As a species, we’re faced with a number of big problems that need solving. Some feel more abstract than others, but it sure would suck if we were wrong about that. And while sci-fi can be pure escapism, when it does, hopefully it serves as a mild indulgence rather than something which lets us ignore problems in the real world. As I’ve said before, it is part of my mission with this blog to get readers to not just watch sci-fi but to use it; to understand its effects and limitations; to decide how believable its scenarios are; and to think about the lessons you can take back with you to the real world.
This is why Forbidden Planet is such a stellar movie for me.
It is a singular example (in the survey at least) of humans encountering an ancient, vastly advanced, dead civilization through the “ruins” of its technology. There was no tense tête–à–tête diplomacy, or sexily-foreign green aliens to seduce, or any of those other Terran imperialist thrills.
I don’t want to demean its historical importance. It came at a time in cinematic history after a few decades where Hollywood created little more sci-fi than space opera for kids, and it proved enough of a commercial and critical success that suddenly sci-fi was a serious consideration for big budget attention. That meant broader reach, and more people thinking about speculative futures. (Heck, it meant enough serious sci-fi that I could keep a blog about the genre. So, you know, thanks for that.)
But more than its historical importance is that it’s the best model of a likely future. Just this past May, Adam Frank (an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester) and Woodruff Sullivan published “A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe.” In the paper they note that the 1,284 new exoplanets discovered by the Kepler observatory scientists puts some lower-limit constraints on a few factors in the Drake equation.
“Three of the seven terms in Drake’s equation are now known. We know the number of stars born each year. We know that the percentage of stars hosting planets is about 100. And we also know that about 20 to 25 percent of those planets are in the right place for life to form. This puts us in a position, for the first time, to say something definitive about extraterrestrial civilizations—if we ask the right question.”
Their work suggests that the odds are in favor of finding alien life—but finding evidence of it long dead. They suggest a shift in our attentions away from contacting a living civilization, towards cosmic archaeology. You know, like Forbidden Planet illustrates.
Frankly it could stop there and be canonized for that purpose, but the film goes one better
We still don’t have great constraints for the other troubling component of Drake’s equation, and that’s how long technological civilizations tend to last. That question in turn raises the darker question of what tends to doom those civilizations. One possibility is that it is that technology itself is the thing, which is, again, what Forbidden Planet illustrates.
This is a blog about sci-fi interfaces, and I presume that readers are, like me, directly involved in shaping technology. So it is that this 60 year-old film has a one-two punch. It shows us both what the future will probably be like, and then turns our attention to something we can think about—and work to make right—now.
Sci-fi likes to tell stories about the Prime Directive Fermi answer. But is it the most useful answer? Keep in mind that most of us are not working in space programs. For us, sci-fi is less direct inspiration to go build the most kick-ass rocketship we can, but rather inform how we think about and support the space program culturally and politically. With that in mind, let’s spend a little bit of time talking about the effects of confronting each hypothesis in our sci-fi. To be able to compare apples to apples, let’s apply the same thinking to each.
What would be the call to action (if any) if this hypothesis is true?
What if this is true, but we fail to act on it?
What if it’s true, and we do act on it?
Warning: This will be long, but if we’re thinking strategy, risk aversion, and opportunity maximization (as we are) we have to be thorough.
Life is rare
These stories tell us to not get our hopes up about thrilling tales of space imperialism. We need to get our shit sorted, since, no, we won’t have peace treaties with Romulan Sith, but we will have our hands full dealing with our own worst natures and the weirdness of natural space problems like black holes and special relativity. While we go about this, we should take advantage of this freakish circumstance by protecting life for the precious thing it is.
What if it’s true, but we fail to act on it?
We squander life’s only chance, fail to protect ourselves or the network of life on which we depend, and die out. It’s not a guarantee, but a greater risk.
What if it’s true, and we act on it?
Then we ensure our (and all life’s) survival, escape the planet before the sun goes red giant, and try to colonize the galaxy to increase life’s chances out there.
I’ll lump the physical and the informational threats into one discussion bucket, because these serve as similar dire warnings. They tell us that we need to keep quiet and/or deliberately deaf until we know what’s out there, and build strong offense and defense capabilities for when they do show up.
What if it’s true, but we fail to act on it?
We could be advertising our tender, tasty flesh up the nearest thing that would try to treat us like their personal fast food depot. Or we could be broadcasting our picturesque and utterly defenseless natural resources. And it is very much in our interest to keep those things intact.
What if it’s true, and we act on it?
You might think that we can shut up and stay hidden while we protect our defensive and maybe even offensive capabilities. The bad news is that ship has sailed. Not only have we shot out a few calling cards voyaging into the void, we’ve been leaking radio emissions for the better part of a century. That spherical announcement will continue through the universe for a long time. Even before humans evolved, our atmosphere was announcing the presence of life through signature biogasses. If there’s a hyperadvanced superpredator out there, they already know about us, and we don’t have the time scales, species coordination, or resources to do anything other than beg forgiveness when they get here.
OK. If we put all our efforts into offense and defense we might slightly increase the odds of or duration of our survival, but the odds are very much against it. We should hope that this Fermi hypothesis is unlikely.
Any of the Prime Directives call us to keep striving, inventing, maturing, evolving, and exploring. One day we’ll figure out or accidentally pass the test and BAM—we’ll be having space adventures and chuckling about how long it took us.
What if it’s true, but we fail to act on it?
We continue to be isolated, ignorant, and alone, an embarrassing backwater species unable to pick itself out of the blood, poop, and mud.
What if it’s true, and we act on it?
Since the exact nature of the Prime Directive is unknown to us, our action in this scenario is to just keep at it, and performing well and behaving well for our invisible observers. To improve our advertising, to demonstrate our achievements, knowledge, moral fiber, and compatibility with alien life. Eventually, we pass the test, have the universe open up to us, and finally get to taste Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters.
I’ll lump these three together because in each case, there’s a “reality” under the surface of things we’ve yet to uncover. But it’s worth nothing that each implies we were either put in this circumstance or deliberately kept here. The call to action for us is to continue as we have been, but be prepared for the nasty shock when it comes. Perhaps the call to action is to try and find the seams of our cage, to prove the nature of our reality, identify and maybe learn to communicate with our captors.
What if it’s true, but we fail to act on it?
Failing to act in this case is to…what…not seek out the truth of our reality?
What if it’s true, and we act on it?
Then we look for the cage, the disguises, or containing display. Maybe we even escape. But when the true nature of reality comes, we’re going to have a very sobering moment. Maybe it will be akin to Dave Bowman when his mind was blown by the second obelisk in 2001.
But we should ask ourselves: What happens when a dangerous animal escapes its paddock at the zoo? At the very best, the animal is sedated and put back in the zoo. Maybe with its collective memory wiped? Worse is the animal escapes to the wild where it learns it has zero of the skills necessary to survive there, even though instinct drove it there. In the worst case, the animal is killed to protect the visitors, or to prevent the rest of the zoo from catching wise. It might be that it’s in our best interest to stay in the pretty and utterly safe fishbowl.
I don’t know that the category of logistics means anything in this context. If it’s genuinely logistical reasons we haven’t found aliens, then it’s unlikely our efforts will be able to overcome those reasons any more than other civilizations much more advanced than us. So the call to action is that it doesn’t matter if there are or aren’t aliens, because we’ll never encounter them. Then we shift into a Life is Rare circumstance.
We know these happen, as the geologic record tells many tales of catastrophic terrors long before the modern anthropogenic one, and worse even than the Chicxulub comet that killed off the dinosaurs. Like most disaster porn, this can be the unifying force humanity needs to band together and figure out a way around, out, or through it. The call to action is for us to get a much more robust sensor network in place, have scenarios plotted out in advance with actionable and tested contingency plans for each one. It also implies colonizing the galaxy so all our eggs aren’t in this single planetary basket. Maybe create a panspermia technology all our own.
What if it’s true, but we fail to act on it?
We might get blindsided. We might defund (or continue underfunding) astronomy initiatives to keep an eye out for just these things, or be scientifically undereducated to manage. We could be wiped out.
What if it’s true, and we act on it?
We invest in research, sensors, and defenses such that we can detect and stop the threats to our existence. I’m not sure it will be oil riggers suddenly trained for space travel. But we will be protected. Hopefully this does not come at the cost of exploration, since one of the things we are protecting against is the sun’s red giant phase.
They are inconceivable
If aliens are inconceivable, what is the call to action? It could be to continue forward but be prepared, as we should be with the Zoo hypothesis, for a rude awakening. Another might be to try and accelerate our own evolution so we might be able to conceive them. But since it’s impossible to know what we’re hoping to conceive that seems directionless. Another might be to keep building something bigger than ourselves that might be able to perceive them, like super artificial intelligence.
What if it’s true, but we fail to act on it?
It might be mundane, like getting our planet paved over for an interstellar bypass. It might be terrible, winding up in the giant maw of the Space Angler Fish, or under the magnifying glass of the terrible Space Pre-Teen. It might be euphoric, if they have a policy of kindness to lower-order creatures. (This is not the precedent we ourselves have set.) Since they are inconceivable, there is no way to know what this might be.
What if it’s true, and we act on it?
We will be the ants spelling out “Hello world” on the beach, much to the amazement of the people witnessing it. We may have an A.I. that tells us gently what it finds. We might just understand the existential terror and have time to escape or shore up defenses. We might advance our evolution to greater heights, or toy with the building blocks of life and destroy ourselves. There’s no clear positive or negative that’s implied.
Our tech will destroy us
If tech is the threat, the call to action is to take a much more careful approach to our technology. On one extreme, to adopt an Amish-ish approach, and abandon it all. On the other, to carefully limit its capabilities, or test it for generation in sandboxes so it can be destroyed if necessary. Or another, to build in robust failsafes while we go whole-hog forward into our technological future. Or roll the dice and hope one of our good technologies saves us from the self-destructive one.
What if it’s true, but we fail to act on it?
We are wiped out by our powerful technology.
What if it’s true, and we act on it?
We will keep a critical eye on not just the novelty features of tech, but its possible effects at the broadest scale, and consider that in our designs, use of technology, and policies. We’ll be careful with technology.
The set of possibilities
If, as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, we look at it from a strategic perspective, we should ask ourselves which of the possibilities we should keep thinking about, and encourage that kind of sci-fi storytelling to encourage us to keep on track.
To do this we would look for those hypothesis which offer the greatest danger to avoid, and the greatest opportunity on the far side, which leads us to three: Life is Rare, Natural Disasters, and Tech will Destroy Us. Each of these has a deep dark chasm if they are true but we fail to act, and a terrific upside if we manage to succeed, survival being chief among them.
If we had to go further, and pick a primary one from these, it seems that Tech will Destroy Us carries both the biggest threat of self-destruction, the thing most under our control, and which solving may contribute to the successfully dealing with most of the others.
Then we have to note that, per my prior post, this isn’t the one sci-fi has told its stories about. We like to tell stories about Prime Directives. And this takes us back, in the next post, to Forbidden Planet.
In the prior post we introduced the Fermi paradox—or Fermi question—before an overview of the many hypotheses that try to answer the question, and ended noting that we must consider what we are to do, given the possibilities. In this post I’m going to share which of those hypotheses that screen-based sci-fi has chosen to tell stories about.
First we should note that screen sci-fi (this is, recall, a blog that concerns itself with sci-fi in movies and television), since the very, very beginning, has embraced questionably imperialist thrills. In Le Voyage dans la Lune, George Melies’ professor-astronomers encounter a “primitive” alien culture on Earth’s moon when they land there, replete with costumes, dances, and violent responses to accidental manslaughter. Hey, we get it, aliens are part of why audiences and writers are in it: As a thin metaphor for speculative human cultures that bring our own into relief. So, many properties are unconcerned with the *yawn* boring question of the Fermi paradox, instead imagining a diegesis with a whole smörgåsbord of alien civilizations that are explicitly engaged with humans, at times killing, trading, or kissing us, depending on which story you ask.
But some screen sci-fi does occasionally concern itself with the Fermi question.
Which are we telling stories about?
Screen sci-fi is a vast library, and more is being produced all the time, so it’s hard to give an exact breakdown, but if Drake can do it for Fermi’s question, we can at least ballpark it, too. To do this, I took a look at every sci-fi in the survey that produced Make It So and has been extended here on scifiinterfaces.com, and I tallied the breakdown between aliens, no aliens, and silent aliens. Here’s the Google Sheet with the data. And here’s what we see.
No aliens is the clear majority of stories! This is kind of surprising for me, since when I think of sci-fi my brain pops bug eyes and tentacles alongside blasters and spaceships. But it also makes sense because a lot of sci-fi is near future or focused on the human condition.
Some notes about these numbers.
I counted all the episodes or movies that exist in a single diegesis as one. So the two single largest properties in the sci-fi universe, Star Trek and Star Wars, only count once each. That seems unfair, since we’ve spent lots more total minutes of our lives with C3PO and the Enterprise crews than we have with Barbarella. This results in low-seeming numbers. There’s only 53 diegeses at the time of this writing even though it spans thousands of hours of shows. But all that said, this is ballpark problem, meant to tally rationales across diegeses, so we’ll deal with numbers that skew differently than our instincts would suggest. Someone else with a bigger budget of time or money can try and get exhaustive with the number, attempt to normalize for total minutes of media produced, and again for number of alien species referenced at their leisure, and then again for how popular the particular show was. Those numbers may be different.
Additionally the categorizations can be ambiguous. Should Star Trek go in “Silent Aliens” because of the Prime Directive, or under “Aliens” since the show has lots and lots and lots of aliens? Since the Fermi question seeks to answer why Silent Aliens are silent in our real world now, I opted for Silent Aliens, but that’s an arguable choice. Should The Martian count as “Life is Rare” since it’s competence porn that underscores how fragile life is? Should Deep Impact show that life is rare even though they never talk about aliens? It’s questionable to categorize something on a strong implication, but I did it where I felt the connection was strong. Additionally I may have ranked something as “no reason” because I missed an explanatory line of dialog somewhere. Please let me know if I missed something major or got something wrong in the comments.
All that said, let’s look back and see how those broad numbers break down when we look at individual Fermi hypotheses. First, we should omit shows with aliens. They categorically exclude themselves. Aliens is an obvious example. Also, let’s exclude shows that are utterly unconcerened with the question of aliens, e.g. Logan’s Run, (or those that never bother to provide an explanation as to why aliens may have been silent for so long, e.g. The Fifth Element.) We also have to dismiss the other show in the survey that shows a long-dead species but does not investigate why, Total Recall (1990). Aaaaand holy cow, that takes us down to only 8 shows that give some explanation for the historical absence or silence of aliens. Since that number is so low, I’ll list the shows explicitly to the right of their numbers. I’ll leave the numbers as percentages for consistency when I get to increase the data set.
8% Life is rare: Battlestar Galactica (2004) 25% Life doesn’t last (Natural disasters): Deep Impact, The Core, Armaggedon 8% Life doesn’t last (Technology will destroy us): Forbidden Planet
8% Superpredators: Oblivion 0% Information is dangerous 33% Prime directive: The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mission to Mars, Star Trek 0% Isolationism 0% Zoo 0% Planetarium 0% Lighthouse hello 0% Still ringing 8% Hicksville: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 0% Too distributed 0% Tech mismatch 0% Inconceivability 0% Too expensive 8% Cloaked: Men in Black
(*2% lost to rounding)
It’s at this point that some readers are sharpening their keyboards to inform me of the shows I’ve missed, and that’s great. I would rather have had the data before, but I’m just a guy and nothing motivates geeks like an incorrect pop culture data set. We can run these numbers again when more come in and see what changes.
In the meantime, the first thing we note is that of those that concern themselves with the question of Silent Aliens, most use some version of the prime directive.
Respectively, they say we have to do A Thing before they’ll contact us.
Mature technologically by finding the big obelisk on the moon (and then the matching one around Jupiter)
Mature technologically by mastering faster-than-light travel
Find the explanatory kiosk/transportation station on Mars
It’s easy to understand why Prime Directives would be attractive as narrative rationales. It explains why things are so silent now, and puts the onus on us as a species to achieve The Thing, to do good, to improve. They are inspirational and encourage us to commit to space travel.
The second thing to note, is that those that concern themselves with the notion that Life Doesn’t Last err toward disaster porn, which is attractive because such films are tried and true formulas. The dog gets saved along with the planet, that one person died, there’s a ticker tape parade after they land, and the love interests reconcile. Some are ridiculous. Some are competent. None stand out to me as particularly memorable or life changing. I can’t think of one that illustrates how it is inevitable.
So prime directives and disaster porn are the main answers we see in sci-fi. Are those the right ones? I’ll discuss that in the next post. Stay Tuned.
For its 60th anniversary I hosted a sci-if movie night at the Roxie cinema in San Francisco of the 1951 classic Forbidden Planet. It was delightful to see it on the big screen with the Roxie’s gorgeous projection system and hear that crazy soundtrack through their audio system.
After the show, I broke with my usual tradition of discussing any of the interfaces (after all, I’d already reviewed all of them on the blog years ago, and recently discussed the film in depth with the guys at Decipher Sci-fi) and instead discussed an idea that’s present in the film. In this handful of posts, I’m going to represent that content, but also add some additional content that there just wasn’t time for before we had to leave the cinema to make way for the next show.
Necessary Spoilers: In Forbidden Planet, a platoon travels to Altair IV to figure out why a 19-year old colony of scientists has gone silent. They meet Morbius, the only survivor of the original colony, and his daughter Altaira. They learn that Morbius has discovered the complete knowledge and technological remains of a long-dead, highly advanced civilization called the Krell. Through the Krell’s still-working machines Morbius has greatly enhanced his intelligence, but unwittingly unleashed an invisible “monster from the id” that has violently destroyed everyone but him and his family. Morbius refuses to return to Earth with Captain Adams, and so Adams grounds the mission while his crew uses parts of the ship to construct a communication device to ask for orders. During the downtime, with some truly wince-worthy 1950s slut-shaming courtship, Captain Adams somehow wins the heart of Altaira, who falls for it and defies her father and becomes engaged to the captain. Crushed by the betrayal, Morbius’ control of the monster wanes, and it attacks and defeats him. His world asunder, Morbius decides in his dying moments to scuttle the entire planet, including all traces of the Krell. From a safe observing distance in space, Adams, Altaira, and the surviving crew watch the explosion before heading back to Earth.
The movie presents one answer to a long-standing astronomical question,
“With 400 billion stars in our galaxy, and 400 billion galaxies in the observable universe, and billions of years of time since the start of the universe, even if only a very small fraction of stars produced advanced civilizations, where the hell is everybody? Why does space seem so devoid of life?”
This question is commonly known as the Fermi Paradox. It’s not really a paradox in the logical sense, so it works better in discussions to call it the Fermi question.
In this post I’m going to review a categorical deconstruction of the many hypotheses that seek to answer the question. If you’re already familiar with the topic, feel free to skip this post and check out the next one, in which I look at which of the hypotheses that screen sci-fi likes to talk about. If you’re not familiar with these hypotheses, would like a refresher, or want to check how I did in my explanation, read on.
The question poses is deeply troubling for a tribal species who came into being on a planet just lousy with life. Many people have put forth many theories, but by my reckoning they break down categorically into two broad supergroups five subgroups. But before we talk about those hypotheses, we should take a look at an equation.
About eleven years after Fermi asked his question, an astrophysicist named Frank Drake created a probabilistic equation by which we could come up with some answer about how many civilizations we might expect to find out there in the void. Now this isn’t like most equations for which you expect to get a single answer. This equation hopes to get us at least in the ballpark of the right right answer, say to an order of magnitude within the actual one. Just so we can know whether we’re talking about 10, 100, or 1,000 civilizations, etc. Drake’s equation has seven variables which we multiply together to produce an answer.
How often are stars created?
What fraction of these stars have planets?
What fraction of these planets could support life?
What fraction of these planets do support life?
What fraction of these develop symbolic intelligence?
What fraction of these produce detectable signs?
How long do these civilizations last (in a detectable way)?
Since each of these are an estimate, with only statistically insignificant observed data to inform them, the equation ultimately produces a broad range of numbers. With the variables filled in, Drake got a low number of 1,000. At the high end, with the dials of the components each turned up to a scientifically plausible maximum, there can be upwards of 100 millioncivilizations. More modern estimates put it much higher, with a high estimate of 280 million civilizations out there—right now—that we should be able to detect. Many of which should be much, much older and presumably much more advanced than ours, and spread throughout the universe.
That puts the question into some context by which we can think about it, and begin to understand some of the hypotheses.
Life is rare
The first group of hypotheses wrap around components 2–6 of the Drake equation, by asserting that each of these things are prohibitively rare. Even with more and more exoplanets being found all the time, theories go that having all the conditions is too fantastic of a proposition. We are biased to think we’re likely because we exist, but we must consider that our sun is just the right size, our planet is just the right kind of rocky and orbits in just the right zone around our star for favorable temperatures, we have just the right mix of chemicals present back in the day, we have a silent and invisible bodyguard in the solar system called Jupiter, &c &c. If any one of these links in the long chain that led to us was off, we wouldn’t be here. And for that reason, it’s just us.
There is another subcategory of why there are no aliens out there, but first let’s look at the reasons why they might be there, and being silent.
There are aliens out there, they’re just silent
There are a lot of these, but you can think of them as being a result of danger, policy, or logistics.
It’s possible that there exist untold dangers in space, and so it is wise to hide. This could be because a superpredator species patrols the darkness, ensuring its place atop the space food chain by destroying any others it comes into contact with, and so surviving species have learned to hide themselves. Broadcasting our presence on earth is like banging a drum and shouting while walking through a jungle teeming with hungry tigers.
Another of these explanations is that messages themselves might be dangerous. The threat comes from the ideas that are conveyed between the stars, that drive receiving species insane or trick them into self-destruction. Even if there’s no hope of bodily confronting aliens, you can’t even risk their information. So they go quiet.
It might be that—even if there’s no inherent risk in contact—after thinking about it long and hard, alien civilizations have decided as a whole that they’re not interested in communication with us. It could be an isolationist policy derived from philosophical principles or part of intergalactic agreements. Maybe we’ve already been violating that Treaty of Silence. It would be a terrifically weird first encounter to receive our first verifiable message from alien intelligence, only to have it read, “Hush, you.”
It could be that advanced civilizations agree not to unduly influence or “pollute” primitive ones. Maybe there’s an endangered planets law in effect that keeps aliens at bay from this mudball of monkeys. Or maybe we have some technological or ethical threshold to cross before they’re allowed contact. The threshold could be surpassing the speed of light, picking up the giant phone they left orbiting Jupiter for us, or demonstrating ethical maturity by demonstrating compassion for all living beings instead of you know, slaughtering and subjugating everything in sight for profit, sport, or lunch. I’m lovin’ it.
It could be that we are mistaken about the nature of our reality. Maybe we live in a carefully constructed zoo or farm, and zookeepers/ranchers only let visitors observe our habitat from a distance or under careful concealment, or when some of us are being harvested for the deep fryers. Perhaps some vast distance from the center of our sun is a spherical planetarium display on which an empty universe glows very, very convincingly for us (and behind which the aliens watch). Or maybe we’re wrong about the nature of everything, and we are part of a virtual reality program, only as self-aware as we have been programmed to be.
Or maybe it’s not deliberate at all. It’s just the way things work. Perhaps they are all shouting their greetings, but that communication comes as a rare beam that sweeps around its source every million years or so. If we just missed the last passes, we might just need to wait a few million years for the next broadcast. Maybe they’re like space cicadas, and their life cycles have them out of the ground (and detectable) only once every several thousand years.
Or maybe they are happy to answer our greeting, but we’re just impatient, because it will take our messages a very very long time to reach them? In this phone’s still ringing hypothesis, if they’re pretty far away, or think on a much slower time scale, we may need to keep saying hello for thousands or millions of years before they realize it isn’t just a weird blip on the radar.
It could be that we were just unlucky enough to have evolved in Hicksville, far away from the big city lights. As a result our messages dilute too much before it reaches them. Or maybe we’re uninteresting. Sure, they heard us, and we’re just an annoyance, messing with their reception of the latest episode of Game of Space Thrones.
It could be that space is bigger than we think, and the numbers of civilizations are lower than we thought, and the distribution is too great between us. We are seafarers living on very distant islands. One theory complicates the problem even further by saying it’s not just distribution in space but across dimensions, too.
It could be that we’re shouting through a tin can and they’re talking on cell phones. Maybe we just don’t have the right technology yet to detect their messages, and they’re not listening to our primitive electromagnetic waves. Do you spend time at a lake looking for messages in the ripples on the water? I don’t.
It could be (and this is my favorite) they’re just too alien for us to conceive. We expect them to be some variation of life on our planet, but they’re nothing like what our brains can handle. Think of how difficult it would be for ants to conceive of humans, or to understand our efforts at communication. They don’t have the eardrums to receive the signals as we do, or the memories to keep the first part of the sentence in place while we get to the end. If we bothered to figure out their chemical language, the best we could hope is to convey “done/not done,” “Protect the queen!” or some such. Even if we expose ourselves physically to them, if they can conceive of us at all, we would be “threat” or “large mammal” at best, or possibly even “vast, warmish, irregular, hairy landscapes.” Why would they think to communicate with the landscape? Why would we? We don’t have anything to say with ants, and we evolved on and live on the same planet.
That analogy helps explain another hypothesis. We are a species struggling with our own set of problems like feeding ourselves, caring for our young, avoiding wars, battling our worst natures, wondering about the meaning of life, enjoying life’s pleasures and getting there early enough for good seats at the sci-if movie. Our resources are already tapped out. How much money and effort do we want to spend trying to communicate with ants? It might just be too expensive in resources or effort to either colonize or communicate. They have other things on their minds.
A number of other hypothesis entail the last idea, that they are here, all around us, and they’re just well-hidden, perhaps for one of the other reasons we’ve already discussed.
So that is an overview of the reasons why they might be there but apparently silent from where we float. Let’s return now to the other (and darker) hypothesis about why they may not be out there at all.
Life doesn’t last
This last subcategory concerns the very last component of Drake’s equation, and that is how long civilizations tend to last in the universe, because of external or internal forces.
The universe is a chaotic place. Could it be that random natural disasters of an incalculable scale just occasionally happen? Like lightning that just seems to sort of appear out of nowhere and scar the ground as it leaps up to the skies, maybe events wipe out sections of the universe every billion years or so, and any civilizations that have evolved since then just go poof, caught up like ants unfortunate enough to have built their bed on the hill where the lightning is brewing. Consider that our sun has an estimated life span, and we only have about 5 billion years before it undergoes a transition to become a red giant, ballooning to eventually swallow Mars, Venus, and yes, Earth. To the best of our science, that’s a long way off but coming, and we have no idea how we would survive it.
Or maybe it’s some unfortunate fact about civilizations themselves. What if the sophistication that gives rise to civilization always entails self-destruction? Yes, we have sent Voyager into space, eradicated smallpox, and greatly eased life for some subset of humanity. But we’ve also trashed the planet, dumped millions of tons of plastic into our oceans that have broken down into a toxic slurry gyre that is poisoning our entire food chain. We’ve overfished the oceans and seas to the brink of extinction. We’ve relied on nuclear power that, when it fails, it maims and kills people in horrific ways and renders parts of the earth uninhabitable for millions of years. We continue to deplete limited natural resources for short term gains. We’ve overpopulated the planet to its breaking point, and anthropogenically warmed the atmosphere so that our glaciers are crumbling and weather patterns are swerving between greater and greater extremes. We are constantly at war with each other somewhere. We have poisoned, burned, gassed, and dropped fucking nuclear bombs on people. We’ve very nearly come to global thermonuclear war several times, rendering the surface of the planet a radioactive wasteland, fit only for the likes of insects and invertebrates. Every technology we build gets used for good and bad, and the more powerful those technologies become, the more at risk we put our very existence. Maybe this is some intractable truth for for every civilization in the universe, and not one of them has managed to control the technological genie once it’s out of the bottle.
OK. Whew. That’s it. Take a moment to walk off the existential dread there if you need to.
For purposes of argument, the literature about the we-are-alone hypotheses presume that there is one challenge that is greater than all the rest, and calls this the Great Filter. We’ll use the term as well. If the great filter is behind us, well, lucky us, but that will prove intergalactically lonely and a little depressing. This is it. We’re stuck with us. But hey, buck up little camper, at least we made it. We’re here. We got the chance to do the right thing.
If the great filter is ahead of us, in the form of a natural disaster or self-destruction, it goes from lonely to terrifying. Can we survive? What exactly is the nature of the threat? What do we need to do to prepare ourselves? Will our humanity survive The Thing We Must Do? Where do we put our resources in preparation?
Which brings us, as so many things do, to sci-fi, which I’ll talk about in the next post.
Forbidden Planet is an influential film not just because of its positive audience reaction and later cult success, but also because Gene Roddenberry has stated that it deeply influenced his massive science fiction property Star Trek, in look, general plot structure, and even some of the same effects.
The film is also notable for the introduction of Robbie the Robot, an anthropomorphic robot who was such a hit (and so expensive for MGM to create) that he warranted a follow-up movie all to himself, and inspired the creator Robert Kinoshita to make a similar robot for the long-running family-friendly serial Lost in Space.
But as much as we adore the nostalgic themes and effects, and as much as we recognize the influence of the film, our review must be of its interfaces, and for that it does not ultimately fare well.
Sci: B+ (3 of 4) How believable are the interfaces given the science of the day?
The Krell technology is meant to be advanced beyond our understanding of physics and technology, so the film shouldn’t be dinged for that. Robbie is somewhat problematic (how, again, does he hold and fire the gun?) but as a result of Krell enhancements, we can forgive a bit of that, too. The Terran technology in contrast scores higher, even with the invisible “force field” version of an electric fence.
Fi: B (3 of 4)
How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?
For a reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the interfaces could have easily been tacked on, unrelated to the central plot. But for the most part the interfaces are deeply integrated in the story, telling a tale of a man’s toying with technology that is terrifyingly advanced and ultimately uncontrollable. The film’s indulgence in some extraneous (and ultimately poorly thought out) “gee-whiz, what’ll they think of next?” moments are the main reason it does not warrant full marks.
Interfaces: F (0 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?
Between demure self-destruct mechanisms, death-prone trash bins, and critically unhelpful astrogator tools, the interfaces in Forbidden Planet are gory distaster scenes waiting to happen. There’s little that a designer would want to pull from these for their own work in the real world. Unless, perhaps, you’re Krell.
Final Grade C (6 of 12), MATINEE
Related lessons from the book
The astrogrator’s armillary would have worked in more circumstances with a dynamic, volumetric display (and some attention to visual hierarchy.) (Page 75)
Commander Adam’s Public Address system balances ease and control in activation (page 202) while also signaling state (page 202.) It also is an example of a Fixed Connection system (page 203).
With his language use (page 187), mobility, and ability to manipulate human objects, Robbie the Robot might have fallen into the Uncanny Valley (page 184). Fortunately his strange manner of speech and inhuman appearance clearly signals his inhuman-ness, as recommended on p185.
The handwave switches in Morbius house illustrate the first of Hollywood’s Gestural Pidgin (page 98): Wave to Activate.
Though the Krell technology has many usability problems, the Plastic Educator shaped the look of Volumetric Projections from this point to the present day in sci-fi (page 78), and will likely shape it for decades to come.
When Morbius has taken a mortal wound from his monster and destroyed his evil self, he realizes that mankind is not ready for the power available to him through the Krell technology. Without explaining what he’s doing, Morbius instructs Adams to turn “that disc”. Adams mindlessly obeys, and a plunger emerges from the floor near him.
Adams initiates the irreversible Krell self destruct mechanism.
Morbius commands Adams, “The switch, throw it.” Again, Adams does as he’s told, and the plunger clicks into place as a red ring (the same red ring below the educator lever) illuminates. Then, and only then, Morbius explains that, “In 24 hours you must be 100 million miles out in space. The Krell furnaces’ chain reaction… they cannot be reversed.” You think that with that kind of finality, he might have bothered to explain what was going to happen, or inquire whether the crew could make it out that far in that amount of time, but you know, science knows best.
The krell self-destruct warning signal is a silent, blinking red ring around the plunger.
Adding insult to injury, the complete warning system for this massive, solar-system-sized explosion consists of, in total, a silently pulsing red ring around the base of a plunger located in the heart of a hidden underground city behind a series of impenetrable doors sealed with combination locks. There is no klaxon, no lights seen elsewhere to indicate that your star system is about to go boom. I guess if you didn’t know, you didn’t really need to know.
The plastic educator has a side effect that serves as the mystery at the dark heart of the film. Use of the device gives rise to “monsters from the id,” which manifest while the user is asleep and attack the sleeper’s enemies. Our first clue to the origins of the monster appear when Morbius explains the Krell gauges.
The encyclopedia registers a negligible amount of power.
“Gauges line the curving walls of the lab in stacks of two,” Morbius explains, “Their calibrations appear to indicate that they are set in decimal series, each division recording exactly ten times as many amperes as the one preceding it. Ten times ten, times ten, times ten, times ten, times ten, on and on and on, row after row, gauge after gauge.”
He turns on the encyclopedia and a small bit of light appears on the first gauge. He turns on the plastic educator and the gauge shows a little more.
Asleep, Morbius’ id manifests as a horrible monster.
This explanation helps to set up the awesome power of Morbius’ monster when we see Morbius sleeping in the lab, and sixteen of the gauges are lit up. (It’s 10^16 times more powerful than an encyclopedia.) We know the (then) unbelievable technologies showed the barest sliver of a reading, and here they are blasting power to…somewhere.
After waking, both Morbius’ monster and the power gauges fade.
The connection is severed as Morbius awakens, and within seconds the monster fades and the gauges behind him dim one by one.
Adams wrestles Morbius into the seat of the educator.
This dramatic link is underscored when the monster has come into the underground city to destroy Morbius, Adams, and Alta. As Adams wrestles Morbius down, we hear the angry pounding of the monster against the vault like doors, and see the gauges glowing and fluctuating wildly in the background.
Dr. Morbius introduces the Krell plastic educator, saying, “As far as I can make out, they used it to condition and test their young, in much the same way as we once employed finger painting among our kindergarten children.”
Morbius grasps the educator’s head mount.
The device is a station at which the learner sits. There is a large dashboard before him, in turn before a space enclosed in a tetrahedral encasement of plastic. To his right is a large column made of plastic with red and yellow graduations running up the side. Inside the column is a strange shape like a lathed accordion, terminating in a pulsing ring that indicates a level against the graduations. An arced panel hangs from the ceiling with other printed graduations with lines of light above and below. Blue neon squiggles blink randomly along the walls.
Morbius demonstrates proper placement of the educator interface.
To activate the station, the learner grasps a pair of curved metal arms, which are connected at a hinged base and tipped with crystal orbs. He leans forward, rests his forehead on a third arm, and pulls the pair of arms to rest on his temples. He turns a pair of dials on the dashboard before him, and the crystal orbs on all three arms glow, indicating that the headset is operational.
Morbius points to the intelligence indicator.
Adams and Doc try to guage their own IQs.
The device’s immediate result is that the accordion shape inside the column rises such that the lit ring indicates the intelligence of the user. (To Adams’ and Doc’s dismay, their readings are much lower than Morbius’.)
With the press of a lever Morbius manifests a thought visually.
The primary function of the device is for the user to make a thought of theirs manifest in the tetrahedral space. The user concentrates on the thing, and then pulls a lever at the base of the headset. A red ring at the base of the headset illuminates, and a material appears above a pedestal at the base of the tetrahedron. By concentrating, the user shapes this material into the desired thing. Morbius shapes it into an image of Alta. The image is a scaled, translucent, volumetric display of Alta, which moves and smiles just as she would.
The projection ceases immediately when the mechanism is removed.
To stop using the device and shut down the projection, the learner simply lifts the lever and removes the headset from contact, and the orbs, the red ring, and the volumetric projection all fade within moments.
Finished with his demonstration, Morbius turns the educator off.
Turning the dashboard off requires a user to turn two free-spinning dials that sit to each side of the headset inwards. The lights of the dashboard fade.
Morbius is the inheritor of a massive underground complex of technology once belonging to a race known as the Krell. As Morbius explains, “In times long past, this planet was the home of a mighty and noble race of beings which called themselves the Krell .”
Morbius tours Adams and Doc through the Krell technopolis.
“Ethically as well as technologically, they were a million years ahead of humankind; for in unlocking the mysteries of nature they had conquered even their baser selves seemingly on the threshold of some supreme accomplishment which was to have crowned their entire history, this all but divine race perished in a single night.
“In the centuries since that unexplained catastrophe even their cloud-piercing towers of glass and porcelain and adamantine steel have crumbled back into the soil of Altair, and nothing—absolutely nothing—remains above ground.”
Despite this advancement, unless we ascribe to the Krell some sort of extra sensory perception and control, much of the technology we see has serious design flaws.
Morbius plays half-a-million-year-old Krell music.
The first piece of technology is a Krell recorded-music player, which Morbius keeps on the desk in his study. The small cylindrical device stands upright, bulging slighty around its middle. It is made of a gray metal, with a translucent pink band just below the middle. A hollow button sits on top.
The cylinder rests in a clear plastic base, with small, identical metal slugs sitting upright in recessions evenly spaced around it. To initiate music playback, Morbius picks one of the slugs and inserts it into the hollow of the button. He then depresses the momentary button once. The pink translucent band illuminates, and music begins to flow from unseen speakers around the office.
Modern audiences have a good deal of experience with music players, and so the device raises a great many questions. How does a user know which slug relates to what music? The slugs all look the same so this seems difficult at best. How does a user eject the slug? If by upending the device, one hopes that the cylinder comes free from the base easily, or the other slugs will all fall out as well. It must have impressed audiences to see music contained in such small containers, but otherwise the device is more attractive than usable.
Morbius inputs the combination to open the door.
Many Krell doors are protected by a combination lock. The mechanism stands high enough that Morbius can easily reach out and operate it. Its large circular face has four white triangles printed on its surface at the cardinal points, and other geometric red and yellow markings around the remainder. A four-spoke handle is anchored to a swivel joint at the center of the face. To unlock the door, a user twists the handle such that one of its spokes lines up with the north point, and then angles the handle to touch the spoke to the triangle there, before returning the handle to a neutral angle and twisting to the next position in the combination. When the sequence is complete, the triangles, the tips of the spokes, and a large ring around the face all light up and blink as the two-plane aperture doors slide open.
Even Walter Pigeon has trouble making sense of this awkward device. There appear to be no snap-to affordances for the neutral angle of the handle or the cardinal orientations, leaving the user unsure if each step in the sequence has been received correctly. Additionally, if the combination consists of particular spokes at this one point, why are the spokes undifferentiated? If the combination consists of pointing to different triangles, why are there four spokes instead of one? Is familiarity with some subtle cue part of the security measures?
Morbius shares operation of the Krell encyclopedia.
All of Krell wisdom and knowledge is contained in a device that Morbius shows to Adams and Doc. It consists of an underlit scroll of material sliding beneath a rectangular hole cut in the surface of a table. To illuminate it, Morbius turns one of the two ridged green dials located to the left of the screen about 45 degrees clockwise. To move the scroll, Morbius turns the other green dial clockwise as well.
Why is the least frequently used dial, i.e. the power button, closer than the more frequently used button, i.e. the scroll wheel? This requires the reader to be stretched awkwardly. Why is the on-off dial free spinning? There appear to be only two states: lit and unlit. The dial should have two states as well. If the content of the pages is discretely chunked into pages, it would also argue for a click-stop rather than free-spinning dial as well, but we do not get a good look at the scroll contents. One might also question the value of a scroll as the organizing method for a vast body of information, since related bits of information may be distractingly far apart.
Aside from Robbie, we see two other instances of Morbius’ post-Krell inventions, each of which is lacking in its own way.
A tossed orange demonstrates the very dangerous disposal system.
The first is the disposal, which is housed in a cylindrical nook off of the living room. The smooth walls of this nook are covered in the same metallic, cupric material as a short pedestal seated within. When something is tossed into the nook above the pedestal, it is instantly disintegrated in streaks of green-white energy. There is no indication that the device can distinguish between garbage to be disintegrated and, say, human flesh, but even if it can, the utter irreversibility of the action begs for some additional step of confirmation and safety.
Commander Adams discovers Morbius’ hidden door.
The second is the secret door from Morbius’ study to the Krell complex. It is a recessed stretch of wall off of the living room. Adams discovers it accidentally when he approaches and to his amazement, it slides open by dint of his mere proximity. If this is meant to be either secret or secure, it fails on both counts.