It’s No Fun, Being a Star’s Reach Alien
Star’s Reach Spoiler
I’m going to offer fair warning that this is a major spoiler of John Michael Greer’s very readable scifi serial Star’s Reach, which is set in an energy-depleted future. If you want to read the story, leave now.
In Chapter 48, Greer tells of some advanced aliens transmitting images of the other 38 alien species they’ve contacted to a small band of future Gaia-dwellers. Don’t think Klingon, think Horta:
One at a time, as the voice went on, pictures appeared on the screen. Every one of them had something toward the middle that must have been an alien, and something behind it that must have been an alien world, but that’s about all that I can say about most of them. As I write this, I’m remembering one of them, a little like an upside-down flower with seven long fleshy petals, or maybe they were feet. The petal-feet were orange and so was the body of the flower, where the petal-feet came together in a spray of long thin drooping spines. Around the top of the body, where the stem would be, were a couple of dozen stalks with bright blue cones on the end of them; I guessed they were eyes. The alien stood on what looked like yellow sand, or maybe it was snow, and something like yellow fog swirled around it. The reason I remember that alien is that it looked more like a human being than any of the others did.
In comments, Alan From Big Easy – who I recognize from the Oil Drum – objected:
*ALL* alien species … so utterly alien … Out of 39 evolutionary choices, not one close? Octopus eyes are much like ours.
There are a number of viable solutions – of which we are one. Out of 39, IMVHO, at least a dozen should be recognizable (intelligent horses perhaps – porpoises with hands, etc.)
Yeah, where are the Mos Eisely Cantina aliens? JMG responded:
Alan, octopi share our basic biology and live on the same planet we do. One of the points I want to make here is that aliens are far more likely to be *alien*, having vastly less in common with us than we think. Much of what makes us what we are presupposes a particular kind of planet, with its own distinctive chemistry, biochemistry, evolutionary history, etc.; the Burgess Shale reminds us that the common phyla we’ve got now are a small selection out of a much more diverse range of options, and a different planet with different physical conditions, its own unique biochemistry and evolutionary history, and so on, would start from different options in the first place and evolve intelligence in its own wholly alien way.
Now what is funny about that is that the aliens confess to the Earthers that we all do have one thing in common:
“More than four million of your years ago,” the voice said, “our species reached the stage of complex technology.” Something like a vast heap of soap bubbles and spiderwebs came into sight, glowing with points of light; I guessed it was a city, or something like one. “We made the usual mistakes, and suffered the usual consequences.” The image changed; the sky turned brown and murky, and another of the city-things came into sight, torn, lightless, empty.
So we see infinite diversity in infinite combinations of alien life forms, and the great bird of the universe smiles. But Star’s Reach is a parable. No matter how diverse the aliens look, all of their home planets must have finite supplies of energy, and they all must behave enough like twentieth-century humans that they inevitably overreach and run off a cliff of energy depletion and climate change. To indicate that some species managed in some way to avoid such a fate would ruin the moral of the parable.
Is such a fate inescapable? Well on his blog, in The Illusion of Invincibility, Greer makes a good case that we are headed there despite the recent claims of energy independence for the US.
The current fracking phenomenon, in other words, doesn’t disprove peak oil theory. It was predicted by peak oil theory. As the price of oil rises, petroleum reserves that weren’t economical to produce when the price was lower get brought into production, and efforts to find new petroleum reserves go into overdrive; that’s all part of the theory.
If we could manage epidermal photosynthesis I’d say we’d probably do just fine without fossil fuels. But we’re not alien enough to do without soil, clean water and moderate weather to grow our food, and we’re attacking all of those to get just a bit more fossil fuel.