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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Who did it better? Fingernail-o-matic edition

The Fifth Element

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When in The Fifth Element the Mangalore Aknot calls Zorg to report that the “mission is accomplished,” we get a few seconds of screen time with Zorg’s secretary who receives the call. During this moment, she’s a bit bored, and idly shoves a finger into a small, lipstick-case sized device. When she removes it, the device has colored her fingernail a lovely shade of #81002c.

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The small device is finger-sized, the industrial design feels very much like cosmetics, and its simple design clearly affords inserting a finger. There’s also a little icon on the side that indicates its color. This one device speaks well of what the entire line of products might look like. All told, a simple and lovely interaction in a domain, i.e. cosmetics, that typically doesn’t get a lot of attention in sci-fi.

But what is even more remarkable is that this isn’t the only fingernail interface in the Make It So survey. There is one other, 7 years earlier, and it happens to be used by someone with the exact same job. This other interface comes from the 1990 movie Total Recall.

Total Recall (1990)

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As you can see, this receptionist has an interface for coloring her nails as well, but the interaction is entirely different. This device has something like a a tablet with a connected stylus. It displays 16 color options in a full screen grid. She selects a particular color with the tap of the stylus. Then when she taps the stylus to a nail, the nail wipe-transitions to the new color from the tip to the cuticle.

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This device is cumbersome. It’s not something that could fit into a purse. Does she just leave it on her desk? Doesn’t her supervisor have opinions about that? My sense is that this is something better suited to a salon than an office space.

As a selection and application mechanism, the stylus is a bad choice. It requires quite a bit of precision to tap the tip of the nail. Our old friend Paul Fitts certainly would use something different for his nails. Since the secretary has to have to have some kind of high-tech coating, perhaps similar to electrophoretic ink, why is the stylus necessary at all? Can’t she just tap her fingernails to the color square of her choice? That would disintermediate the interaction and save her the hassle of targeting her nails with that stylus, especially when she has to switch to her off-hand.

The color display poses some other interesting problems as well. It needs to show colors, but why just 16? We don’t see any means of selecting others. Are these just this season’s most popular? Why not offer her any color she likes? Or some means of capturing her current outfit and suggesting colors based on that? Even the layout is problematic. Because of the effect of simultaneous contrast, the perception of a color alters when seen directly adjacent to other colors. These squares should have some sort of neutral border around them to make perception of them more “true.” But why should we burden her with having to imagine what the color will look like? Show her an image of her hand and let her see in advance what the new color will look like on her fingers. Any sort of low-level augmented reality would help her feel less like she’s picking paint for her living room wall.

And the winner is…

Comparing the two, I’d say that The Fifth Element fingernail-o-matic wins out. It’s more personal, more ergonomic, fits into the user’s lifestyle more, feels more fashionable than techy (which that receptionist clearly cares about). Yes, it’s more restricted in choices, but I’d much rather figure out how to augment that little device with a color selector than try to make a stylus and tablet fingernail-o-matic actually work.