The Fermi Paradox and Sci-fi

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

No Aliens

8% Life is rare: Battlestar Galactica (2004)
25% Life doesn’t last (Natural disasters): Deep Impact, The CoreArmaggedon
8% Life doesn’t last (Technology will destroy us): Forbidden Planet

Silent Aliens

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.

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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 ethically
  • 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.

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Report Card: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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Oh, for the days when a movie had only five technologies to review.

Sci: A (4 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

Keep in mind that we’re not entirely concerned with the believability of the technology, just the believability of the interface. So, we get to bypass all the messy questions about how a technology brings someone back after death, and ask instead could that technology be operated by a wall switch? And the answer is, even though most of them could be improved, yes.

  • Sure, Gort could be the primary control mechanism for the ship, with a voice input.
  • Sure, everything in the ship could be gestural, if it’s meant for security

The only notable exception is the ridiculous design of the learning device. But, hey, royals have given each other Imperial (Fabergé) eggs before, so maybe the delicacy is part of the expression. I’ll cut it some slack.

Fi: A (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

Especially for 1951, this must have been a mind-blowing vision of technology. Robots with disintegrator beams for eyes. Electronics you don’t even touch. A Lazarus table that can bring people back from dead with the flip of a switch? It all painted a picture that was terrifically alien and advanced, greatly contrasting the mundane technology seen elsewhere in the film.

Interfaces: C (2 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

One of the interfaces is awesome: The gestural security. The rest of the interfaces have some major room for improvement.

  • The doors should really be operable in the absense of Gort.
  • Gort’s pretty awesome, but some audible output would be nice for feedback or conversation across the long stretches of interstellar travel.
  • The revival table should really be more automatic.
  • The learning device, well, failed Klaatu in many, many ways.

Final Grade B+ (10 of 12), MUST-SEE

Related lessons from the book

  • Gort is sticks to obvious representation, his dull visage matching his muteness and lack of real intelligence. (Chapter 9)
  • The communication device kind-of signaled while recording (though I suspect it was really signaling that it was just on) (page 200)
  • The communications panel did not minimize the number of controls (page 204)
  • The gestural interfaces embodied the first of the gestural pidgin (Wave to activate) identified in chapter 5.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is full of some very forward-looking interfaces for its time, and was created without regard to cultural conventions of today. I highly recommend it, even for all its moralistic posturing and strange ethnocentrism. Also for some of the best end title typography in all of ever.

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The Pointlessly Menacing Learnerator

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Though their spaceship and robot technology are far superior to Terran technology, alien gadget tech trails pathetically. How else to explain a learning device whose affordance is at best part prickly eggbeater and part disturbing sex toy? It is also sad that its designers didn’’t think to use the same material in Gort and the spaceship—impervious as it is to bullets and our finest welding—instead opting to use a material that suffers catastrophic impact failure when dropped from a height of three feet onto a bed of grass. Perhaps in the future mankind will find its place in the universe offering basic material consultancy and product design to otherwise-superior alien species.

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The Revival Chamber

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When Gort brings Klaatu’s body back to the ship for revival, he saunters ominously past the terrified Helen and lays the body on a table. He lowers the lights gesturally, and then flips a switch on the wall to the right of the chamber. As a result, the surface of the table illuminates beneath Klaatu, a buzz begins and increases in volume and insistency, and a light illuminates in a tube near Klaatu’s head. Some unknown time later, Klaatu wakes up, brought back to life with time enough to deliver a terrible warning to the people of Earth.

As an interface, it seems as simple as it gets, but it could be done better. Attach some sensors to detect weight load on the table, and some biometric sensors to detect if the body is dead or alive. If the body is dead and sits in the right position, start the revival procedure. This automatic procedure would be useful for Klaatu if he was dying and Gort was not around. He could just climb on to the table and the moment he passed, systems would kick into gear that would revive him.

Remember, Klaatunians, even when you think you’ve finished your designs, pause and think, “This is awesome, yet, how could I improve it even more?”

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Klaatunian interior

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When the camera first follows Klaatu into the interior of his spaceship, we witness the first gestural interface seen in the survey. To turn on the lights, Klaatu places his hands in the air before a double column of small lights imbedded in the wall to the right of the door. He holds his hand up for a moment, and then smoothly brings it down before these lights. In response the lights on the wall extinguish and an overhead light illuminates. He repeats this gesture on a similar double column of lights to the left of the door.

The nice thing to note about this gesture is that it is simple and easy to execute. The mapping also has a nice physical referent: When the hand goes down like the sun, the lights dim. When the hand goes up like the sun, the lights illuminate.

He then approaches an instrument panel with an array of translucent controls; like a small keyboard with extended, plastic keys. As before, he holds his hand a moment at the top of the controls before swiping his hand in the air toward the bottom of the controls. In response, the panels illuminate. He repeats this on a similar panel nearby.

Having activated all of these elements, he begins to speak in his alien tongue to a circular, strangely lit panel on the wall. (The film gives no indication as to the purpose of his speech, so no conclusions about its interface can be drawn.)

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Gort also operates the translucent panels with a wave of his hand. To her credit, perhaps, Helen does not try to control the panels, but we can presume that, like the spaceship, some security mechanism prevents unauthorized control.

Missing affordances

Who knows how Klaatu perceives this panel. He’s an alien, after all. But for us mere humans, the interface is confounding. There are no labels to help us understand what controls what. The physical affordances of different parts of the panels imply sliding along the surface, touch, or turning, not gesture. Gestural affordances are tricky at best, but these translucent shapes actually signal something different altogether.

Overcomplicated workflow

And you have to wonder why he has to go through this rigmarole at all. Why must he turn on each section of the interface, one by one? Can’t they make just one “on” button? And isn’t he just doing one thing: Transmitting? He doesn’t even seem to select a recipient, so it’s tied to HQ. Seriously, can’t he just turn it on?

Why is this UI even here?

Or better yet, can’t the microphone just detect when he’s nearby, illuminate to let him know it’s ready, and subtly confirm when it’s “hearing” him? That would be the agentive solution.

Maybe it needs some lockdown: Power

OK. Fine. If this transmission consumes a significant amount of power, then an even more deliberate activation is warranted, perhaps the turning of a key. And once on, you would expect to see some indication of the rate of power depletion and remaining power reserves, which we don’t see, so this is pretty doubtful.

Maybe it needs some lockdown: Security

This is the one concern that might warrant all the craziness. That the interface has no affordance means that Joe Human Schmo can’t just walk in and turn it on. (In fact the misleading bits help with a plausible diversion.) The “workflow” then is actually a gestural combination that unlocks the interface and starts it recording. Even if Helen accidentally discovered the gestural aspect, there’s little to no way she could figure out those particular gestures and start intergalactic calls for help. And remembering that Klaatu is, essentially, a space ethics reconn cop, this level of security might make sense.

Gort!

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Gort is one of the most well known film robots from the 1950s. (He predates the most well-known robot, Robbie, by about 5 years.) His silent imperviousness, menacing slowness, and awesome disintegration ray make him an intimidating puzzle to the characters that face him. (“Him?” you may be wondering. The gender is apparent from the original script.) Klaatu explains that Gort was created as part of an interplanetary police force, there to ensure “complete elimination of aggression.” Klaatu explains that upon witnessing violence robots like Gort “act automatically against the aggressor,” though this behavior can be overridden. In this role Gort acts more like an independent character than a computer. Still, he is a robot, and dealings with Gort involve three interfaces: voice control, his visor, and something akin to Aldis lamp Morse code.

Voice Control

Gort emerges when Klaatu is wounded by a nervous and hair-triggered soldier. Gort eliminates the immediate threats with his disintegrator ray and seems intent on killing the tank commander when Klaatu issues a command in an alien language, “Gort! Deglet ovrosco!” Immediately after hearing the instruction Gort remains motionless. Gort obeys this order until Klaatu gives him another signal by a light code, discussed below.

Gort is not just keyed to Klaatu’s voice. When Helen approaches Gort, he begins to attack her. When she speaks the words, “Klaatu barada nikto” (Yes, that Klaatu barada nikto) to Gort, he ceases his attack and carries her into the heart of the spaceship, where she is imprisoned and protected until Gort fetches and revives Klaatu. It is clearly just the words that Gort responds to, and not the speaker. This seems like a pretty big security flaw. Can any criminal issue this command and get off scot-free? Learn the Gortian command for “shoot to kill” and suddenly your protector is your assassin? This brings us, as so many things do in sci-fi, to multifactor authentication. I’ll just leave that there.

Visor

Gort’s disintegrator ray emerges from a visor slot on his head. Gort must raise the visor before using the weapon. When armed, a small light illuminates and cyclically scans left and right in the visor space. These two modes, i.e. the visor’s being up and the light, act as increasingly escalated signals to any observers of the seriousness of the situation.

The army intuitively understands the meaning of this signal even having never before experienced it. They all back away in fear, and rightly so. As such the visor acts as a signal of the readiness of a very dangerous weapon.

Aldis signaling

One night Klaatu sneaks from the boarding house back to the spaceship, around which the army has placed guards and a barrier. Klaatu finds a viewing window in the barrier, but Gort is facing away from it. To get Gort’s attention silently, Klaatu uses a flashlight to shine a series of Morse-code-like* signals onto a wall that Gort faces. In response, Gort turns to the source of the light. Klaatu continues to signal Gort directly on his visor. In this way Klaatu reactivates Gort.

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This sequence implies that there are a series of channels by which Gort could be signaled, each allowing for a different constraint. Though codes like the Aldis code have a steep learning curve, and might not be recommended for more intermediate users, they clearly have their uses in mission-critical systems that are prone to the chaos of landing on alien worlds.

*It’s not real Morse code since the third “letter” is 8 “dots,” way beyond the maximum 5 defined in Morse.

The ship’s ramp and doors

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External door & ramp

The door to the ship is a vertical slit in the otherwise seamless fuselage. The ramp extends and retracts as part of the door’s function. Gort is the only one in control of it. Klaatu can instruct Gort to open it with the command “Beringa!” and Gort wirelessly initiates the opening sequence.

This might seem to be a questionable security feature, since if Gort is not around, Klaatu cannot enter into the sanctuary of his ship. Fortunately Gort is both indestructible and immovable. The only time he leaves the proximity of the ship is after Klaatu dies. So it seems like his is like an invincible, semi-intelligent, and loyal concierge.

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Internal doors

The internal doors are operated by proximity, but only open for Gort and Klaatu. They remain shut even as Helen pounds against them. This implies a combination of proximity sensor and some form of authentication. Since the ship does not display any of the intelligence that Gort does, this authentication is more likely to be something like an RFID chip than biometric authentication.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951): Overview

Release Date: 28 Sep 1951, United States

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In 1951 a mysterious spaceship lands in a Washington, D.C. baseball diamond in broad daylight. From it a man named Klaatu, clad in a concealing space suit, appears. Misinterpreting his actions, a soldier wounds the man. A robot emerges from the ship armed with a disintegration ray that destroys weaponry and tanks. The alien tells the robot, named Gort, to stop, freezing it in its place. Klaatu is apprehended and taken to a hospital under guard. Out of his spacesuit, he is quite human-looking, and escapes the hospital to spend a few days among the human populace, learning about the way of life on Earth and befriending a woman named Helen and her young son. The U.S. Army catches up with him and kills him as he flees. Following Klaatu’s instructions, Helen issues an alien-language command to Gort, who sequesters her in the spaceship before retrieving Klaatu and reviving him. The revived Klaatu dons his space suit again and speaks to a gathering of scientists outside the spaceship, explaining that his research has uncovered the aggressiveness of our species, and issuing a stern warning against bringing our violence to any other planet. Having passed his judgment, he enters his ship and flies away.