The chances of anything coming from the stars
Are a billion to one, they said.
The chances of anything coming from the stars
but still, they come… (with apologies to Jeff Wayne)
Poncha and Belly sat looking out a vast expanse of ocean from their seat on the upturned hollowed out log – a log that taken Poncha and four of his cousins three months to chip out with clam-shells, and could now transport – when it didn’t tip over, two people and as much as half a man-weight of clams. Well, as long as one of the two men wasn’t as fat as Belly. And it was fast too. Nearly as fast as a man could jog… If the tide was going the right way, and the wind wasn’t against you.
Poncha shook his head. “Nonsense, Belly. I mean even if there really are other tribes out there,” he pointed vaguely at the horizon, “Why would they come here? It would take weeks and weeks of poling, even if it wasn’t too deep. And how would they carry enough food?”
“Maybe they got bigger trees. Maybe they make bigger hollowed out logs,” said Belly.
Poncha sighed. His cousin was fond of imagining impossible doomsday things. Only last week he come up with the crazy idea of someone making a spear that could be thrown more than fifty paces. When Poncha said a spear was just too heavy to throw that far, let alone further, Belly said you could make it smaller and lighter. Ha. As if such a spear would do any harm to anything. “Look, Belly, if they have bigger trees, and can build bigger hollowed out logs – why would they bother to come here? We only got little trees, and with a big hollowed out log they can collect far more clams from the outer banks than anyone could eat. Why come here?”
Belly was silent for a while. The he said: “For our women.”
Pancho rolled his eyes and stood up. Belly was married to his sister. Putting up with Belly’s crazy ideas was a small price to pay for getting her out of the hut. “You should be so lucky. Come on, tide’s coming in and we’ve got to get the log turned over so we can pole her home. She should be dried out by now.”
“It wasn’t my fault we tipped over, Poncha…”
A couple of days ago someone started a facebook thread asking for ideas why Earth would be invaded /attacked by aliens. I mean, even if there were aliens out there it was just so far. And they’d be so advanced if they could traverse vast expanse of
ocean… uh, space, that what did we have that was worth fighting for? Anyway the logistics of a space war and the difficulty and expense of transporting slaves (I mean, why would they want them, they’re so advanced and robots and machines can do everything better, cheaper, and faster…). Raw materials are plentiful and they can collect more clams… uh, raw materials there than here.
It was a well-meant, entertaining and politely conducted discussion. Even if the aliens are coming for our women. Personally I suspect it’s the other way around… (imagine if they got pajama-boy. That might start a war.)
But I kept thinking that Poncha and Belly kind of epitomize my point of view on this: the assumption that what we know, currently, is all there is to know, and the limits we accept as inviolate given our current knowledge, are. The probability that interstellar spaceships will have the same limits as current spaceships, or even reasonably foreseeable human future ships, are slim. Even the wildly imaginative Belly only took it as far as bigger hollowed out logs – because that is his mental frame. The very concept of a clinker built longboat is beyond his ability to think about. We won’t even talk about a supertanker – or discuss what hypersonic travel meant to them: these are concepts beyond their ability to think of. Likewise, we’re probably looking at bigger hollowed out logs, when we talk of spaceships. The limits change.
However: One thing has remained a constant – the speed and volume of transportation has steadily increased. The relative ‘cost’ in time and money to move good and people over a set distance has dropped a long way since Poncha and Belly.
Now, there were some interesting ideas as well as a few politely disdainful sniffs at the idea that Earth would have resources and treasure worth looting. Gold would be plentiful and you could just 3D scan any treasures and by the time you got home it would be sitting manufactured and waiting. Much cheaper than transporting it. The old historical reasons for conquest and colonization would not exist…
Hmm. History is full of these sort of beliefs too. Electricity was going to be too cheap to pay for, etc. etc. History keeps showing us, that contrary to any theories of progress in a linear direction, if it doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. And no matter how ‘cheap’ some things have got – there’s still no such thing as a free lunch. Despite vast advances in manufacturing, automation, and bulk transportation – we’re both better and worse off than our forebears – in one direct sense, the gap between rich and poor- supposed to ‘disappear’ because of abundance and automation – is bigger than it used to be. I’d put serious money on the bet that future abundance won’t change that.
Interstellar wars, alien invasions, are one of the core themes of sf. And plausible and logical reasons (or at least good handwavium) help a writer with that vital suspension of disbelief. (So: when I read of a universe where some do-gooder aliens let humans idly amuse themselves in a utopia – it’s a TBAR (Throw book across room – expensive with a kindle). TANSTFAAL. And interstellar fruit transport takes some swallowing too. But someone skilled could set it up to make sense.)
I suspect history, and historical reasons for these events will prove to still provide models. It’s anything but certain, for example, that just because a species can traverse interstellar space, they’re so civilized as to regard war with horror. See Poul Anderson’s excellent THE HIGH CRUSADE or Cyril M. Kornbluth’s THE MARCHING MORONS – for logical and plausible reasons why automation and advanced technology don’t mean much to the wetware.
The reasons for war – or invasion, are many – and not just for Belly’s wife. Offhand I can think of about 20. Here a few of mine.
- If you’ve come by slowship – and the place is populated, it’s conquer or go on. Go on may not be possible.
- Contrary to popular belief, aliens may not come in peace wishing for a brotherhood of intelligence. They may lack that concept entirely, and regard other species rather like most of us regard roaches
- They may not even recognize us as intelligent life, or even life.
- They may regard us as a plague, a menace to them or just life, or their beliefs.
- They may once have been peaceful intellectual giants – but having built those starships long ago – have lost that.
- They may have stolen, or found starships which – either with slave operators or automated ones.
- War might be their idea of fun or status
- Spatial geo-politics could be a reason to hold and control a system.
- There is gold in seawater. There is gold in Fort Knox. Given the ability to get the gold from either… which is easier?
- ‘No advanced space-travelling species wants slaves. Robots are so much more efficient.’ – except robots are actually relatively expensive. Using humans for jobs where expensive robots might be destroyed has merit if they’re easy to get, and their dying matters not at all to you. They’re self-replicating and collect the materials they need to replicate, quite probably without it you having to pay (or find) them.
- They might want Belly’s wife.