Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-HST Team
After this last year of isolation and fear, everyone must be in the mood for some light, upbeat reading material. Well…
I can’t say that the recent publication of a paper by Xiang Cai, Jonathan H. Jiang, Kristen A. Fahy, and Yuk L. Yung, A Statistical Estimation of the Occurrence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence in the Milky Way Galaxy, will do much to cheer you up. This non-peer-reviewed paper suggests that a number of factors could explain the Fermi Paradox (the apparent contradiction between the number of alien civilizations estimates suggest we should expect to see and the fact that we don’t see any). The largest factor? Pann: the probability that complex lifeforms are going to annihilate themselves.
To put it more simply, perhaps the Great Silence isn’t due to galactic civilizations shunning us, but rather due to the sad probability that no civilizations last long enough to communicate before they find some innovative way to remove themselves from the playing board.
The notion isn’t new. Even a community so notoriously sunny in its outlook as the science fiction community has considered the possibility that Pann might be very large indeed. To take just one early, influential author: Andre Norton’s novels often feature great civilizations, like the Baldies or the Forerunners, who have left only ruins. The implication is clear: humans may be having their day in the sun, but they too will vanish like the races before them. Other authors have found the notion equally intriguing. Consider these five novels.
City by Clifford Simak (1953)
Humanity at the beginning of the 21st century had so much promise. Famine and energy shortages were vanquished; humans had acquired the basic toolkit to construct a utopia. Yet a handful of centuries later, humans were all but extinct, save for one small, irrelevant city of dreamers in suspended animation. Between those two moments lies an endless cavalcade of good intentions gone horribly awry, each one leading well-intentioned humans towards total extinction.
On the Beach by Nevil Shute (1957)
What better way to rid the world of cunning primates than to use nuclear weapons? Let’s posit inexpensive nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation, great-power rivalries, and the use of bombs clad in cobalt (which will give any fallout an extra zing) and see what happens.
By 1963, the northern hemisphere of Earth is utterly lifeless and the only survivors are those lucky enough to be in the southern hemisphere. Alas, their reprieve is strictly temporary. The fallout is inexorably spreading south and once it infiltrates the remaining inhabited regions, that will be that for life on Earth. Hard news for life in general, but very hard news for the humans who understand exactly what is going to happen.
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)
Eschewing straightforward atomic doom, Vonnegut turns to visionary (and happily, physically impossible) chemistry to account for humanity’s self-inflicted demise. The late Felix Hoenikker was one of the men who gave the world the atom bomb. Later his peripatetic genius turned to exotic forms of matter, specifically Ice Nine. Ice Nine is solid-phase water with a number of fascinating properties. Firstly, it is solid at standard pressure and room temperature. Secondly, any water that comes into contact is immediately transformed into Ice Nine. A world ruled by prudence would destroy any samples and never create any more. Vonnegut’s characters are not known for their excess of prudence, which meant it was only a matter of time before one of the Ice Nine samples finds its way into the ocean….
Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross (2006)
Freya’s Creators—humans to you and me—were in some ways impressively advanced. They created obedient androids and robots, often in their own image, and then managed to kill themselves off. Their creations soldiered on despite the absence of the Creators. It turns out that androids and robots can have interesting adventures too.
Girl’s Last Tour by Tsukumizu (2014 to 2018)
At first glance, one might think that it was war that sent young Chito and Yuuri off on an apparently futile quest for a safe haven. War may have started the catastrophic slide into human annihilation, but it didn’t finish it. The real culprit was the grand human effort to bring the entirety of the world under human control. The manga is set in a world of deserted, interlocking cities. What little life remains is confined to terrariums that are slowly breaking down. Had there still been wilderness, there might have been somewhere to which survivors could flee. Perhaps the human population could have recovered. But so far as we know, when the manga ends, Chito and Yuuri may be the only survivors. Food and fuel are running out….
No doubt you have your own favourite examples of self-inflicted species-wide Total Party Kills. Feel free to use the comment section to berate me for overlooking them.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF(where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.