Friday, July 30, 2010

Is Anybody Out There? and 50 Years of SETI

Henry Thomas stars in Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
(courtesy of Universal/Everett)

The Daily Galaxy (@dailygalaxy) posted an article online on June 20, 2010, entitled "Invisible Extraterrestrials? World Leading Physicist Says 'They Could Exist in Forms We Can't Conceive.'" The physicist to whom the article refers is Lord Martin Rees, president of Britain's Royal Society and astronomer to the Queen of England. Earlier, in May, Lord Rees hosted a National Science Academy Conference -- "The Detection of Extra-terrestrial Life and the Consequences for Science and Society" -- at which he stated that he believes the existence of extraterrestrial life may be beyond human understanding. To quote Rees directly:
"They could be staring us in the face and we just don’t recognize them. The problem is that we’re looking for something very much like us, assuming that they at least have something like the same mathematics and technology.

"I suspect there could be life and intelligence out there in forms we can’t conceive. Just as a chimpanzee can’t understand quantum theory, it could be there are aspects of reality that are beyond the capacity of our brains."
Also participating in this conference was noted SETI-founder Frank Drake (of the Drake equation fame), who presented an interesting theory on how the "digital revolution" is making humanity invisible to aliens by cutting [to the vanishing point] the transmission of analog TV and radio signals into space.

The article goes on to define three propositions to explain why "there is no direct and/or widely apparent evidence that extraterrestrial life exists." If you're intrigued with all of this, then by all means please read the entire Daily Galaxy article, including the Comments section, in which a reader suggests a fourth proposition.

Last week, while visiting "the mom" in a medical rehab facility (see blog post dated Friday, July 23, 2010), I managed to steal away for a few hours to meet my friend -- and author -- Bruce McAllister for dinner. The last time we got together (during the Thanksgiving holiday last year), the anthology Is Anybody Out There? was still a work in process. But now that it has been published, I was able to chat with Bruce about the many reviews, in addition to the Readercon book launch. Then, a few days ago, on July 27, Bruce sent me an email with only a lone link attached -- to a TIME online piece entitled "Listening for Aliens: What Would E.T. Do?"

The article focuses on the work of Gregory Benford, professor of physics at the University of California at Irvine and an award-winning science fiction writer, his twin brother James, and James' son Dominic. The Benfords have been rethinking the SETI project, which now marks its 50th year.

After exhaustive analysis, the Benfords believe that aliens who want to be detected would most likely send out short, powerful bursts every so often rather than continuous transmissions. Unfortunately, these "Benford beacons" would be easy to miss if scientists weren't listening right at that exact time.  The article concludes with an extrapolation:

"Of course, all the new work [on SETI] may be unnecessary, since it's just possible we've spotted E.T. already. Several times over the past 50 years, searchers have picked up radio signals that flashed once or twice, then disappeared. The best known of these is called the 'Wow' signal, because that's what an astronomer who picked it up wrote on a printout from a radio telescope at Ohio State University in the 1970s. SETI searchers went back to the star in question immediately, but heard nothing. It may well be, suggests Benford, that we detected extraterrestrials more than three decades ago — and because we weren't taking into account what E.T. would do, failed to confirm it."
All this is great stuff: food for thought, grist for the mill, and confirmation that we -- all the contributors -- done a good thing with the publication of Is Anybody Out There? to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the SETI project.

Which brings me to recent reviews of my co-edited anthology Is Anybody Out There? (with Nick Gevers, published by Daw Books).... So far I have blogged about the two Locus magazine reviews and one online review (John Ottinger's Grasping for the Wind blog). I'm quite pleased to announce that four additional online reviews have appeared between June 28 and July 29 -- an average of one review per week (with at least three, and possibly four, reviews still promised). I guess that's not too shabby for a Daw mass market paperback anthology.

So, in order of appearance, following are the four online reviews; I'll include a few select excerpts from each review, along with a link to the full review. [Beware, spoilers abound below.] If you haven't yet purchased IAOT?, if you've been fence-sitting on a decision whether or not to purchase the book, maybe these reviews will help motivate you. Don't forget, too, that I've posted six of the stories in their entirety, which you will find here.

  • June 28, 2010 -- Core Dump 2.0, reviewer: Keith Soltys (@ksoltys)
    "Where Two or Three" by Sheila Finch is a beautifully evocative story about a teenage volunteer in an old folks home and an astronaut who may have made the greatest discovery of all time, but apparently at the price of his sanity. I expect that this story will be a nominee for next year’s awards.

    In "Rare Earth" by Felicity Shoulders and Leslie What, the aliens are coloured balls of electricity that converge on Portland, Oregon, disrupting the life of a teenager and his family. This story walks the delicate line between pathos and humour and never stumbles.

    "The Vampires of Paradox" by James Morrow, perhaps the most original story in the book and another likely award contender next year, would have made a good episode of Doctor Who as its philosopher protagonist tries to save a group of monks from parasitic aliens that thrive on paradox.

    ...this [anthology] holds up better than most with several truly memorable stories. It’s certainly a better anthology than last year’s The New Space Opera 2, which won the Locus Award recently for best anthology of the year.
  • July 5, 2010 -- Geek Girls diss-cuss books, boobs, and rayguns, reviewer: Graylin Fox (@GraylinFox)
  • HERE COMES EVERYONE by Paul McAuley. This introduction explains the paradox in a way that anyone could understand. It occurred to me while reading it, it would make a great introduction to a Universe episode on the Science Channel.
    GALAXY OF MIRRORS by Paul Di Filippo. The spark has gone out of the main character. Well-known writer and lecturer appears to have lost something. And it appears he is not the only one with a changed perception. On a ship, way out there he encounters an anomaly. One that ignites his curiosity, gets him fired up, and pairs him with a lover who is just as passionate. They attempt to figure out what is causing these phenomena together. The answer is fascinating from a science fiction view. A wonderful story!
    GRAFFITI IN THE LIBRARY OF BABEL by David Langford. As a certifiable word nerd, I loved this story! Messages in electronic texts. They tap into our complete database of knowledge and use phrases, both literally and figuratively, to send a message. I was fascinated by this story from the first lines.
    ....While the theme was relatively constant throughout, each story was very different and entertaining. I highly recommend this collection. Even if you have no interest in the Fermi Paradox, the stories will engage your mind with questions you didn’t know needed answers.
  • July 19, 2010 --, reviewer: John Klima (@johnklima)
  • My favorite story in the anthology just might be "Residue" by Michael Arsenault. An unidentified couple eschews spending the evening in front of the TV in order to watch the stars. The resulting whimsical conversation about the potentiality of aliens is bright and inventive....Perhaps the fact that the story is almost entirely made up of dialog was what made the difference between the stories for me. If you're going to write a story that's only dialog, it had better be snappy dialog. And in my opinion, Arsenault succeeded.
    Jay Lake's "Permanent Fatal Errors" was a great story. The main character is one of several immortal Howards: genetically modified humans created for deep-space exploration. The problem is, the modifications to the humans to make them Howards leaves them socially incapable of co-existing. So how do they work together in the enclosed area of a space ship? The intrigue and interaction of the characters was fascinating to me....Lake creates a nice little action thriller with some of the Howards wanting to remain true to the mission and others wanting nothing more than to cause strife. The great thing is that even when things seem straightforward there's always another twist on its way.
    I found "Timmy, Come Home" by Matthew Hughes fascinating. Brodie hears things, voices. In his efforts to fix this condition, he goes through a whirlwind of practitioners from doctors to priests to mediums and finally a hypnotist. Hughes does a wonderful job of using hypnotism to work his way into Brodie's head and show us what might be happening there. After so many stories exploring going out into space and leaving the planet, it was really refreshing to have one that went the other way.
    In the end, not every story worked for me. But, I liked more than half the stories, and in my book that makes a successful anthology.
  • July 29, 2010 -- The Mad Hatter's Bookshelf & Book Review, reviewer: Michael (@MadHatterReview)
  • Mike Resnick & Lezli Robyn, "Report From the Field": A very quirky tale done in field-report style from an alien determining if Earth is ready for inclusion in the Galactic Community.
    This story had me chortling left and right like few other writers can....Resnick and Robyn excel at the funny asides as well as the satirical, while this particular alien sees us at a skewed angle from viewing our television, movies, and documentaries, trying to make sense of what they selected. There are perfect examples of humanity's absurd and violent side, which makes me question our place in the cosmos and the fact that if there is life out there we'd probably just screw up first contact.
    In Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "The Dark Man," a shadow shaped like a man shows up every decade or so on the steps of a very old Cathedral in Italy.
    Rusch's background as a mystery writer shines through this tale told in a very different tact than the rest, as an investigative reporter takes on paranormal events to find out the truth behind them, but she has finally found a case she can't explain away as a hoax. Rusch takes the idea of a classic conspiracy and twists it into Sci-Fi spectacularly. This was my second favorite story of the bunch.
    James Morrow, "The Vampires of Paradox" puts us in present times with a religious order that is keeping a terrible event at bay by contemplating logic paradoxes...
    No one does philosophical conundrums as well as Morrow and his stripes are still more than up to the task but ends up feeling a bit heavy-handed at times....Morrow is still a master of short fiction and this was by far the strongest story of the lot and was rightly chosen to end the anthology. The inclusion of this story alone makes the book worth picking up. This could also be seen as the best paradox lecture you've ever attended. I could definitely see it being referenced in some logic classes.
    Is Anybody Out There? is great cross-section of Fermi Paradox ideas packed with wonder. Wonders of science. Of confounding mysteries. Of what could be's. Of what should be that is well worth dipping into.

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  1. Perhaps there are others out there. And perhaps the reason we can't hear them is because they know better than to broadcast "Hey, over here!" to every evil hungry thing in the big bad universe.

  2. Hi, Charles,

    Funny that you should say that, because the alien in the Resnick & Robyn story, "Report from the Field," ends up with a similar view of us.

    On the other hand, Stephen Hawking says essentially the opposite. Read my blog post from Saturday, May 15, in which I refer to a Sunday Times Online article in which Hawking is quoted as saying: "If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans."

    Cheers, and thanks for your comment.
    - marty