Sunday, 18 August 2013

Fermi's Paradox, Eden's Paradox

People often ask why we haven't met aliens, particularly now we seem to discover new planets every week. Put simply, "where is everybody?" This is known as Fermi's Paradox. It gets addressed in my first book The Eden Paradox, but is actually explained to a human, Pierre, by a two billion year old alien called Hellera in Eden's Revenge. In the following extract, she shows Pierre how it works...

“History lesson,” Hellera said, “of life in a galaxy. Tell me what you understand.”
            The swirl of stars turned slowly about its axis. Time. She was showing him time speeded up at an incredible rate. He calculated the galaxy’s rate of turn and converted it – ten million years per second. A spark flared in a spiral then snuffed out, signifying a civilisation flourishing and fading into obsolescence and extinction. Several more peppered the display, each one barely registering before fading. For a few seconds, an entire spiral waxed red, and then thousands of star systems glowed violet, indicating a terrible and all-consuming war, then faded to black, a few star systems hanging on before reverting to grey, indicating their civilisations and grand empires had decayed into oblivion.
            And so it continued. He worked out where Earth was, and kept half an eye on it, but knew that at this rate of time lapse it would not even show up as having produced sentient life and civilisation. Then a swelling ring of stars lit up around the inner hub, inward of the spirals, flickered precariously, and remained bright. The Grid. The interstellar highway that had fuelled and cemented a galactic society. It lasted a full ten seconds, rippling out to the spirals, then froze. Today.
            He wanted more. “Hellera, can you fast-forward, please, most likely prediction.”
            The reptile’s yellow eyes blinked lazily one at a time, so Hellera never took an eye off him. The stars all returned to their silver-grey pinpricks, all civilisation extinguished, and then the galaxy split apart, shattered into myriad motes losing cohesion, imploding, becoming dust, the dark matter and energy forces that bind a galaxy together depleted. Just like before, Pierre thought, according to the legends of the war two billon years ago in the Jannahi galaxy when the Kalarash last joined battle against Qorall.
Pierre sat back. She had asked him to say what he understood, but the shock of knowing the likely end numbed him. 
Hellera spoke, the usual harshness in her voice subdued. “The time between enduring civilisations is very long. You should know this from your own history – four billion years – and humanity has only evolved in the last couple of million, the beginnings of civilisation just dawning before almost being eradicated.”
She stood, her long tail swiping slowly side to side. “We Kalarash get terribly lonely in those times of darkness. We see the same mistakes over and over again.”
Pierre sensed the despair of a Goddess whose children were forever doomed. He wanted to counter this pessimism. “But this is different, Hellera. The Grid is something spectacular, a glue to fix society into the galaxy’s fabric, make it sustainable, and Qorall threatens it all. Why? And how can you not fight him, while there is still a chance, even if remote?”
Ukrull’s head shook. “Listen to yourself, you are supposed to be Level Ten. Do you care for the ants around your feet?”
“I might if I had cultivated them for generations.”
She snorted, then grew more serious. “We fought his race, killed all of them, Qorall is the last. It takes a long time to get to Level Nineteen. As you already have guessed, the higher the species, the lower the successful reproduction rate – the maturation takes so long, too many mutations along the way. A natural negative feedback loop.” Her voice became distant. “Your Level Three companions might consider it God’s little joke on us, perhaps, and maybe just as well, we are not easy to get along with. Still, Kalaran and I tried…” Her tail swished out and struck a small boxed equipment item, denting it. “Qorall cannot create mates or his own kind. But he can exact revenge.”
“Yet he doesn’t target you directly.” But Pierre already understood. Qorall wanted to make the Kalarash suffer first. But Pierre needed to backtrack. He didn’t know how much time he would have with Hellera, and sensed her growing impatience. After all, he was effectively just another ant. “Why did you go to war with Qorall the first time?”
Ukrull’s tongue flicked over his eyes again, as the large reptile settled back into its chair. “Guess.”
Pierre went straight at it. “The Level Eighteen race. It’s to do with them, isn’t it?”

[Incidentally, the Level Eighteen race is the subject of the fourth book, Eden's Endgame].
So, the likelihood of meeting another race depends on them reaching us before the aliens in question descend into war or obsolescence and oblivion, assuming they reach the dizzying heights of working out how to travel faster than light, or else they would have to travel for hundreds or even thousands of years just to explore their local star neighborhood. For example, what are the chances of us becoming inter-stellar travelers, for say a thousand years, to reach other civilizations at a time when they are alive and well? Of course, exploring those chances is what science fiction is all about. But I can't help noticing that much scifi these days assumes aliens will come a-knocking and discover us first (e.g. in Arthur C Clarke's brilliant Rama series), and that the only way we might learn how to travel faster then light or even at near-lightspeed, is to borrow or steal such technology from another race. 
We need another Einstein, preferably one who likes to dabble in serious engineering...

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