Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Fermi Paradox

Science fiction author and scientist Geoffrey A. Landis writes:

"The galaxy contains roughly a hundred billion stars. If even a very small fraction of these have planets which develop technological civilizations, there must be a very large number of such civilizations. If any of these civilizations produce cultures which colonize over interstellar distances, even at a small fraction of the speed of light, the galaxy should have been completely colonized in no more than a few million years. Since the galaxy is billions of years old, Earth should have been visited and colonized long ago... The absence of any evidence for such visits is the Fermi paradox."

This excerpt is from an article entitled "The Fermi Paradox: An Approach Based on Percolation Theory," published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 1998, which Landis later presented at the NASA Symposium "Vision-21: Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace" in 1993. The full article is available on the author's website.

I mention this article by way of my own introduction -- just in case you are unfamiliar with the term Fermi Paradox: I am pleased to announce that co-editor Nick Gevers and I have sold Fermi Paradox-themed original anthology, Is Anybody Out There? to
Daw Books via Martin H. Greenberg's Tekno Books, for publication in 2010.

Hopefully you will recognize the name of my co-editor, Nick Gevers: he has had a regular short-fiction review column in Locus magazine since 2001; he has written reviews and literary criticism for the Washington Post Book World and the New York Review of Science Fiction, among many other venues. Nick is also an editor for British indie publisher
PS Publishing; and, he has had two original anthologies published so far this year: Other Earths (with Jay Lake, Daw Books) and Steampunk! (Solaris Books).

This week Nick and I sent out our first round of formal invitations to authors (we've received only one decline so far!) and we're excitedly awaiting the influx of incredibly fine short stories in the weeks and months ahead. Here's an excerpt from the "pitch" we sent to our authors:

Why is it that, in such a vast cosmos, with hundreds of billions of stars in this galaxy alone, and no doubt billions of Earth-like planets orbiting them, we have found no evidence of intelligent alien life? No evidence that aliens have ever visited Earth (other than discredited UFO mythology), no detectable signals in all our SETI searches with radio telescopes... So: we’re asking for entertaining stories that explore explanations for this enigma, looking seriously or comically at solutions to Fermi’s question. Is intelligent life a fluke, arising only once or twice in the universe’s long history? Does intelligence arise frequently, but with gulfs of time and distance keeping technological civilizations irretrievably apart? Do such civilizations inevitably implode or self-destruct within a few hundred years? Is our definition of intelligence fatally subjective? Are aliens among us right now, unseen? Are there aliens everywhere, but determined not to let us notice them? These, or other hypotheses, no matter how unlikely, should inform contributions to Is Anybody Out There?

What do you think? Does a book with this theme have possibilities? Merit? Obviously, we believe so....

As with any book, there's a history behind this anthology. But I don't wish to bore you with all the details, and anyone who has ever prepared an anthology proposal has certainly gone through the same, or similar, process. So, let me just summarize:

In May 2007 Nick contacted me about a project -- not this anthology, but another project, which I unfortunately had to decline at the time. Previously Nick and I had been in contact because he often reviewed books that I had edited. Did I mention that Nick resides in Cape Town, South Africa? Thus our communication has always been via email (and, unfortunately, we have never met). But this time around we began chatting about the possibility of doing an anthology project together, and Nick came up with the idea of the Fermi Paradox theme. Our discussions began in earnest in September. We composed and sent out a query letter that we felt would intrigue authors enough to want to get involved; and then, once we had a number of authors on board, we put together a book proposal that Nick submitted to Marty Greenberg and John Telfers at Tekno Books. Nick took the lead on this because he already had experience working with Tekno on Other Earths. The book proposal was submitted in December 2007, before the holidays; we knew it would be a minimum of three or more months before we received any feedback. Much to our delight, we received a positive response from Tekno Books in March 2008; but, they wanted to wait and present the proposal to Daw Books in person, at the Denver WorldCon in August. Well, I'm not a very patient person, normally, but if that's what it took for this anthology proposal to succeed, then I'd wait until the aliens actually arrived on Earth! After WorldCon we learned that Daw was very receptive to the idea, and now that the proposal was in their hands, we needed to wait some more. My understanding is that much of the wait was due to the impact of the current economic downturn on book sales, and book publishing in general. Regardless, all that patience and waiting finally paid off when, earlier this month, we heard from Marty Greenberg that the anthology had in fact been accepted by Daw Books.

So that's the beginning of our anthology project, Is Anybody Out There? Given our own deadline with Tekno Books, we hope to have the contents of the anthology determined by December. Two and a half years from start to delivery! (And then we wait yet again for the book's actual publication.)

Thinking about this theme for our anthology brought to mind one story (no pun intended, as you shall see) in particular; I'm sure I haven't read every Fermi Paradox story written, but of those that I have read, this one has stuck with me, and it just may be one of the best sf stories I have ever read. The story is "One," written by George Alec Effinger. In a posting to Usenet group "rec.arts.sf.written" on December 13, 1998, George states: "...the most difficult short story sale I've ever had was a piece called 'One,' which I wrote almost twenty years ago.... It was rejected by editors who thought... it would be an unpopular idea [that we are, in fact, alone in the universe] among their readers. It was bounced at 'Isaac Asimov's' by three different editors over the years." George writes in this post about his dinner with Carl Sagan in which they discussed the Drake equation -- an equation scientists use to determine the approximate number of advanced technological civilizations humans might expect to find elsewhere in the galaxy. George argued that "if any of those 'fractions' [in this equation] equalled zero," then the equation's result would not be a large number, i.e. the number of advanced civilizations. Carl, evidently, wasn't too fond of this idea.

Finally, Greg Bear (with Martin H. Greenberg!) bought the story for his New Legends anthology in 1995. And there the story remained until 2001, when Orson Scott Card selected it for his reprint anthology, Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Century. And, lastly, I included "One" in George Alec Effinger Live! From Planet Earth, a collection (the second of three) of his work, which I acquired and edited for Golden Gryphon Press, in 2005. The story was introduced in the book by Barbara Hambly, George's ex-wife and executrix of the Effinger estate. "One" is a devastatingly depressing and disturbing story, and yet, as I said, it's probably one of the best science fiction stories I have ever read. And as I typed in the name "Martin H. Greenberg" above I realized the connection between George's story and my (and Nick's) Fermi Paradox anthology: the story and anthology separated by fifteen years.

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