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Encounters of the third kind

Why do we always think that aliens are like us? They could be very different. And harmless too, Pratik Kanjilal explores...

india Updated: Apr 30, 2010 23:31 IST

Do aliens exist? Of course they do. They are in constant contact with Netaji — who also exists, naturally — using the super-secret wide-aperture extra low frequency radio station on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Everyone knows this. And now, in his new Discovery serial, Stephen Hawking agrees that given the age and size of the universe, it would be outrageously inefficient if it had produced only one sentient species — us. But he believes that we should not try to contact aliens because they may not be nice to know. A visit from them could be as unhealthy for us as Columbus’ was for the Native Americans.

Damn, we humans are so anthropomorphic that we cannot conceive of god, devil or alien as anything but humanoid. Every sentient being must be created in our own image. Hawking does not sin greatly, only imputing human motives and behaviour to aliens. He imagines them as futuristic conquistadors venturing out of an overexploited home planet in search of resources, much like the European explorers. But science fiction prefers to depict aliens as unmistakably humanoid. Two arms, two legs and preferably, two expressive eyes like ET’s.

There is a practical reason for this. Film options are worth a lot of money to authors and James Cameron is not going to make a movie about an alien shaped like a hamburger on stilts, no matter how intelligent it is. He probably heaved a sigh of relief when Steven Soderbergh focused on human relationships rather than the sea in Solaris, which he produced in 2002. Andrei Tarkovsky, who directed the iconic 1972 version, also developed the human aspect. But a sentient sea is the central figure in Stanislaw Lem’s novel of 1961, on which these films are based. Solaris broke new ground in speculative science and philosophy, but the bleak, incomprehensible alienness of its alien is hard on movie directors.

Solaris may be read as a remarkably early investigation of ‘swarm intelligence’, an idea which now obsesses network analysts, where a collective like an ants’ nest exhibits intelligent behaviour though its constituent individuals are fairly dumb. But Lem’s general point was that aliens may be so different as to be unrecognisable. They may be based on silicon, which behaves similarly to carbon, on which earth’s life forms are built. They may even be based on thin air and exist only as logic states rather than in corporeal form. Their appearance must be conditioned by their home planet — its gravity, chemistry and temperature. Is that a squashed potato smouldering away in a beer stein? No, it’s a hundred-eyed Aldebaran intelligence officer going to work in his personal teleporter.

This means that even if you believe, based on your experience of humans, that aliens are pathologically aggressive, you may not be able to see the threat coming. And aliens may not be threatening at all. They may be smooth operators who come to sell us cheap bathroom tiles and transistor radios. And anyway, why do we always perceive aliens as omnipotent species capable of overrunning us? Maybe we’ll find them less fortunate than modern humans. Hunter-gatherers clad in grass loincloths, perhaps. There, anthropomorphism strikes! Let’s try again: the underdeveloped aliens we find could be gringbrings clad in dzing-dzoos. Totally incomprehensible, but aliens are like that.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine. The views expressed by the author are personal.