Orson Scott Card on Extraterrestrial Life

Jim Fleming:  So, here's where I get stuck.  I can imagine that scientists will find life somewhere out there in the Universe.  What I can't imagine is what will happen next.   So thank goodness for science fiction writers.  Let’s turn to Orson Scott Card, one of the best-known science fiction writers alive.  His classic novel “Ender’s Game”appears on every top 10 list and is a classroom staple in high schools and colleges.  A new sequel just came out, called “Shadows in Flight.” But Steve Paulson wanted to go back to the beginning.  We reached Orson Scott Card at his home in North Carolina.

Steve Paulson:  I want to take you back to the very first book, “Ender’s Game,”because one of the big questions is, how would we respond to the news that we’ve made contact with an alien species?  Why did this idea interest you?

Orson Scott Card:  It only interested me really because it's happened time and time again, in human history.  We are constantly running into people who seem strange to us, people who speak different languages, people who look different, have different racial characteristics, have different customs, don't subscribe to our worldview, don't share our religion. These contacts have almost always resulted in quite awful things happening.  The constant is that we are frightened of what is different and new, and yet we're attracted by it; we're drawn to it.

Paulson:  And it seems to me that the stakes get raised quite a bit if we don't actually understand this alien species.   Let’s speculate how this might work.   In your books, there is this entirely different kind of intelligence, what you describe as the “formics”.  It’s a sort of ant-like species --super intelligent with a hive mind.  And we don't know how to communicate with them.

Card:   Yeah, they've never developed the language.   I was consciously working with the fact that when Columbus first came to the Americas he brought with him interpreters who could speak or make themselves known in every language that he could think of.  But they couldn’t communicate with the inhabitants they found here, and so he wrote in his log, “The natives here have no language.”   Well, that is literally true in the case of the formics.  They have no language; they have no need of it; they communicate in a way that is beyond, above, behind, below language, so that words never became necessary.   Their memory is excellent, and they share memories -- they have memory dump capabilities between individuals --  and so there was never a need for any language to evolve.

Paulson:  And, of course, what happens in “Ender's Game”  is that there’s war...

Card: Absolutely.

Paulson: ...at first contact, and the aliens attack without realizing that the humans are a sentient species. Because we're so different, and we don’t have the hive mind.

Card:   They were at least as bigoted as we were, in this story, because they assumed that any sentient being they met would be like them.  That is, with a central queen who was the mind of the group, and a bunch of expendable workers.   And so they signaled their intentions by killing a few workers --  it’s not a big deal, no reason to fight a war.  They think they’re trying to communicate but the result is, humans are dying and we've got to put a stop to it.  And we do.  There’s no doubt, in “Ender's Game” or in “Ender's Shadow”, that humans have a right to defend themselves and certainly have a reason to defend themselves.  The tragedy is that we  think the enemy's purpose is malevolent, whereas once they've failed to establish this colony, they really intend to leave us alone.  They have no interest in running up against us anymore, but we don't know that and have no way of knowing that.  They attacked us once, and we assumed they're going to attack again.   And as any good military thinker knows, what do you do with an enemy like that?  You take preemptive action.

Paulson:  Let me make this a little more personal for you.  Suppose there was news that an alien species, a highly intelligent species, was moving around our solar system with the capability of coming to Earth.  Would you be scared?

Card:  That news has been circulating since the first U.F.O. sightings.  I just don't believe it.  So what you’re really saying is that it has to be credible news.  It has to be news coming from a credible source.

Paulson: Right.  Credible news, yes.

Card:   In that case, I’d be among the last to hear, naturally --  I have no inside line.  And so, it'd be covered by the news.  Now, in what way would it be framed?  How would that contact have been made? If the news is, “this is so exciting, they're talking to us, they're coming to Earth to visit,”that suggests one kind of communication.  But if the news is, “several humans have been killed, a ship has been exploded, our satellites are being swallowed up,” that's a different kind of news.  It’s never going to come as just: “Whoa, aliens have been found!”  We're going to be told the nature of the contact and we're going to make assumptions based on the nature of the contact. But let’s say the communication is excellent, and these aliens are going to be visiting Earth.   They either come from Earth-like planets or they don't.  If they don't, we're pretty safe, because we’ve got nothing they want.  They’re going to want to find a world that's like theirs and they’re not going to be able to make much use of worlds that aren’t.   But if they're like us, if they can breathe our atmosphere, if they use the same kind of life principles that we use, then I would not be so much scared as suspicious.

Paulson:  Now, of course, there’s another dimension to any kind of first contact, and that's not just how would we respond to the aliens -- would we go to war, would we try to negotiate with them, whatever. There’s also: what will we do among ourselves?   The way this plays out in your “Ender’s”books, there is massive political realignment.  There’s  a common enemy out there, and warring parties on Earth have to come together to deal with this threat.

Card:  Well, when the aliens show up and their first action is to start terra-forming Earth – that is, remaking it -- wiping out our biosphere, killing every human that they find, that sort of focuses one’s attention.   T hat's just history talking.   But if they come in a way that is not hostile, not obviously murderous on its face, then we start competing for their attention.  If it seems like they might be bringing benefits, then aren’t we going to be furious if they go first to London or first to Beijing, and not to New York or Washington.  History is the great teacher:  if you want to see what humans beings would do if aliens show up, see what China did when the Spanish showed up with silver to trade, or see what the American Indians did when the Spaniards came up.  Or see what Africans did when Europeans came offering money for slaves.

Paulson: Well, in most of the examples that you just gave, the history is not pretty, especially for the natives.

Card:  Well, not always especially for the natives. You know, when Europeans showed up in Africa, the Europeans died like flies because we didn’t have immunity to the diseases that were endemic in Africa.  We were sitting ducks and that kept Africa safe for a long time. The reverse was true when we came to the Americas: we had diseases that they were not able to cope with, and so most of the time, Europeans were moving into a decimated population.

Paulson:  There’s also a science question at the heart of this kind of story, of contact with an alien civilization, and that is whether some other kind of civilization would be very different than we are -- as is the premise in your book. Do you accept that basic premise?

Card: Well, we only have one example of high intelligence that has done what the humans have done, which is we have moved our evolution off the gene and into the meme, so that genes are now nearly irrelevant to human evolution.  We now are able to allow human beings who have bad teeth or have genetic defects or who are susceptible to various diseases.   We now are able to survive, because we are able to pool our knowledge, pass it from generation to generation, from culture to culture, from tribe to tribe, from nation to nation, so that human progress is able to spread throughout the species independent of genetic survival.  So, we have to assume that that's the only kind of alien we’re likely to have come to us, because they will have a technology that requires that. We'll have common ground.

Paulson:  Of course, another thing that might happen is that they might be us. You know, we might be going out and colonizing the galaxy. Do you think that's in our future? Does it have to be in our future, if the human species is going to survive?

Card: I think it would be highly desirable. You know, right now, we're still completely vulnerable to the random asteroid strike -- to a star, or other heavy object passing near our solar system.  We have no guarantee that the asteroid that will wipe out all life on Earth is not ten years away from us right now, on a collision course with us that we simply cannot evade.  You know:  “it’s curtains!”   The only defense against that is to have dispersed.    That sounds really improbable while Newt Gingrich is ridiculed for saying, “We're going to put a base on the Moon,” butthe truth is, somebody somewhere really should have the vision to prepare to defend Earth against the asteroid strikes that are avoidable, and to disperse the human race to other habitable worlds, where we can become self-sustaining populations, so that an asteroid strike doesn't wipe us out.

Paulson:  Of course, there would be all kinds of moral and ethical issues that would come up if we start colonizing -- not only the rest of the Solar System, but beyond.

Card:  Well, absolutely.  I mean if you go to another world, either it has life or it doesn't.  If it doesn't, then it's not going to have an oxygen atmosphere.  Our oxygen atmosphere is the result of life on Earth, not the cause of it.  Life evolved in a methane atmosphere and changed it.  The oxygen we breathe is the product of life.   And so, what we're going to find is that if there’s no life, it’s going to take a long time when we introduce life, to make it habitable by human beings.  If there already is life, the only way to make it life that we can use is to come in and basically short-circuit the development of that life into what it was naturally going to evolve to, and take over the world .Now personally, I have no problem with this.  We’re life -- that's one of the things that happens.  If we're not wiping out a sentient species, my answer is: yeah, we do have a right to defend ourselves against future asteroid strikes or other astronomical disasters by establishing ourselves on other worlds.