I fall into the simplicity trap as much as others who consider extraterrestrial First Contact. The simplicity trap is speculation that cleans up the fuzzy edges and assumes First Contact will be something easy to grasp. Our scientific efforts rarely work that way. Much of human endeavor is murky, complicated and challenging. Even a clear and obvious First Contact scenario would come with many complications and surprises. In any First Contact event it’s not just a question of alien actions and motives, but also of human reactions and responses.
Perhaps the most disturbing alien contact scenario, aside from outright hostile action on the part of extraterrestrials, would be mysterious First Contact. I would define this as evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life, without a clear welcome or declaration of intent. Arthur C. Clarke wrote the definitive science fiction story with this plot: Rendezvous with Rama. Future humans encounter an alien craft headed toward Earth. They explore the craft and find only more mysteries. The novel concludes with the extraterrestrial spacecraft using the sun’s gravitational pull to throw it out towards a far-flung galaxy. We never really know the purpose of the craft or the motives of the Ramans, as the humans call them. It’s an interesting dilemma: the thrill of discovery mixed with fear of the unknown and Clarke does a great job building the tension.
That tension comes from the path of the spacecraft in Rendezvous with Rama. It’s headed near Earth. The proximity of extraterrestrial intelligence to the Earth would be the prime factor in how humans respond to a mysterious First Contact event. If we discover an engineered signal coming from a far-off star system the threat is lessened. If we discover an alien craft rounding Jupiter and headed to Earth, well, needless to say, that ratchets up the worry considerably.
Fear thrives on lack of information. In such a case, speculation would run rampant. Without solid facts to counter such speculation, it could go beyond the province of internet gossip mongers and impact the wider human population. Protection of Earth would become a big issue in any scenario. I would imagine we could expect much more debate about space monitoring and probably space defense. The lack of an acknowledged authority at the international level could make it worse. While people seem to trust the United Nations for the coordination of space treaties and the cataloging of space junk (as tracked by NASA, among others), there is still no real authority given to the Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The United States and China would share a common threat (or perception of threat we should say) and yet that’s no guarantee they would actually work together. One would hope the UN Security Council would be seen as an international authority, but even that group is fraught with conflict and challenges. And there are other concerns, beyond the political. Space defense technology would rely on extra-planet missile defense, which is not allowed under UN treaty. And any build up of arms in space would be a threat to Earth.
For these reasons I would argue that close proximity mysterious First Contact would be the near worst case scenario (next to an all-out alien invasion, oh so favored by our friends in Hollywood). Mysterious First Contact would create a degree of paranoia that could make human interactions dangerous and foul the waters if the extraterrestrials did eventually decide to communicate with humans.
There is certainly not much we could do to counteract such a situation. We could only control our own reaction and hope that cooler heads prevail here on Earth. Perhaps such a mysterious First Contact would actually bring nations closer together, as they rally around a common cause?
The only advice I can provide would be to any extraterrestrials planning a visit in the future. Please let us know that you are coming and, perhaps most importantly, why you are coming. We have enough problems down here as it is. Thanks.
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