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by William H. Benson

October 12, 2000

     Carl Sagan was a bona fide scientist, but to fill in his gaps of what science could offer humanity in the future, he could also write fiction.  Recently, I read his book Contact, a tale of a superior civilization from another planet that sends a radio signal, a Message, to Earth, complete with instructions on how to build a Machine capable of intergalactic travel, which its builders call a dodecahedron. 

     In the movie version of the book, Jodie Foster played the part of Ellie, one of the space travelers who steps into the Machine and flips the switch.  Inside the dodecahedron she and the others stare at the stars rushing up at them, and then they slip into a series of black holes and tunnels that transport them to a new sun and a new planet and then back.

     The people on Earth are astonished at Ellie’s and the others’ stories of what they experienced, for actually on Earth the space travelers were only in the Machine for about twenty minutes, and it never left the Earth.  In fact, the authorities are convinced it was all a gigantic hoax and a shared delusion.  As a science fiction writer, Carl Sagan is a bit of a letdown, for when Ellie and her fellow space travelers met the alien civilization nothing terribly dramatic really happened. 

     Turning from science fiction, January’s edition of National Geographic discussed the possibility of life on other planets and the work of exobiologists.  Forty years ago the astronomer Frank Drake wrote an equation that gauged the potential number of planets with technologically advanced life, and he arrived at about 10,000 in our galaxy alone.  But, “the power of our search system is a hundred trillion times what it was forty years ago,” he said.

     In 1950 Enrico Fermi asked a question:  “Where is everybody?  Humans could theoretically colonize the galaxy in a million years or so, and if they could, astronauts from older civilizations could do the same.  So why haven’t they come to Earth?”  This is known as the Fermi paradox.

     Someday perhaps in the future a contact may be made.  Then again, maybe it will never happen.  National Geographic asked,  “Or could it be possible that, at least in our part of the galaxy, the most technologically advanced species is the one right here on Earth?”

     Turning from futuristic thought to the past, October 12, 1492 was the day that Columbus’s men sighted land, an island in the Caribbean.  For the native North Americans who stared in amazement at Columbus wading ashore, this was their own science fiction moment–come to life.  They were astonished at Columbus’s ships capable of crossing oceans, at men with beards, and their weapons.  It was as if these European explorers were from another planet.

     However, should those first native North Americans been perceptive enough to see very far into the future, they would have been terrified, for the immediate future for those natives meant enslavement, a total disruption of their lives, and death by both violent means and also biological means–through disease.  Technologically advanced in a way different than the natives and filled with an all-consuming need for power and glory, Columbus quickly overwhelmed the simple natives on that island.  The natives’ warm welcome turned to wariness that then yielded to terror.

     Mark Twain said, “The past does not always exactly repeat itself, but occasionally it does rhyme.”  If there is a truism, it is that when two cultures meet, the lesser advanced invariably succumbs to the greater advanced to a degree that wholly depends upon the depth of pity and compassion of the greater.

     How will the distant future play out?  Like the Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Martian stories?  Or like the intricate plots from the master story-tellers, such as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein?  Or will it play out like a low-budget Hollywood science fiction movie with gigantic ants equipped with weapons?  Or will it revolve around a rather benign meeting between Earthling and alien that is dismissed as a hoax, such as Carl Sagan’s story?  Should a “contact” ever happen, I suspect that Columbus’s experience may hit closer to the way it would actually work out.