Will Vigilance Matter?

I’m a little late to the hit sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem. I’d heard of it years ago, but before I recently started reading the book I didn’t realize Barrack Obama had given it a thumbs up, or that Amazon had planned to spend a fortune to bring what has become a trilogy to the streaming network.

Without getting into plot details or spoiler territory, I will say that at least the initial book in the series is a first contact story — as in, humankind’s first contact with aliens. I’m not well read enough to make comparisons in the genre, but I’ll assume others have covered this concept more eloquently. Still, there’s plenty to like about what author Liu Cixin has done, mainly in how he grounds the story.

That story is built on several pillars, in no particular order of importance. One is contemporary history, and specifically the era covering the height of China’s Cultural Revolution to present day. Another is the environmental movement, especially as it was inspired and directed by the publication of Silent Spring.

A third is mathematics. Not just the three-body problem of the title, though that’s essential, but also the value of the mathematical outlook and the role of math pioneers throughout history.

A fourth pillar is the nature of computing, and that field’s relationship to math and physics. There are plenty of mind-warping passages throughout that gave me a re-invigorated (and still highly ignorant) appreciation of the characteristics and scale of space, time, and information.

A final pillar is the scientific mindset, and the wonders of the world that queries guided by that mindset have revealed to us. Liu’s appreciation for this mindset is woven throughout The Three-Body Problem. But he saved his most forceful opinions on the value of science for the epilogue.

Liu might be right, that creation myths pale in comparison to the big bang. But that’s missing the magic a bit: those myths and epics he derides, and his derision itself, are all products of that same story-telling machine, our imaginations. Those imaginations are just as much a natural product of the big bang as any star, galaxy, element, or animal. What’s more, science — applied to the very minds that have made scientific discoveries and written epics — has revealed far less about those minds than it has about stars.

We could follow that thread a lot further, but let’s just thank Liu for it, and move on to how his emphasis on, and this specific praise for, science puts his novel in a different light. Yes, while his dreamed-up version of an alien civilization is creative, it is deeply rooted in details of math and physics. That fact, combined with his preference for “reality” over imagination, makes clear that for Liu first contact isn’t just a mental exercise or a math problem, it is a real possibility. At any time.

Which brings us to this:

Liu has good reason to admonish us for so easily hating one another. We’re cruel. And he also has good reason to (rather gently) condemn how we’re so willing to believe the best about any possible alien invasion, Independence Day and its ilk aside.

Notably, while tales of alien abductions, UFO conspiracy theories, and salvation coming from the heavens have long lived on the fringe, there’s now a case to be made that belief in aliens could be our next religion, thanks mainly to that belief catching on among those in power. As Claire Coffey notes in her review of D.W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic: UFOs Religion, and Technology, “To decent Romans, Christianity was a weird and possibly sorcerous cult practiced by rednecks and illiterates — until suddenly it was the force behind the empire.”

I don’t find this take that convincing, as both “those in power” and the focus of their beliefs remain elusive. But it’s not as though only citizens of the fringe are looking to the skies. Have you seen the March cover of National Geographic?

It’s a powerful front page. And yet for me Liu’s passage above more forcefully brings this possibility of alien life from the realm of storytelling to the realm of — this could happen. At any moment.

Clearly many people can imagine first contact happening. And they, like Liu, recognize that an alien encounter would blow the lid off of our history, philosophy, religion, etc. But most scientists who believe there must be other life in the universe still seek proof, like doubting Thomases, making this possibility of an encounter feel like something always just out there over the time horizon.

To me, the tack Liu takes in the epilogue ups the likelihood of a first contact. Why? Because it’s a warning.

An encounter with an alien intelligence would be a paradigm shift in our understanding of nature, the world, and our place in it. The wishful thinking Liu calls us out on is one way of dealing with that. Liu’s warning is another. It’s possible we all die before either coping mechanism is put to the test. Or both could be tested any minute now.

There’s one other possibility, of course. That we’ve already encountered aliens and just don’t know it.

As Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the SETI Institute, puts it: “The click beetles in my backyard don’t notice that they’re surrounded by intelligent beings — namely my neighbors and me. But we’re here, nonetheless.”