by Larry Klaes

We now wrap up Larry Klaes’ essay on Avatar (and Centauri Dreams’ coverage of the film) with a look at how and why humans will expand into the cosmos, with reflections on our society’s portrayal of aliens and of itself. How much does popular entertainment shape our conception of what we can and cannot do? Do we, as a species, have what it takes to journey out among the stars?

Before anyone wonders, I am hardly against nature and preserving our natural resources. What I am against is the naive view that our technological progress is all bad and destructive to us as a species. Most of our ancestors lived primarily natural lives until not that many centuries ago and while their lives may have been less cluttered and polluted in one sense, they also tended not to live as long due to a lack of modern medicines and other useful products of a technological civilization. Even Henry David Thoreau, whom many uphold as the naturalist who declared we should all go back to the wilderness, preferred a life balanced between nature and society (his cabin at Walden Pond was only a few miles from the center of Concord, Massachusetts, please note).

Technology in Balance

This attitude of extremes, which Avatar has only exacerbated, will only further reinforce the attitude that humanity has to dump all its civilized trappings and go live in the woods. This was the same “resolution” taken with the final episode of the recent television series Battlestar Galactica. Such a solution might work for a small group of people, but it would only spell disaster and genocide for most of the seven billion humans on Earth right now (and the many more billions that no doubt exist in 2154).

I think we are still rather young and stunned at all the rapid technological progress made in the last few centuries: Surprised and even frightened like a young child at the complexities of what we have created, along with the indiscretions that many youths display when given responsibilities for the first time. We need to learn to find a balance with our natural, biological selves and the technological aspects that are now an integral part of our lives. For many this is still too much to bear, causing them to wish for what they think were simpler and happier times, despite the fact that most civilized people are not familiar with natural living outside of an occasional camping trip.

I felt this article summed up the appeal of Avatar to audiences in 2010 who fear where society may be going in these current times and the desire for the safety and perceived simplicity of Mother Nature. This is why the Na’vi seem so appealing and heroic to us, despite the fact that they are not human and live in a world we could not inhabit without our various technologies. But ironically, as the very film has shown, these naturalist aliens are quite vulnerable to attacks from outside forces which are technologically superior to them.

Had the RDA really wanted to get that unobtanium at all costs (and who says they still won’t if their society becomes even more desperate for survival), they could have obliterated most of the life on Pandora by attaching rocket motors to some large planetoids which undoubtedly exist around Alpha Centauri A and dropped them all over the moon. They also could have aimed one of their starships (presumably unmanned) at Pandora at relativistic speed and kill most of the life there in one shot from the sheer amount of kinetic energy an impacting vessel moving at near light speed would cause (Pellegrino co-authored a novel titled The Killing Star with this very idea, only it was being done to us by an ETI).

Then the humans would just have to wait for the dust to settle and move in to mine their precious mineral. I doubt even Eywa, with all its connections that exceed the neurons in a human brain, could stop such an assault even if it knew what was coming, for none of its perfectly balanced natural elements seem prepared for any kind of major attack to its system such as a strike from space would be. As an interesting side note, it has been suggested that Gaia, the proposed being/system that is all life on Earth connected, evolved humans to deflect any impacts from comets or planetoids after the dinosaurs were unable to develop quickly enough to have their own space program that would have stopped the impact that wiped them out 65 million years ago.

I had to wonder if Eywa, defending itself as our human bodies use antibodies to defend against invading germs, might try to infect some humans with its organic matter so that when they returned to Earth, they would spread Eywa’s biological material to both stop the human threat and establish itself on our world at the same time. Eywa has “downloaded” the minds of several humans and no doubt has all the information to learn about us, including what our weaknesses are. I am sure it can be safely said that all life everywhere in the Cosmos is designed to survive at whatever cost, and who is to say the life on Pandora would not do what it has to do to survive, especially now that it knows there are both external threats and potential new habitats beyond its moon.

Save the Universe – Make Humans Stay Home?

My other concern from all this nature = good, technology = bad mindset is that the treatment of the Na’vi and Pandora at the hands of a corporate and militaristic humanity (Cameron didn’t promote much healing to the strong ideological divisions that have grown in the United States in past few decades with the broad strokes of the characters in his film) will give certain people and groups further reason to stop us from spreading our “evil” ways beyond Earth. As anyone with more than a bit of knowledge and awareness about the Universe realizes, things are not as bad or as simple as all that.

While I would not want to see our descendants “trashing” other worlds and stomping down on alien beings, it is not correct to think that this is how our children will necessarily behave once they start spreading into space, nor would even our most destructive tendencies even come close to bringing down the rest of existence in a Cosmos that is routinely producing exploding suns, radiation-spewing neutron stars, monster black holes, galactic jets, and whole galaxies that tear each other apart. The problem of this attitude is our perspective, which is still quite limited because we have only just begun to explore our celestial neighborhood. The vast majority of humanity still resides on Earth, and of them many keep their whole lives focused on this “pale blue dot”, which for them is all that matters.

This attitude has also led us to perceive our species as special in that all the Universe and any beings who are in charge of running things make humans their focal point. We are special of course in the sense that we are creatures of a certain level of intelligence and awareness about ourselves and our surroundings. However, if we place ourselves in a cosmic context, we are no more than subatomic particles on the widest scales of reality (I highly recommend the short film Powers of Ten to bring home just how vast and how small everything really is in relation to each other ). We can and could do great harm to our species and cause a fair deal of damage to our home planet, but in truth if we became extinct tomorrow Earth would heal itself and in a short time on geological scales there would hardly be any signs that we ever existed.

However, if we spread our species into space, we will be preserving at least some of us. Paradoxically, the very hostile nature of the Universe will also teach us a level of cooperation that we often feel we can take for granted on relatively safe and comfortable Earth. There are no guarantees that any other planet in the galaxy or beyond is attuned for our species in such a way that we could simply land there and start a colony without having to live in protected enclosures or wear sealed environmental suits, despite what Star Trek and similar series have often depicted. We may be able to terraform worlds that did not previously contain life, or we may find a way to coexist in enclosed technological societies on alien planets. Perhaps, rather than change other worlds, we will change our very selves to adapt to all sorts of environments, thus assuring our survival in many systems. Or a new intelligent species will be spawned by our civilization and head out into the galaxy instead, with its own motives and destinies.

To Boldy Go – But What About Wisely?

My next issue with Avatar is that they stuck with what so many other science fiction stories in novels, television, and film have done: The aliens who aren’t really so alien. The Na’vi are so similar to humans that Jake Sully could find himself attracted to both a female member of their species and find enough connections between his human self and the Na’vi to sincerely become one of them. This may have been terribly convenient both for our hero and for the comfort of our audience, but reality has a way of not conforming to human desires and perceptions.

As I have said before, similar environments may develop creatures with similar forms and behaviors, but there is no guarantee that any other world that can develop life will produce something that looks or acts like us. In fact we should probably take it as a given that any organisms we do encounter one day may be intelligent and aware, but they will not resemble humans or think and act quite as we do. This, and the fact that we live in a vast Cosmos with countless worlds, is among the reasons that our SETI efforts to date have yet to bear fruit.

I would like to see SF films that depict truly alien aliens, ones based on a degree of scientific reality that also do not interact or need to be “saved” by some humans. I think the aliens of Polish SF author Stanislaw Lem probably come close to at least the kind of ETI that really exist in our galaxy and all the others. Lem’s aliens have no need to conform to human standards or require rescuing by our species. While many stories for mass consumption feel obliged to have relatable characters and happy endings, Avatar being no exception here for certain, Lem’s works far better reflect reality in terms of how much we really do not know about the Universe and the many ambiguities that come from our ignorance.

Lem’s most famous work, Solaris, depicts an intelligence the size of a planet which none of the humans who attempt to study it can truly comprehend. There have been two film adaptations of Solaris so far, but while they succeed in their own certain ways, they also fell prey to the perceived needs of those who purchase the tickets and ended up being as much about the human characters as the alien Solaris and often more so. As Lem famously said in the novel:

“We don’t want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don’t want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn’t want. Man needs man!”

The ‘Conquest’ of the Stars

Now while I find it foolish to project current human values on the rest of the Cosmos in terms of what humans may or may not do to it, or whether we are its most important creation or not, and how these fears and limitations could keep us from expanding and growing beyond our celestial cradle, I am also concerned to a similar degree about the kind of thinking that dreams of “conquering” the stars without really weighing the consequences of such actions.

As I have stated before, we are a very young species. If you have ever seen the episode of Cosmos by Carl Sagan where he shows how much human civilization would occupy in space and time if the entire history of the Universe were compressed to one Earthly calendar year, then you know how short a time we have existed in measured against the entire 13.7 billion year history of existence (in the Cosmos segment all of human history occupies but the last ten seconds of the last day of the Cosmic Calendar year.

On the one hand it is wonderful to be living in an era when we have sent vessels into space and in some cases even out of our Sol system, though the latter are not true starships in the sense that they are aimed at any particular stars or that they would reach even Alpha Centauri in the next tens of thousands of years. We have found hundreds of alien planets with the promise of many more to follow, including worlds that could resemble our own in size and other attributes. While we have not yet found other intelligences nor do we have actual starships wending their way into the Milky Way, we are conducting practical searches for ETI and our plans for interstellar vehicles gain more ground on reality every day.

On the other hand we have been fed a steady diet of cultural claims that we are the special and sacred beings of the Universe, not only from our religion but from our UFO cults and science fiction too. According to our stories, every other creature in the Cosmos at the very least knows about us. Many want something from us, be it our planet or our “unique” properties or perhaps our bodies upon which to dine. And while our fictional human heroes do learn something as they trek the galaxy, it often turns out that the aliens they encounter were in greater need of our species whether they knew it or not despite having evolved in a totally alien world – though of course these “alien” planets often end up resembling Southern California.

The Starship and Human Destiny

Another trend that could have equally problematic consequences is the view that either humanity is alone in the galaxy in regards to highly intelligent beings, or that there are a few others around but they are so far away as to be inconsequential. This trend has wavered back and forth since the days of the ancient Greek philosophers who first conceived of the concept. Currently the idea of many others in the galaxy and beyond appears to be on the wane due ironically to the decades of searches for alien minds and planets already conducted and underway. There are those who feel that since the various SETI programs in existence since 1960 have not detected any signals of artificial extraterrestrial origin, then there must either be no one else or no one nearby. However, if most of these folks appreciated how sporadic and limited most SETI programs have been for most of the last half century and how little of the cosmic playing field these searches have examined, they would better understand that it is far too early to decide how crowded or empty our galaxy truly is.

As it is, certain groups take it as a given that we must send out our starships full of human crews to explore and colonize the galaxy, especially those worlds which may be like our Earth. I recently witnessed this attitude while watching a segment on NASA Television about searching for Earthlike planets. The narrator boldly declared that the destiny of finding a planet similar to ours beyond our Sol system was to one day colonize it. There was no mention of what might happen to the life forms that would presumably already be on a world like Earth or how any intelligences there might feel about suddenly having new neighbors who had no intention of leaving any time soon. I have also seen this same attitude elsewhere, such as with the Ultimate Project, a plan to send one million humans in a giant multigenerational star vessel to a nearby system with an Earthlike planet to colonize it. As for the question of what would happen if a society already occupied that world, the answer was that we should know if intelligent beings live on such a planet before the mission heads out and the Ultimate Project ship would be send to another Earthlike planet that did not seem to have any smart occupants.

In one sense this does not sound any less fraught with hazards than the RDA company in Avatar with its intentions to take what it needs from Pandora regardless of the natives’ wishes. It certainly smacks of a very young species that thinks it is entitled to whatever it needs wherever that might be. One has to wonder if there are other intelligences in a similar situation thinking the same thing about the galaxy. I wonder what might happen when those two species meet up?

Perhaps I am being overly concerned about a mindset and even a species that will not exist as it currently does in the coming centuries when we are ready to voyage into the galaxy. I have my doubts that the humans depicted in Avatar will still exist in quite the same way by the time we could send our children to Alpha Centauri. Future generations will be bemused at how Hollywood assumed their ancestors from the early Twenty-First Century could even presume that they could fly to the stars with their limited knowledge, lack of bodily and mental enhancements, and painfully obsolete technology.

A Realistic Interstellar Scenario

I must presume that when we do go to the stars, we will have been able to learn enough from the vicinity of Earth to know where to aim our ships and how to approach these new worlds, especially if they are occupied with living beings. Of course I am also presuming that such missions will be done for scientific purposes, when human society has already shown that many of their endeavors are done for political and financial purposes, the Apollo manned lunar missions being a prime example. In that sense, while Avatar is probably not an accurate depiction of humanity’s conquest of the galaxy, nor will we be able maintain some kind of Federation or Galactic Empire as so many science fiction stories contain due in large part to the ability to achieve faster than light (FTL) travel, our early interstellar missions may not be purely scientific in nature. After all, they will cost a lot of money and scientific institutions, especially those dedicated to astronomy and space exploration, are usually not the recipients of the lion’s share of funding.

Assuming human civilization does not collapse or find itself under an iron-fisted totalitarian rule that restricts space utilization, I do foresee the day when our species colonizes the Sol system. This will require a stable infrastructure and lots of funding, which will probably come from new industries that made an early hold on the vast wealth in resources space has to offer. Their customers will be as much if not more off Earth as on our planet. As in the days when Europeans realized there were whole new continents to exploit and start new lives on, our descendants will do the same with the Sol system, and while they may be different in certain ways from us, they may still maintain similar motives as living, intelligent beings. Among these traits will be a desire to exist in a way favorable to them.

This is where I see our first potential human explorers into the galaxy not being the noble and high-minded astronauts we are used to with our current space program, but members of groups that want to live out their lives away from the pressures of the bulk of human society. At first they will likely aim for the relatively easy targets such as the comets at the edge of the Sol system. But some of them will not be satisfied until they have left our system entirely so that our sun becomes just another star in the night sky. These are the folks who may attempt to venture to and colonize those other Earthlike worlds, even if it takes them many centuries to reach those planets. It is probable that no one will be able to regulate every pioneer heading off into the Milky Way.

And this is my final point: We cannot stop human migrations to other worlds unless our whole species becomes extinct – or worse, that we let our fears and ignorance keep us from doing so. I have the feeling that life has played out this game of moving to new places and encountering other beings since the very first time an organism appeared somewhere in the Universe. As has happened on Earth for the last four billion years, species have come and gone but life on this planet has remained, as robust and diverse as it probably ever has been.

This is why we need to explore the stars as a civilized society: With as much caution as we can, but knowing that some members of our kind may strike out blindly into the darkness, stirring up who knows what. We need to recognize and prepare for the fact that we are very small parts of an immense reality that has allowed us to exist for reasons that could be sheer luck or because others may recognize our youth and have kept us safe as if in a preserve. Or maybe because they just haven’t found us yet. I do know one thing: While it may be nice to be as connected as the Na’vi are to the rest of the life on their world and have all their needs taken care of, I do not want our species left vulnerable to the rest of the Universe, be it a comet threatening destruction, or an alien intelligence that wants our system, or the eventual end of Sol several billion years from now. I am pretty sure that Eywa does not have a space escape plan for the Na’vi, nor do the Na’vi seem ready on their own for such a change. We on the other hand are aware and have some of the foundations in place to make sure we are not stuck in one place with nowhere to go in case something happens, but we have to finish what we started.