Please excuse me on picking this trite title. I am not here to say that the coronavirus is brought upon us by aliens, but I do consider the sudden onset of the pandemic similar to a possible advent of extraterrestrial beings. Both are unforeseen events with profound ramifications, that humanity encounters or is likely to encounter.
In the last three decades, the global society has found itself in a historically rare period of peace and steady development. Although some regional conflicts and instabilities persisted, there has not been an unforeseen incident of global proportions that interrupted such progress. This reality has led us to indulge in an illusion, that the development of society will stay this way: linear, smooth, and ultimately predictable. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, in part, helped dissolve that illusion.
As we look back at the past, the [random] occurrence of global-scale unforeseen events was the actual norm. They emerged from history incessantly; from the Plague to the Second World War, the eventual directions of history rested at the hands of these events, and some of them even marked the beginnings and ends of eras. Compared to them, the thirty years of smooth sailing that we have just experienced, is rather the anomaly. It is in this period that we, as a whole, developed a linear way of thinking regarding future progress. This is very dangerous.
The coronavirus pandemic isn’t really a completely unforeseen event, because, throughout history, large-scale deadly pandemics have occurred several times; we aren’t unfamiliar with them. But even so, when a new pathogen emerged, many systems of our global society weren’t suitably prepared, allowing what should have been a locally-contained infection to escalate into a global disaster.
In the future, our world may actually have to face truly “unforeseen” situations, the ones without precedent in our history, and the natures of which completely unbeknownst to us beforehand. The most salient example is an encounter with extraterrestrial intelligence.
People regard aliens as a topic that belongs in science fiction. I don’t agree. [How we deal with first encounters] is a very realistic concern, as or more realistic as the pandemic that we are experiencing.
The characteristics of an alien encounter is in its uncertainty and suddenness. Perhaps we won’t encounter any aliens in the next ten thousand years, or perhaps they will show up at our doors tomorrow. Here, we do not discuss the navigational technologies that do belong to sci-fi, such as faster-than-light travel or warp drives, and consider a scenario where the aliens are using conventional-propulsion spacecrafts.
Say, there is an alien spaceship travelling at 0.01c [3 million meters or 9.8 million feet per second — translator]. This is a reasonable setting for interstellar travel, and something readily achievable using our current theory. Consider if the spacecraft is sized similar to our aircraft carriers. Then, given our current observational and forecast capabilities, we will only be able to detect it, at the earliest, when this object is crossing the asteroid belt, thus confirming it is not a natural object. This detection limit is about 3 astronomical units [450 million kms or 280 million miles — translator]. At this distance, the alien spaceship we considered only needs another 40 hours to reach earth. And these 40 hours, all the time left for humans to react, are certainly shorter than the window humans had to contain a global infection outbreak.
Imagine a team of astronomers who discover and, after some more time, confirm the properties of this incoming object. It’s quite likely that they won’t have any idea whom to report their discovery to. Via the peer-review system? There’s not enough time. To the government? Our countries, and even the UN, do not have task forces dedicated to such events. When they eventually find a passable point of report, that receiving organisation will first need to make sure that the report isn’t some ramblings of a sci-fi fanatic, but really an alien craft. Only after then will they report this to their upper levels. When the news has traversed all levels of governance through to the table of UN, and gets confirmed on the highest level, 40 hours have definitely passed. 40 days aren’t enough, possibly.
Even after humanity has confirmed what faces itself, in whatever time that’s left before the eventual contact, it might be the case that there’s not much to do to help. After all, we have never gotten prepared for events like this, theoretically or practically: the powers on earth do not have emergency contingencies for such situations, and there does not exist internationally recognised stratagem on how to communicate with an alien civilisation. Be it disaster or benefit that the advent of extraterrestrial visitors bode, in the current framework of international affairs, the global community is unlikely to reach an agreement on any relevant matter in a short time. An alien visitation will impact human’s politics, economics, millitary, culture, and religion, in never-before-seen ways and to never-before-seen-extent, but we have not prepared for such impacts.
We used to expect that a shared catastrophic experience unites people across the world, but the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that such an expectation is fantasy. Faced with visitors from another world, the different countries, political factions, ethnic or cultural communities, various belief systems, will fall into endless conflict and infighting for their own survival. The aliens will find themselves visiting a chaotic and clueless human world. Even if they aren’t malicious, this is a disaster; if they are, then no acts of physical hostility may be required. A mere manifestation of their intention may be sufficient to bring about the collapse of the human world.
Our history moving forward may ultimately shaped by unforeseen events emerging from any aspect of our existence. Other than nature, such an event could also arise from within ourselves. For example, a sudden technological advance — AI’s computational singularity, or life-extending medical procedures — is certain to impact all aspects of our society in uncertain ways. And if we aren’t prepared, even a positive development like these will result in disaster.
The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us to avoid linear thinking for the future. Of course, it remains a fact that predicting any future events for our society is ultimately hard.
In this sense, science fiction provides a rather practical mentality: perform thought experiments. Arrange the myriad potential factors of change, the more the better. Though we cannot spend the resources to prepare for all of the possibilities practically, at least we can be prepared mentally, at least we can learn about the shape of our path into future, that it is far from a straight line, but rather messy and meandering.
[Cixin Liu is a Chinese science fiction author. He is a nine-time winner of the Galaxy Award (China’s most prestigious literary science fiction award), winner of the 2015 Hugo Award (for The Three-Body Problem) and the 2017 Locus Award (for Death’s End) as well as a nominee for the Nebula Award.]
This column was originally published on 9 July on the Japanese newspaper Mainichi shinbun / 毎日新聞, and this version on FWPhys was translated from Chinese by YFW. This is a translated work made public under the intentions of fair use. All rights belong to the original author and publisher.