The Martians’ Singularity: Thoughts on “The War of the Worlds”

I’ve just read H.G. Wells’ original The War of the Worlds, and it was nothing like I expected. I have a completely unfounded prejudice about some of this classic sci-fi literature, wherein I presume it to be either vapid pulp or unnecessarily stuffy. (Frankenstein suffered a bit from the latter, I thought. Come on, Victor, get yourself together.) But just as I was delighted by my first reading of Jekyll and Hyde, I found War of the Worlds to be incredibly rich, suspenseful, and insightful.

Prophetic, even, as I suppose the best speculative fiction must often be. This blog’s fascination is with the intersection of technology and human life as it is lived, and in this book Wells gives us a glimpse of the future, where the Martians stand in for the marriage of human beings and machinery. Indeed, in a strange way Wells seems to be foreshadowing the Singularity, the moment that some believe is inevitable, when computing power becomes so great we fully merge with our machines, uploading our consciousness to the cloud for a kind of immortality.

Wells’ Martians were just about there. Of course, Wells had no concept of computers as we know them, but his Martians have an utter reliance on mechanization. It may be that they were physically adept on Mars itself, but on Earth the Martians, left to their own physical devices, were stultified by terrestrial gravity, and were almost totally dependent on their machines. But even if their bodies were better suited to Mars, Wells makes clear that their bodies had developed (“evolved” may not be quite correct since we don’t know whether natural selection was involved) to be physically limited to bare essentials: a powerful brain and nervous system along with grasping appendages, and almost nothing else. The machines handled the rest.

Wells’ narrator explains it this way:

[H]ere in the Martians we have beyond dispute the actual accomplishment of … a suppression of the animal side of the organism by the intelligence. To me it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to the two bunches of delicate tentacles at last) at the expense of the rest of the body. Without the body the brain would, of course, become a mere selfish intelligence, without any of the emotional substratum of the human being.

So before we ever hear tales of heartless machines like HAL or emotion-starved androids like Data, here we have Wells giving us a near-perfect biological analogue: Intelligent creatures whose reliance on technology has allowed them, perhaps encouraged them, to jettison inefficient emotion. So really, the Martians are as close to the Singularity as anyone in the 19th century could have possibly invented.

What may be even more remarkable is how Wells refuses to cast the Martians as total villains. Yes, their aim is clearly to unfeelingly harvest Earth and humanity for their own consumption, but Wells ascribes no malice. The narrator, remember, has witnessed more of the horror of what the Martians are capable of than almost anyone alive, and yet he warns against judging them “too harshly,” because “we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought” upon indigenous human cultures and animal species. “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

What will the singularitarians and transhumanists think if our machines outpace us and, rather than bonding with us, decide to erradicate and harvest us just like Wells’ Martians? Will we be capable of making that kind of leap of perspective to understand our enemies?

There is a lesson, of course. The superior Martians, as ruthlessly efficient as they were, could not imagine that their undoing might come from beings too small to be seen by the naked eye, trusting in their superior firepower, and failing to fully grasp Earth’s biological nuance. What might we be neglecting as we bound toward the future during our own present technological revolution? What metaphorical (or literal) microbes are we overlooking?

But The War of the Worlds is not technophobic, for though it does present a powerful case for humility in the use of technology, it also admires it. The narrator makes several references to how humanity adopted much of the Martian technology all to its benefit after the invasion had failed. He speaks with esteem and awe of what the Martians had accomplished, and how they had developed genuinely meaningul efficiencies, not just in machinery, but in their own biology. For all the horror they brought, there is so much the Martians got right.

H.G. Wells may not have been a Ray Kurzweil of yesteryear, but I think he did at least intuit that humanity and technology were converging, even as far back as the 1800s. We may find that we achieve as a species much of what Wells’ invaders had, and may also be wise enough to avoid their fatal level of hubris. If Wells’ story proves prophetic, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, those Martians were us.

Mars, Musk, and a Meditation

Ross Andersen’s interview with Elon Musk at Aeon, on Musk’s ambitions for Mars colonization, is a gem. “Interview” doesn’t do it justice; it’s part interview, part examination of the motivations (Musk’s and civilization’s) for a Mars migration, as well as a meditation on the humanity of such an endeavor.

A big takeaway is how Musk sees a Mars trip not simply as a lofty goal of humanistic enrichment, but as a last and only best hope for a species tied to the unpredictable fortunes of a single planet and its fragile ecosphere. If we’re to go on as a species, we have to leave, sooner than later.

But you know, it’s not even about our species, per se. It’s about what we carry within us: consciousness.

Musk has been pushing this line – Mars colonisation as extinction insurance – for more than a decade now, but not without pushback. ‘It’s funny,’ he told me. ‘Not everyone loves humanity. Either explicitly or implicitly, some people seem to think that humans are a blight on the Earth’s surface. They say things like, “Nature is so wonderful; things are always better in the countryside where there are no people around.” They imply that humanity and civilisation are less good than their absence. But I’m not in that school,’ he said. ‘I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.’

And about those humans. Leave Musk for a moment, and read Andersen’s musing on the hypothetical trip to Mars by the future colonists:

It would be fascinating to experience a deep space mission, to see the Earth receding behind you, to feel that you were afloat between worlds, to walk a strange desert under an alien sky. But one of the stars in that sky would be Earth, and one night, you might look up at it, through a telescope. At first, it might look like a blurry sapphire sphere, but as your eyes adjusted, you might be able to make out its oceans and continents. You might begin to long for its mountains and rivers, its flowers and trees, the astonishing array of life forms that roam its rainforests and seas. You might see a network of light sparkling on its dark side, and realise that its nodes were cities, where millions of lives are coming into collision. You might think of your family and friends, and the billions of other people you left behind, any one of which you could one day come to love.

Do you, or do you not, feel the anxiety of being adrift? Do you not picture that blurry sapphire sphere receding from view as you realize how utterly surrounded and engulfed you are by blackness, pushed with direction and intention, but somehow still lost? My heart is beating faster.

And somehow, it all puts me in mind of Ernie from Sesame Street. I think it’s safe to say that as adventurous as the lad is, he would not be among the passengers on Musk’s one-way trip to Mars.

And a bit of trivia to tie it all up: Somewhere there exists, perhaps with my dad, or maybe only with my grandmother, a well-produced recording of a 5-year-old me singing this song, accompanied by my dad on guitar. I didn’t really get it then, but I do now.

The Moore’s Law Express Hits the Great Ceiling: A Possible Hitch to Alien Contact

Amid the discussions of the potential for contact with extra-terrestrial civilizations, there’s one big buzzkill I don’t recall ever hearing posited as a possibility for why we haven’t made contact yet: Because it can’t be done.

We are used to the idea that technology advances exponentially, that we are all riding the Moore’s Law Express to the Singularity, and that as long as we don’t destroy ourselves via world war, climate catastrophe, or extermination by the artificial intelligences we’ve created, we will be capable of wonders that we can’t even image today, just as our nomadic ancestors of 100,000 years ago could never have imagined a steam engine, library, vaccine, or iPhone.

It follows that any other species on another world that has developed intelligence will get to hitch a ride on the same train. The details will differ, what they figure out first, what they emphasize, and what they’re physically capable of manufacturing will be different, but given a clear path, they too will achieve unimaginably advanced technologies that will, among many other things, allow them to voyage the galaxy and make themselves known to its other inhabitants.

There are lots of reasons to think this won’t happen, or if it does, that we won’t ever be aware of it. In an excellent piece by Tim Urban that I found via John Gruber, several reasons for our ongoing celestial loneliness are offered, all pretty sensible (except the one about the government cover-up, which he also thinks is silly). Some examples:

Super-intelligent life could very well have already visited Earth, but before we were here. In the scheme of things, sentient humans have only been around for about 50,000, a little blip of time—if contact happened before then, it might have made some ducks flip out and run into the water and that’s it.

Getting the sole experience of First Contact is so like the ducks, you know?

Another follows the metaphor of ants trying to comprehend a nearby highway (one presumes they cannot):

[I]t’s not that we can’t pick up the signals from Planet X using our technology, it’s that we can’t even comprehend what the beings from Planet X are or what they’re trying to do. It’s so beyond us that even if they really wanted to enlighten us, it would be like trying to teach ants about the internet.

That’s very much in line with the Moore’s Law Express, where it just so happens that the Planet X-ians are so much further down the track that we can’t even see them.

Urban also puts forth the idea of a “Great Filter,” a kind of universal civilizational buffer zone that extraordinarily few species ever cross. Maybe it’s because of planetary or astrological cataclysms killing off entire biospheres before they can evolve, or maybe it’s a near-inevitability of intelligent species destroying themselves, but either way, there may be some Rubicon that finishes off nearly all civilizations before they can become space-faring, let alone Type II or III.

(A side note about Type III civs, the kind that harvest an entire galaxy’s energy: Urban talks about how there might be a relatively small number of them that can inhabit any one galaxy, and I’m thinking, if they’re defined by their ability to eat up the energy of a whole galaxy, I have to imagine it’s a “there ain’t room for both of us in this one-horse town” kind of thing, where it’s not 1000 Types IIIs in a given galaxy, but one, ever. But I digress.)

And he posits many other possibilities, and you should read the whole piece, because it’s really good.

But my thinking, which again is a real bummer, is that we need to consider the possibility that we haven’t made contact with alien civilizations because it simply can’t be done. The Moore’s Law Express actually does have a final stop at which technological advancement more or less halts because of the limits of physics, or even just the limits of any intelligence (natural or artificial) tomanipulate physics.

It might just be that traversing light years in a span of time that allows for survival, proliferation, or communication is simply impossible. It may be that there is no way to send communications signals of any known kind across the vast stretches of nothing that would allow another intelligence to receive them, let alone understand them.

Maybe there can and will be no warp speed, no folding of space, no teleportation, no subspace communications, no navigation of wormholes, no uploading of consciousness to interstellar servers, no Dyson Spheres, and no Singularity. As opposed to a Great Filter that finishes off civilizations on the way up, there may instead by a Great Ceiling, a lid on reality that says we (meaning we on Earth and any other species in the Universe) can go this far, but no further.

Now look, I know that thinking this way sucks, and it’s no way to get kids excited about science and exploration, or to rally the public to support more investment in scientific research. It is in our interest as a species and a civilization to cheerfully ride the Moore’s Law Express as though it has no terminus. But if the conversation about why we haven’t made contact with aliens is going to be an honest one, I think it has to at least acknowledge this sad possibility: Not that “they” might not be out there, but that they are, and we simply can never know for sure, and nor can they.

Okay, now pretend you never read this.

By the way, one potential way to travel the stars is by way of a Bussard Collector, and I just happen to have written a song about one. See? I have hope.

Dreaming of Ice-Roofed Worlds

I have been moved. Lee Billings at Aeon writes about the decent chance for life on Europa, relative to Mars at least, and makes a strong case for making it a much bigger exploratory focus than our dead, red neighbor. But even more fascinating is his speculation about how the discovery of life on Europa could indicate the possibility for life on any other enclosed and water-rich world:

[I]f water and life could exist [on Europa], why not in the hearts of large comets, before the Sun’s planets and moons even finished forming? Our solar system might have brimmed with hidden life for nearly as long as the Sun has shined, and ice-roofed worlds might be the default abodes for biology in the Universe. Life within a roofed world could proceed swimmingly against any number of otherwise-fatal cosmic calamities, whether being slingshotted into the interstellar dark as a rogue planet, or being bathed in hard radiation from a nearby supernova or burping black hole. We could then guess why, like our solar system, the Universe at large looks so desolate to us. In this scenario, most life, even if it had eyes to see, would never glimpse sky, stars, light, or fire, and would have scant hope of ever reaching what lies above and beyond its icy shell.

Carl Sagan famously said that we sentient Earth-beings are “a way for the Universe to know itself,” and it’s a stirring thought. But’s at the same time stirring and even troubling to imagine the possibility of entire ecospheres, perhaps with intelligent species, encased on ice worlds and more or less totally unaware of what lies beyond their frozen ceilings. These beings are of course entirely hypothetical, completely made up, but as I think about even the possibility of eternally-roofed-in beings, I feel a sense of claustrophobia for their lot, and sadness that they might never get the glimpse of the wider Universe to which we land-dwellers have been privileged.

It’s silly, I know. And of course, if we’re just making things up, we can imagine that they evolve to the point of transcending their environment, and that somewhere in the Cosmos, on some comet, moon, or frozen planet, a brilliant, brave, and technologically-augmented creature is breaking through the ice, and for the first time in its species’ history, drinking in the stars.

Assuming they have eyes, of course. Which they probably don’t because there’d probably be no light source in their normal habitat to necessitate an eye’s evolution.

But you never know.

We Will Be More Space-Dwellers than Planet-Dwellers

Ian O’Neill covers a high-minded conference discussion about the best protocols for potential encounters with alien species once our own ventures out into the stars. One idea that was new to me was that, though we may cross paths with other life forms, we may not need anything from them, or they from us. For example, O’Neill reports that Kelvin Long of the Institute for Interstellar Studies, says:

[B]y that stage in our evolution, Earth-analog planets would likely be less important to our survival — we would have become more space dwellers than planet-dwellers. Life-giving planets would therefore be more of scientific interest than somewhere for us to simply colonize.

“It is neither a case of moral respect or survival of the fittest but of the fact that we will have evolved as a society which does not need to compete (with indigenous lifeforms),” said Long.

Richard Obousy of Icarus Interstellar expressed a similar idea:

As for colonizing those worlds containing basic lifeforms, it is less likely that we’d want to hang around very long. “We live in the depths of a gravitational abyss,” said Obousy. Assuming our interstellar descendents has access to huge quantities of energy and resources, “I’m not convinced that we’ll want to go from one gravitational abyss to another gravitational abyss. I’m not convinced that settling on planets or even moons is going to be necessary.”

I find that fascinating. I’d love to see it played out in some quality science fiction. I’m of course aware that such fiction probably exists, but in my somewhat limited experience, planetless human beings are usually so because they are lost, or in some other desperate situation in which folks had no choice but to suddenly set themselves adrift in space. (Or in Richard Russo’s Ship of Fools, no one remembers why they are out in space after several generations.) They are not, in other words, boldly going because they have mastered material existence to such an extent that the “gravitational abyss” of planetary life is a hindrance or novelty. They’re, in one way or another, fucked.

But this idea upends the traditional “Terran” ideas of conquest, inhabitation, and exploitation of new environments. If we aren’t forced to create lives for ourselves on Earth-like (or terraformable) planets, and our existences are best lived in wholly artificial habitats in space, why go anywhere at all? Perhaps our needs would be limited to the rawest of raw materials, simply any matter that we can harvest and transform into anything we might need–like Star Trek’s replicators, but where there is no unreplicatable material like something so crucial as dilithium. Anything would presumably serve the purpose, such as asteroids or other “dead” bodies.

And if we meet fellow civilizations living within similar parameters, also not requiring any new planets to conquer or exploit, there’d presumably be nothing to fight over. Now, that’s where some sci-fi could get interesting. If everybody has what they need, what’s the conflict? Obviously, something would have to go very wrong.

Near-Earth Object, Too Close for Comfort

From the NYT report on the Siberia meteor:

“I opened the window from surprise — there was such heat coming in, as if it were summer in the yard, and then I watched as the flash flew by and turned into a dot somewhere over the forest,” wrote Darya Frenn, a blogger. “And in several seconds there was an explosion of such force that the window flew in along with its frame, the monitor fell, and everything that was on the desk.”

“God forbid you should ever have to experience anything like this,” she wrote.

[ . . . ]

Valentina Nikolayeva, a teacher in Chelyabinsk, described it as “an unreal light” that filled all the classrooms on one side of School No. 15.

“It was a light which never happens in life, it happens probably only in the end of the world,” she said in a clip posted on a news portal, She said she saw a vapor trail, like one that appears after an airplane, only dozens of times bigger. “The light was coming from there. Then the light went out and the trail began to change. The changes were taking place within it, like in the clouds, because of the wind. It began to shrink and then, a minute later, an explosion.”

“A shock wave,” she said. “It was not clear what it was but we were deafened at that moment. The window glass flew.”

I can’t imagine witnessing something like this. If I had seen this with my own eyes where I live, particularly when I was living in DC, I believe I would have immediately assumed it was a weapon, that we were being attacked, that we may be about to die.

I almost can’t believe there wasn’t total panic in Chelyabinsk. Those Russians are made of stern stuff.

Trojan Asteroid Follows Earth, Reinforces My Insecurities

It turns out that our fair planet has been tailed by a shy asteroid for perhaps thousands of years. This “Trojan asteroid” is caught between the gravitational tugs of Earth and the Sun, and is doomed to follow us around in our orbit, and there may be others like it. Per the LA Times:

“This is pretty cool,” said Amy Mainzer, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory … “It’s a new class of near-Earth object that’s been hypothesized to exist.”

That’s right, folks. Just like this blog, it’s a near-Earth object. And the similarities don’t end there. For one thing, it’s stuck in between two worlds, but never quite joining either. Its origin is alien as it strives for a more permanent home with one of the larger bodies, but will never quite catch up. It lives in the shadow of an Earth that has only now taken notice, while the Sun shines so bright, that it’s impossible for anyone to really look at — forever invisible.

And much like my readership levels, this asteroid is unlikely to see any human contact:

… if more Trojan asteroids can be found, researchers said, they could be ideal for astronaut visits and the mining of precious resources. (This particular asteroid is too tilted with respect to the solar system to make a good candidate, Mainzer said.)

Ouch. That one really hits home…

…like an asteroid!!!