Here is a book published about a year ago now that turns out to be very similar, thematically, to the more recent book by Adam Frank, The Little Book of Aliens, that I reviewed here in January. That book was published last October, six months after Green’s. Frank’s book had blurbs by Kim Stanley Robinson, Carlo Rovelli, Martin Rees, and Marcelo Gleiser (and one other); Green’s book has blurbs from Jeff VanderMeer, Ed Yong, Chuck Wendig, and a couple others.

Subtitled: “Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos” (Hanover Square Press, April 2023, 304pp, including 28p of bibliography and index)

The themes are similar: speculations about the likelihood (Frank) or nature of (Green) life in the universe, in particular intelligent life that humans might contact and interact with. While Frank focused on SETI, and discussed UFOs and UAPs, Green takes a broader chronological view, moving from the origin of life, then of planets, of animals, of people, of technology, and then of possible contact. Those are the subjects of her six chapters.

What distinguishes Green is her interest in and knowledge of science fiction, with some long passages about particular works. Many are to pop TV shows and movies, yet a significant few are to SF novels and even short stories. Here’s a summary, including her SF references.

Watchful Stars [Introduction]

Author recalls her childhood, looking at the sky and watching STTNG. With a reference to the Drake Equation, she ponders the big questions that are still unknown, and how we imagine alien life through fiction. The book’s epigraph, p9, is from Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan; at the end of the intro, she cites Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven.

Ch1: Origins

Author recalls the STTNG episode “The Chase” as an explanation for the original of life similar to human. She reviews ideas about life in the universe, from Aristotle and Ptolemy to Copernicus, with SF references to Kepler, Godwin, Lasswitz, Wells. And how thoughts in the 20th century were that planets were very rare. Then Stanley Miller; current thinking about the origin of life, one focused on RNA, another on hydrothermal vents, with reference to Nick Lane’s The Vital Question [it’s on my shelf]. How ‘life’ is difficult to define.

Ch2: Planets

Recalling Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. (Which I reviewed in two posts ending here.) How we’ve discovered many other planetary system, which don’t in fact look like ours. [Frank discussed this in great detail.] SF references: Stephen Baxter’s Flood and Ark; N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season; Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

Ch3: Animals

Imagining alien life; recalling a scene from Michael Crichton’s Sphere about where a life-form’s anus would be. Convergent evolution, and Gould’s Wonderful Life. And how animals in Australia are *alien* to species in the rest of the world. References to Sue Burke’s Semiosis, and Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass. Examples of animals in SF: from the silly canine in an early Trek episode, to the Xenomorph in Alien, and the aliens in Avatar.

Ch4: People

More discussion of the Sue Burke novel, of Loren Eiseley, a mention of Le Guin’s “The Author of the Acacia Seeds…”, Octavia Butler’s Dawn, Thomas Nagel’s famous essay about being a bat, James L. Cambias’ novel A Darkling Sea. And about color words, the Greek perception of blue, and its “wine-dark sea”. [[ This extends the discussion by E. O. Wilson on this theme. ]] Lem’s Solaris. Arrival, and Ted Chiang, and how the film is a favorite among scientists she interviewed for this book.

Ch 5, Technology

Examples of technology as imagined by SF, some from Trek, and Three-Body Problem. The Kardashev Scale (Frank covered this too). A discussion of Le Guin’s “A Man of the People,” about three million years of one civilization’s rises and falls. And the STTNG episode “Relics.” Dyson and Stapledon’s Star Maker.

It violates the Copernican principle to think that we are living in some special era, some turning point in world history. And yet it seems to be true with humans able to end the world just in the last century or so. Sagan framed our present age as one of ‘technological adolescence.’ It’s why Sagan argued for SETI. Now, Adam Frank thinks we need a mythology, like one about the countless alien civilizations that have come before us and survived. We have the notion of the Anthropocene.

Then about Caleb Scharf and Seth Shostak, and Vernor Vinge’s idea of the singularity. Worries about machine intelligence: HAL; Asimov’s three laws. Vinge’s four ideas for how the singularity comes about, and his idea of the Zones of Thought.

Ch6, Contact

About biosignatures, which Frank discussed at length. And then a long discussion, some 10 pages, about Carl Sagan’s Contact. (She claims it included a proof that God is real. I don’t necessarily read it that way; the aliens contacted merely told the humans to look. The structure of the universe may have some inherent, necessary, mathematical construct.)

And then some background about SETI and its funding. Today SETI questions some of Sagan’s core assumptions, e.g. that science would be a universal Rosetta stone; rather, our math may be just one language. [[ I don’t see how this could be relative, as long as there are separate, countable objects in the realm of any intelligent species. The only idea I’ve seen as an alternative is to think about octopi, for example, who live in a world of fluids and motions; perhaps their mathematics would be strikingly different from ours. ]]

Then a discussion about Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (which I’ve never read). Mentions of Okorafor’s Lagoon, and Thompson’s Rosewater, both set in Nigeria. What would alien motives be for contact with us?

More about Burke, and Chiang, the Russell. And Noam Chomsky. Klingon; the Dothraki language in Game of Thrones. And China Mieville’s Embassytown (I’ve not read that either) in which language is simultaneous.

Final thoughts are the 1974 Arecibo message, and the more complex diagram on the Voyager probes in 1977. And the similar problem about how to warn people in the future of the danger of nuclear waste sites.

Hopeful Monsters [Conclusion]

Author admits she has avoided discussing odds in this book. Nick Lane, Lynn Margulies, and their notions that the possibility of life might be extremely rare. And the author admits: she’s ceased to care, in a core sense. Recalling A Wrinkle in Time, author concludes:

In this book, as in lots of fantasy novels (as this is maybe more a book of magic than of science), Naming is a power far beyond identification. It’s a recognition of truth and an act of love. To Name a being is to know their essence, and once you see their heart, how can you not love them?

The numbers don’t matter, the census or population. Just to know and imagine your way into another’s world. To imagine their existence as vividly as you know your own. And to learn your own more deeply in the process — the alien stowaways who’ve made their home in your cells, the possible people on aliens planets, the birds or bats in your own backyard.

The stars cannot be counted, but each one can be named.


Concluding thoughts. I admire the way the author considers science fiction, what SF has speculated about that might inform our anticipation of finding actual intelligent life in the universe, though too many of her examples are TV and movies, whose speculations are all borrowed. My own project is to mostly ignore TV and movies and focus on works by actual SF writers, not so much to inform current speculation, but to consider the range of what SF has speculated *about*, and how this has or has not played out against actual scientific discoveries.

I do like her point, in chapter 3, about the variety of life on Earth means that, for example, animals in Australia are so different from those elsewhere that they are virtually alien. Coincidentally, I saw an episode of Nature just a few weeks ago that made the same point.

I’m not really sympathetic to her concluding thoughts. To name a being is to know *nothing* about its essence, except as it appeals to human psychology. Imagination does not trump knowing. Or we would still be beholden to thousands of ancient, now forgotten, human religions.

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