This Galaxy Ain’t Master of Orion (or, why its probably not aliens)

Have you heard? Holy shit have you heard? The aliens have come!

But I ask you, what is more likely, visitors from light years away, or experimental and unfamiliar man made objects from here on Earth? The answer is pretty obvious, especially when you consider that the increased use of weather balloons and jet aircraft just so happened to coincide with the first spate of UFO sightings in the 50s, and the second round in the 90s was all about strange looking black triangles that just so happened to be a match for the F-117 and B-2 bomber. We currently live in a time of rapidly expanding drone capabilities. Just a year ago, Turkish drones supplied to the Azerbaijani army played a crucial role in Karabakh War 2.0, most likely setting off a top secret expansion of the drone arms race between all countries capable of fielding advanced flying death robots.

This is to say nothing of the fact that we have yet to prove it is even theoretically possible to move anything above the quantum level in size faster than light. The most promising path towards doing this, at least in terms of not breaking the laws of physics, is warp drive (by moving space itself rather than the ship), something so energy intensive we do not yet know its actual feasibility. For all we know whether the Milky Way is teeming with sentience or not, everyone might be confined to a fairly narrow range of expansion due to the simple speed limit of physics itself.

So once again, drones. Human piloted drones. Different powers experimenting and maybe even different branches of the same governments experimenting without each other’s knowledge. Either way, expect it to be referenced as a reason to increase the Pentagon’s budget again next fiscal year. Gee, how convenient.

But this brings me to a further criticism that goes a bit further. We often see people, even imaginative and critical thinking people, who seem to be operating under a Star Trek like delusion that its not just space that can be overcome into a waiting world of space-faring species…but time.

You see, too many people expecting to just be bombarded with alien life once we get that Cochrane Warp Drive online are ignoring the fact that the universe is already at least 13 billion years old. Heavy elements formed in the hearts of supergiant stars had already seeded space a long time ago. In the immenseness of the cosmos, almost certainly some worlds have proven amenable to the evolution of sentient intelligence. And some, maybe most of those, are already extinct or have yet to become space fairing.

The specific epoch which we find ourselves is on Earth-time. And even Earth time is already so ancient some can legitimately ask, what if we weren’t the first ones here? What if the first signs of alien life we find off of Earth is itself from Earth originally? And whether its origin be Earth or Tau Ceti, what if we need an archeologist before we need a diplomat? Or, conversely, any future sentient life bearing world we find just isn’t developed or even industrial yet? Since we have no idea how life evolves outside of Earth its quite possible we couldn’t recognize any of these categories even if they exist.

Just going into space isn’t going to be a shield from extinction. A species is still first and foremost primed to survive on the homeworld for gravity, pressure, atmospheric composition, etc. This is not the same as Polynesian emigration through the Pacific. And if something happens to the homeworld the colonies might die. Or if something happens to the sector like a nearby supernova, whole solar systems’ livability might degrade. So too might nanotechnology or some other artificial force go out of control. In older galaxies like ours, there just is no common time scale between systems.

The assumption that this is not a major factor in decreasing the likelihood of any contact is something I want to call ‘The Master of Orion factor’. In space-set 4X games (usually turn based computer games based around eXpansion, eXtermination, eXploration, and eXploitation) all of the space fairing nations start out at the same time and with roughly comparable technology. This is done for obvious game balance reasons, of course. But I can’t help but think this mode of fictional thinking has infiltrated popular consciousness along with the idea that we can take it for granted that greater technology will make breaking the light barrier inevitable.

Master of Orion II, as the best of the series (and the series in turn the best of the space based 4X-though not the best overall 4X, more on what game I think that is in a later post all to itself) has these conceits of course. Yet it still managed to work in an utterly alien non-player race everyone fights with *and* a playable silicate-mineral race whose playstyle is totally different from the rest and cannot engage in meaningful diplomacy. For 1996, this is pretty good. But we need to realize that in the real world, even if we do meet another species before we ourselves leave only ruins to be inherited by the sentient dolphins who came to replace us, probably will not be conducting too much discourse with equals but rather unequals in either direction.

Of course, there was another game that came out in 1996 that I happen to be replaying this month for the first time in decades that shows us who we can call if we do meet aliens and we don’t like them:

‘Nobody steals our chicks and lives.’

And that concludes what has to be the most 90s post I have ever made. That part was unintentional, but it kind of works as that was the last time people were really into aliens and UFOs. And I still regard The X Files as one of the greatest TV shows of all time (though it is telling that the more earthy monster episodes tend to be better than the alien ones).

On the Execrable and Vapid Trend of ‘Awareness Movies’

Awareness movies. They used to plague movie trailer watching in theaters during the second term of the Bush administration like swarms of locusts. Hollywood wanted to prove to people that it too read The New Yorker, Slate, and The New Republic, and make a profit off of news network angst all while showing how informed it was. A string of mediocrities issued forth with massive budgets which were the total inverse of their eventual profit margins. After years of garnering glowing coverage on NPR and in the news magazine b-list article sections before hemorrhaging money, BloodDiamondSyrianaLionLambStopLossExtraordinaryRenditionConstantGardenerFifthEstate seemed to have finally died. The life support was disconnected when the brain-death at the core of this Awareness Movie trend could no longer be denied.

I added the quotes to the post title for emphasis, but as far as I now I am the first person to use this term. ‘Awareness Movie’. Oh, you haven’t heard of it? Well don’t worry, most people have no idea because no one actually watched any of these movies-except for Blood Diamond I guess. Because I have always been drawn to international affairs I have not been so fortunate. I have seen some of them, and I have seen all of their trailers while waiting for much better movies to start playing. I can tell you that ‘The Constant Gardener’ is one of the absolute worst movies I have ever seen in my life, and the Stop Loss is basically what happens when Lifetime goes above PG-13, but I am not going to go into summaries of each, but rather do something more efficient, give a summary of the entire non-genre. Or more accurately, its motivations. Why? Because this seemingly dead genre, much like Jason Vorhees, is back once again.

Well, maybe it got a bit of a gritty reboot this time. Except of course that it is effectively like watching a multiplayer Starcraft tournament in South Korea seeing as the audience knows that isn’t real drone footage they are looking at. A movie of a fake drone control room. Why, its almost as thrilling as Pentagon Janitor After Hours!

It may seem mean and unfair to say such things about a movie I haven’t even seen, which does in fact tackle serious issues or ethical and moral dilemmas such as drone strikes, but this is an Awareness Movie-and if you have seen one you have already seen them all.

The Awareness Movie wants to make an issue only news wonks and policy nerds talk about sexy for the masses. You know, to ‘raise awareness’ much like Kony 2012 purported to do. None of them have ever succeeded of course, but this is the intention. If they *do* succeed they get to be lauded for being oh-so important is the hope. There is already a problem with this premise however, even at this embryonic stage. No one who wants bad-ass action or sexy drama or anything people watch movies for is going to go for the second rate edutainment version when they could have the real deal. Why? Because nothing is so awkward as watching ‘The Atlantic’s Op-Eds as Directed by Michael Bay.’ Oblivious to this problem, however, producers march right ahead. Maybe they can make their own demographic after all. That’s what Tom Clancy did with literary neoconservative erotica, right?

Except that these movies inevitably are going for a liberal-centrist or left-liberal audience. So more drama and less explosions. Fine. Except for the problem that anyone smart enough to care about the topics of this movie is going to know this movie will be a simplified and ham-handed attempt to deal with issues they already know about.

So the Awareness Movie is unique because it appeals to exactly no one. It is too boring to be appealing for thrill seekers or film snobs, too unoriginal to appeal to people who want something different, and too stupid to appeal to anyone who cares about the topics it is ostensibly about-no matter how important those topics may actually be. Not all of the star power and contrived seriousness in the world can overcome such flaws. Just try and watch this trailer where things which should be interesting happen and try to feel excited. All the ingredients are there, action, intrigue, personal conflict….but it doesn’t matter. The whole damn thing is so contrived you can see through it just like overly CG’d special effects in lieu of real ones. Also notice that there are basically no comments on the thing starting from a year the trailer was released. Same here.¬†Forgotten, irrelevant. These movies are now only good if someone decides to reboot Mystery Science Theater 3000 to give them the treatment.

There is a reason these things always bomb. And who knows, maybe ‘Good Kill’ will buck the trend, but do not hold your breath. The film the media commentators are all talking about now will probably be forgotten and smoldering as wreckage in just a few months if history is any guide.

‘But,’ you ask, ‘are you saying that IR-the very subject of this blog-is like Lovecraft and nigh unfilmable?’

Absolutely not! But it surely never will be filmable in watchable format as long as we allow this heinous reign of Awareness Movies to dominate its production!

But I can go beyond that. As someone who writes both fiction and non-fiction, and reads both as well, let me explain the importance of combing them in the right way. If you want to talk about something pertinent to the present, don’t simply talk about the present! The hypothetical future and the analogous past is a much more effective way to state a case without dramatizing the news into a redundant package no one likes. There are no genres better than science fiction and horror for exploring the dilemmas of our present world. Both directly and indirectly, this is how people with creativity (i.e. not the writers of Awareness Movies) tell stories which can be subversive or thought provoking. Just like in books, everyone knows ‘1984’ and ‘Brave New World’ but no one gives two craps about ‘The O’Reilly Factor For Kids despite being a much more era-topical publication while still being editorial.

The art of storytelling is to make something not only good on its own merits as a story but also to make sure it is unique enough to go beyond one simple flash in the pan era and touch others as well. And if it is *too* specific to the present it will seem redundant and pointless in that single era it can have relevance in.

So in the near future I will make an effort to see Mad Max: Fury Road, because it looks fun and who knows? It might be smart in an unexpected way. I will not, however, be making any effort to see ‘Good Kill.’

Well, maybe some time in the far future with a healthy dose of booze and two cobbled together space station robots for company.