Are there human extraterrestrials in fiction

We are the aliens

Calculating the course of the orbits of three bodies under the influence of their mutual attraction shouldn't be that difficult, one might believe as a non-physicist. But it is. In fact, it's impossible. The problem is not of immediate concern to everyday life, provided that one is fortunate enough to live on a planet orbiting its sun at a distance favorable for biological life forms. Alpha Centauri, the closest star system, consists of three suns. There is at least one planet there, and even in the habitable zone, i.e. at a distance from the sun that could make life possible. If you lived on this planet, you would probably be more interested in physics and the three-body problem, because you would certainly like to know if and when one of the other two suns will get so close that you will burn or pull your planet out of its orbit and cause you freeze to death.

The problems in such a world, in which life-friendly and life-hostile periods alternate unpredictably, are the starting point of the Cixin Lius trilogy. After all, it makes sense to move when you find out that another world with much more favorable living conditions is right in the cosmic neighborhood: the earth. The other starting point is the reaction of a person in a cosmologically friendly world, in which periods hostile to life are not exactly rare because their inhabitants terrorize one another. You can get the idea of ​​asking aliens for help. It couldn't get worse. Or is it?

While modern science fiction usually makes do with apparently pseudoscientific explanations for time travel or space flights faster than light, Cixin Liu stands in the original tradition of the genre. His novels are based on the further development of existing technologies and scientific theories. He allows himself some literary freedom, but sticks to the speed of light as the absolute limit - probably the greatest annoyance that physics has brought science fiction fans.

For Cixin Liu, physics is evidently something like a philosophy or a way of life. The trilogy begins with the hopeless justification of the physics professor Ye Zhetai before a tribunal during the so-called cultural revolution, when the representation of "reactionary ideas" such as the theory of relativity and the uncertainty principle was more than sufficient for a death sentence. His daughter, Ye Wenjie, seeks help from outer space when she has the opportunity, given the murder of her father and other traumatic experiences. However, it quickly becomes clear that our cosmic neighbors, the Trisolarians of Alpha Centauri, have no friendly intentions.

In the first volume, Cixin Liu describes the immediate reaction of mankind to the threat of an alien invasion. The second volume is primarily devoted to the still predominantly indirect interaction with Trisolaris, in which humanity is more and more following the rather pessimistic "cosmic sociology". The end is forgiving, but it is not the end of the story that takes a dramatic turn in the third volume, not just for the earth.

Cixin Liu impresses above all with his enormous wealth of ideas, not only with regard to technological innovations and scientific speculations (here, by the way, new dimensions actually play an important role), but even more in the description of the diverse reactions of mankind and individual people to the challenges of a space age, that one could have imagined more beautiful. His main characters are, again an interesting aspect, humans, but something like aliens - slightly eccentric eccentrics who don't really get along with the rest of humanity. In view of this, some of the shortcomings in dramaturgy and stringency are negligible.

If there were an extraterrestrial observer of terrestrial science fiction, he would probably tell his species, given the tremendous success of the Cixin Lius trilogy, but also the darker than all previous »Star Trek« series »Discovery«, that humanity is not good at the moment is on it. In the absence of real extraterrestrial reference points, the genre reflects the development of human society. The apocalyptic mood during the Cold War, for example, led to the prevailing view that a civilization either solves its social and political problems or destroys itself. Since then there have been considerable technological and social advances. However, there can be no talk of a solution to the social and political problems; at present there is even a threat of considerable setbacks. Who would still want to rule out the possibility that there are beings who fly through space and still have not come out of the spiritual horizon of an AfD supporter, to put it earthly?

So "cosmic sociology" is now also being discussed in real life. In essence, it says that civilizations see each other as a potential threat and are therefore inclined to conduct preventive extermination attacks. Cixin Liu does not explicitly advocate this theory beyond his novels, but does not seem to regard it as pure fiction either. In a report that appeared in the US magazine “The Atlantic” at the end of last year, Ross Andersen describes his debates with the author, whom he describes as “China's leading philosopher of first contact”. Cixin Liu views China's experience with invaders as an example of a general behavioral model and believes that because of the dangers involved, extraterrestrial civilizations do not send targeted signals into space to make contact, as humans do under the Seti programs.

In fact, we don't know whether extraterrestrial life exists. The search for aliens is not least an expression of dissatisfaction with earthly conditions. Something else should have produced the universe, one would think and one would demand, if there was an addressee. However, given the discovery of numerous planets, it is likely that there is life elsewhere as well. But we don't know anything about evolution on other planets, the existence of several suns is just one of countless variables such as gravity, atmosphere or geology, which could produce completely different forms of life with completely different interests and ideas of communication. Maybe they already know about us and ignore us, maybe they are trying to communicate with us and we don't get it.

With a few exceptions like Stanislaw Lem's »Solaris«, science fiction presents human-like aliens, at least in psychology, mirror images of ourselves. Cixin Liu also designs extraterrestrial civilizations according to human standards. This is literarily legitimate, even almost inevitable, since a civilization whose communication is incomprehensible or unrecognizable to us can hardly be described. However, transferring the humanization of aliens to real life is problematic.

"Cosmic sociology" is certainly not suitable as a general law. But it would be annoying enough if one civilization per galaxy developed the obsession to get rid of cosmic competition through annihilation. According to current knowledge, the most likely candidate for such a civilization, which combines paranoid tendencies with competitive thinking and the tendency to enforce interests with violence, is the only one we know - namely ours. There's not much we can do on Mars anymore, but there are good arguments in favor of saving the rest of the galaxy our visit for the time being.

Humanity is so far removed from the possibility of traveling interstellar or even waging war that the debate can be conducted calmly. Nevertheless, an alien observer might be a little worried that China has now built by far the largest radio telescope in the world for the search for alien signals and that Cixin Liu was received there as a visitor. He advises responding to a signal to reveal as little as possible about human history, as this could have a disturbing effect on aliens. After all, most experts are now of the opinion that the first signal that aliens could receive was not, as was generally assumed for a long time, the television broadcast of the opening of the 1936 Olympic Games by Adolf Hitler. So our reputation in the galaxy may not have been completely ruined yet.

Cixin Liu: The Dark Forest. Heyne. 816 pages, pb., 16.99 euros (volume 2 of the trilogy "Trisolaris").

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