In the two weeks prior to this writing, the US has shot down four high-altitude flying objects, three of which are still unidentified. The President of the United States has called a press conference to calm our fears about a possible alien visitation.
Those are not the opening lines of my next sci-fi story. They’re true.
Now, I don’t believe the UFOs will turn out to be alien spaceships, but what if they were? Putting aside the unsurprising fact that we shot first and then asked questions, is there a better strategy for handling mankind’s first contact with an alien race? Luckily, science fiction writers have examined those kinds of questions countless times during and after the golden age of sci-fi.
The two early sci-fi stories linked below are excellent examples of this. Written by two prolific pulp authors, both stories are examinations of how humans and aliens might behave when we first chance to meet. Both employ peaceful, logical reasoning while still admitting the looming reality of the shoot-first-ask-questions-later tendency of humans (and possibly aliens too).
Murray Leinster’s First Contact — 1945 Astounding Science Fiction
Clifford Simak’s Green Thumb — 1954 Galaxy Science Fiction
Leinster’s first-contact story, appropriately titled First Contact, is about two spaceships, one human and one alien, meeting in outer space. They communicate through a universal translator, a concept invented by Leinster and reused many, many times in later sci-fi. The two individuals who communicate directly with each other become friends, despite their profound physiological differences. But with no shared experiences or values, they cannot seem to find a reason to trust each other. At one point, the alien says…
“You are a good guy. Too bad we must kill each other.”
Incidentally, Leinster published his novelette just three months before the US destroyed the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in order to prosecute a final peace for WWII. Finding a reason to trust each other is difficult, even when there is a significant shared experience, it seems.
Simak’s story is a first-contact tale for the vegans among us. (Or maybe not, hmm.) In this story, the aliens come to Earth and visit a rural county agent. Although the obstacles to communication and understanding are different here, the fundamental question is the same — how do beings with nothing in common communicate and trust each other?
Even if the UFOs flying over us right now turn out not to be alien spacecraft, this question is still quite relevant and interesting today. We interact with entities in social networks and online communities who use pseudonyms and noms de plume. Sometimes they’re human, sometimes bots, and sometimes they are collective entities. How can we develop and maintain trust relationships with pseudonymous identities like these?