Over the past year or so, is has seemed as though whatever shadowy Deep State agencies responsible for covering up the existence of extraterrestrials have thrown up their hands and said “Yeah. Whatever.”
Perhaps the real-world equivalent of The X-Files Smoking Man finally succumbed to lung cancer, and all his subordinates just couldn’t be bothered to do their jobs any more.
Or perhaps the noise of the Trump presidency created the circumstances in which a tacit acknowledgement of numerous UFO sightings wouldn’t seem to be bizarre or world-changing.
One way or another, the rather remarkable number of declassified videos from fighter pilots’ heads-up-displays of unidentified flying objects of odd shapes and flying capabilities has evoked an equally remarkable blasé response. It’s as if the past four years of Trump, natural disasters, civil tragedies, and a once-in-a-century (touch wood) pandemic has so eroded our capacity for surprise that, collectively, we seem to be saying, “Aliens? Bring it.” Not even the QAnon hordes, for whom no event or detail is too unrelated not to be folded into the grand conspiracy have seen fit to make comment upon something that has so long been a favourite subject of conspiracists (“Aliens? But are they pedophile child sex-trafficking aliens?”).
Perhaps we’re all just a bit embarrassed at the prospect of alien contact, like having a posh and sophisticated acquaintance drop by when your place is an utter pigsty. I have to imagine that, even if the aliens are benevolent and peaceful, humanity would be subjected to a stern and humiliating talking-to about how we let our planet get to the state it’s in.
Not to mention that if they landed pretty much anywhere in the U.S., they’d almost certainly get shot at.
And imagine if they’d landed a year ago.
“Take us to your leader!”
“Um … are you sure? Perhaps you should try another country.”
“All right, how do I get to Great Britain?”
“Ooh … no. You really don’t want that.”
“Russia then? China? India? Hungary?”
“Uh, no, no, no, and no.”
“A world of nope.”
“Wait–what’s the one with the guy with good hair?”
“Canada. But, yeah … probably don’t want to go there either. Maybe … try Germany?”
“Wasn’t that the Hitler country?”
“They got better.”
You’d think there would be more demand for the U.S. government to say more about these UFO sightings. The thing is, I’m sure that in some sections of the internet, there is a full-throated ongoing yawp all the time for that, but it hasn’t punctured the collective consciousness. And frankly, I don’t care enough to go looking for it.
It is weird, however, considering how we’ve always assumed that the existence of extraterrestrial life would fundamentally change humanity, throwing religious belief into crisis and dramatically transforming our existential outlook. The entire premise of Star Trek’s imagined future is that humanity’s first contact with the Vulcans forced a dramatic reset of our sense of self and others—a newly galactic perspective that rendered all our internecine tribal and cultural squabbles irrelevant, essentially at a stroke resolving Earth’s conflicts.
To be certain, there hasn’t been anything approaching definitive proof of alien life, so such epiphany or trauma lies only in a possible future. Those who speak with any authority on the matter are always careful to point out that “UFO” is not synonymous with “alien”—they’re not necessarily otherworldly, just unidentified.
I, for one, am deeply skeptical that these UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin—not because I don’t think it’s infinitesimally possible, just that the chances are in fact infinitesimal. In answer to the question of whether I think there’s life on other planets, my answer is an emphatic yes, which is something I base on the law of large numbers. The Milky Way galaxy, by current estimates, contains somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100 billion planets. Even if one tenth of one percent of those can sustain life, that’s still a million planets, and that in just one of the hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe.
But then there’s the question of intelligence, and what comprises intelligent life. We have an understandably chauvinistic understanding of intelligence, one largely rooted in the capacity for abstract thought, communication, and inventiveness. We grant that dolphins and whales are intelligent creatures, but have very little means of quantifying that; we learn more and more about the intelligence of cephalopods like octopi, but again: such intelligences are literally alien to our own. The history of imagining alien encounters in SF has framed alien intelligence as akin to our own, just more advanced—developing along the same trajectory until interplanetary travel becomes a possibility. Dolphins might well be, by some metric we haven’t yet envisioned, far more intelligent than us, but they’ll never build a rocket—in part because, well, why would they want to? As Douglas Adams put it in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”
To put it another way, to properly imagine space-faring aliens, we have to imagine not so much what circumstances would lead to the development of space travel as how an alien species would arrive at an understanding of the universe that would facilitate the very idea of space travel.
Consider the thought experiment offered by Hans Blumenberg in the introduction of his book The Genesis of the Copernican World. Blumenberg points out that our atmosphere has a perfect density, “just thick enough to enable us to breath and to prevent us from being burned up by cosmic rays, while, on the other hand, it is not so opaque as to absorb entirely the light of the stars and block any view of the universe.” This happy medium, he observes, is “a fragile balance between the indispensable and the sublime.” The ability to see the stars in the night sky, he says, has shaped humanity’s understanding of themselves in relation to the cosmos, from our earliest rudimentary myths and models, to the Ptolemaic system that put us at the center of Creation and gave rise to the medieval music of the spheres, to our present-day forays in astrophysics. We’ve made the stars our oracles, our gods, and our navigational guides, and it was in this last capacity that the failings of the Ptolemaic model inspired a reclusive Polish astronomer named Mikołaj Kopernik, whom we now know as Copernicus.
But what, Blumenberg asks, if our atmosphere was too thick to see the stars? How then would have humanity developed its understanding of its place in the cosmos? And indeed, of our own world—without celestial navigation, how does seafaring evolve? How much longer before we understood that there was a cosmos, or grasped the movement of the earth without the motion of the stars? There would always of course be the sun, but it was always the stars, first and foremost, that inspired the celestial imagination. It is not too difficult to imagine an intelligent alien species inhabiting a world such as ours, with similar capabilities, but without the inspiration of the night sky to propel them from the surface of their planet.
Now think of a planet of intelligent aquatic aliens, or creatures that live on a gas giant that swim deep in its dense atmosphere.
Or consider the possibility that our vaunted intelligence is in fact an evolutionary death sentence, and that that is in fact the case for any species such as ourselves—that our development of technology, our proliferation across the globe, and our environmental depredations inevitably outstrip our primate brains’ capacity to reverse the worst effects of our evolution.
Perhaps what we’ve been seeing is evidence of aliens who have mastered faster than light or transdimensional travel, but they’re biding their time—having learned the dangers of intelligence themselves, they’re waiting to see whether we succeed in not eradicating ourselves with nuclear weapons or environmental catastrophe; perhaps their rule for First Contact is to make certain a species such as homo sapiens can get its shit together and resolve all the disasters we’ve set in motion. Perhaps their Prime Directive is not to help us, because they’ve learned in the past that unless we can figure it out for our own damned selves, we’ll never learn.
In the words of the late great comedian Bill Hicks, “Please don’t shoot at the aliens. They might be here for me.”
EDIT: Stephanie read this post and complained that I hadn’t worked in Monty Python’s Galaxy Song, so here it is:
 And indeed, Douglas Adams did imagine such a species in Life, the Universe, and Everything—an alien race on a planet surrounded by a dust cloud who live in utopian peace and harmony in the thought that they are the sum total of creation, until the day a spaceship crash-lands on their planet and shatters their illusion. At which point, on reverse engineering the spacecraft and flying beyond the dust cloud to behold the splendours of the universe, decide there’s nothing else for it but to destroy it all.