Wishful Thinking

Have you ever started thinking about a fantastic thing/superpower/event, and then thought, “I wish I could have that as my one wish from a genie?”

Of course, when I think this, my mind immediately goes to all the ways said genie would distort the way I asked, inevitably turning the wish into something else, and likely into something that goes horribly wrong for me and everyone around me. You know the old story.

Maybe it’s a writer thing. It really hits on that deep-seated anxiety of wanting your words to be interpreted the way you intended. I think I first picked that up in an English Lit class, somewhere about the time when everyone was proposing various ways to interpret some piece of prose, and something inside me started screaming, “Why don’t you all just ask the author?! Who cares if the author is dead? If only I had the power to…” You get the idea.

I digress. Needless to say, I go through this exercise more often than I like to admit, but sometimes it leads to an interesting thought experiment.

How do I word this wish to get exactly what I want, and not some horrible interpretation?

There was an episode of the X-Files (now that I look it up, Je Souhaite Season 7, Episode 21 – Here it is on Hulu) where Mulder comes into possession of a genie and goes through the usual routine. This genie is a bit mocking of the typical human response, e.g. It’s all about me, and when it comes down to the last wish Mulder takes the hint and sits down to really think it through. He starts writing up the wish as though he were a lawyer trying to close all the loopholes and make the wish airtight.

Yeah that…

SO where am I going with this? I had one of these the other night and it ended with a really good story premise. At least I think so.

So what if you were given access to the sum total knowledge of a dead alien race? 

I know, I know, this one’s tricky if coming from a genie. First off, they’re aliens, right? What’s to say their knowledge has any relevance to us? They could be a dead race of amoeba who’s knowledge was how to catch other single celled organisms with their pseudopods. So two misconceptions there.

  1. It has to be an advanced race with at least 1000 years of technological advancement beyond the current humans state.
  2. The race has to be biologically similar enough to humans for their technology to be useful to us.

We’re off to a start now. Next problem, how did they die? Here’s where it gets interesting. What if their level of advancement was a key contributor to said death? Ideally the sum total of their knowledge would include any last minute revelations about where they went wrong, so I should be ok there. In fact we’d be better off since now humanity can dodge that bullet.

Or can we? What if the knowledge will inevitably lead us to bump into some other not-so-friendly race? For example the old Star Trek scenario, the disturbance in space caused by faster than light travel catches the attention of the Vulcans. Only in this case the Vulcans are a billion year old super race who instantly take out any one who goes beyond their own system. Try to tell that to humanity. “Hey folks. Guess what? Here’s the key to interstellar travel and exploration of the universe, but if you use it even once we’re all toast.”

Would there be someone wise enough to not use this knowledge? Or better yet, if that person was discovered, how could they work their way, and humanity’s way, out of the mess? That person would need a perspective outside the norm. Perhaps it could be someone who knows what it means to be happy while living simply.

The whole question about alien races is an interesting one too. Famous scientists are quoted in confusion as to where all the aliens are. Two important names in this area are Drake and Fermi.

The first is Frank Drake who’s famous equation guestimated how many extraterrestrial races must exist in the galaxy:

The Drake equation (from Wikipedia) is:

N = R_{\ast} \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_{\ell} \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot L

where:
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which radio-communication might be possible (i.e. which are on our current past light cone);

and

R* = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space

This equation has been much debated, but most estimates conclude at a least some civilizations should be detectable.

The second name is Enrico Fermi who’s name is attached to the famous question, “Where are they?” As in, where are all the aliens? The formal version of this question is the “Fermi Paradox.”

One hypothesis, like my premise to this story, is that the aliens have all been wiped out by an interstellar super race. Some even ask whether this is inevitable. Look at humans. We wipe out non-human civilizations all the time, especially if they encroach on our space or pose the slightest nuisance. They’re called bugs. Whole species we don’t even know about are likely being wiped off the Earth as we clear wilderness for human habitation and enterprise.

But then there are other lessons to be learned from humanity. We’re not blind to the damage we do. Many may deny it, others may brush it off as the price of progress, but we recognize it. And we’re not unified in our opinions about what to do about it. My super race may be the same.

What if their reason for wiping out fledgling civilizations is environmental? What if the energy used for the most common methods of interstellar travel are dangerous to the universe? What if warping space-time causes tears? What if the relationship is more akin to what the USA and Europe do now to developing economies? We went through the industrial revolution powered by coal and oil. We see the damage we did, and now try to hold back others from making the same mistakes. What if the environmentally sustainable methods of interstellar travel require much more energy and technology we won’t achieve for millennia? If the super-race came to us with this technology and an ultimatum, “Do it the hard way, and pay us for the tech to do it right, or else.”

Fermi is an interesting name in other regards. He worked famously on the Manhattan Project, building the first atomic bomb. His daughter Nella, herself an accomplished scientist, recalled in a LA Times article that “She shared with her father the conviction that the bomb was an inevitable outcome of learning about the atom.” If such a horror is inevitable with the advancement of science into the mastery of the atom, what awaits us as we master the the fundamental forces that bind together the universe?

My characters are coming into focus. Now I have to name the main character Nella.