals must have evolved like us.

3.17.2012

Review: The Road Not Taken


The Road Not Taken. Harry Turtledove,  1985. Short Story.

"How is it they have all these machines and we don't, or any race we know of?"

Ransisc's nose twitched in disagreement. "I asked one of their savants the same question. He gave me back a poem by a human named Hail or Snow or something of that sort. It was about someone who stood at a fork in the road and ended up taking the less-used track. That's what the humans did. Most races find the hyperdrive and go traveling. The humans never did, and so their search for knowledge went in a different direction."



Background

Turtledove is an interesting author. While his works usually aren't considered spectacularly well written - with believable situations, well explored characters, and complicated syntactical structure – he is a master of speculative fiction, particularly alternative history.

The Road Not Taken is one of the best examples I've seen of mixing the extraterrestrial genre with alternative history and is something I would definitely love to see more authors play with. The idea that most intelligent civilizations are relatively similar (at least mentally) with one another has been done dozens of times. However, the differences between how scientific discoveries are made is a much rarer – and in my opinion more interesting – idea. The whole premise gives off a sort of Sid Meier's Civilization IV vibe.

Premise

The story starts off aboard a seasoned extraterrestrial warship as it continues its voyage toward a soon-to-be conquered planet. During the journey the warship's crew, the Roxolani spot Earth and become determined to conquer it on their way to the primary target. Sensing no gravity manipulation on 2039 Earth the Roxolani conclude that Earth is a primitive and poorly defended planet ripe for conquering.

What makes this story truly memorable is the way Turtledove mixes alternative history into the plot. In essence the key difference between the Roxolani and the Earthlings is the route their technology took. The Earthlings took the fairly standard route we all know and love; Iron Age, Middle Ages, The Age of Sails, Industrial Revolution etc. The Roxolani on the other hand shared a similar history with us until the Age of Sails when they discovered gravity manipulation of all things. This discovery led to the field of gravity manipulation to be the only field of study, to the exclusion of all others. Thus the Roxolani easily developed spacecraft and faster-than-light travel and quickly set to work conquering the galaxy.

The only serious flaw in this story is the issue of the suspension of disbelief. Some people think it strange that a civilization could develop gravity manipulation before certain advances; data processing, aerodynamics and telecommunication for example. While Turtledove does have a habit of basically telling the reader what happened, then asking them not to question the details he's easily forgiven because of his wonderfully imaginative ideas an logical thought processes following the initial point of divergence.

Who Should Read This Story

Anyway I recommend this story if you're:
Looking for a thought provoking short story
A fan of the Alternative History genre
A fan of Harry Turtledove
A regular reader of extraterrestrial works looking to start reading Alternative History

Final Verdict

All-in-all The Road Not Taken is an intriguing story that does an excellent job combining two of my favorite genres into a pleasant light read. Definitely worth the read. To read it click here and order it from amazon as part of a collection of extraterrestrial themed short stories (including one of my personal favorites The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything).

And of course, if you've read this story please give us your opinions on it by leaving a comment.


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.

3.13.2012

What if the Zoo Hypothesis Was Real?



If our eventual destruction/enslavement at the hands of imperialistic aliens is the worst possible answer to the Fermi Paradox, the Zoo Hypothesis is the most horrifying. Horror movies capitalize on the suspense in the feeling of being watched, and very little can make you feel as vulnerable or panicky as the creepifying feeling that there’s someone right behind you, watching your every move.