Empty Skies

The author comments on Infinity Beach


Science fiction writers, wherever they go, can expect to hear two questions:

  1. Where do you get those crazy ideas?
  2. What do you think about UFO's?

The second query is the interesting one, the one that people really seem to care about. I was swept up in the general enthusiasm for flying disks on June 24, 1947, when a pilot claimed to have seen nine saucer-like objects over the state of Washington. Every kid on the block took to watching the skies. I'd heard stories during the war about foo fighters, mysterious unearthly squadrons, tracking flights of planes. And now they were actually showing themselves. I thought it would be just a matter of time before they landed to say hello. And we all hoped the event would take place on the then-vacant lot at the corner of Myrtlewood and Dickinson streets in south Philadelphia.

I was twelve years old.

A substantial portion of the general population suspect, although they do not say so aloud, that science fiction writers are at least mildly deranged. Consequently we tend to be cautious responding to questions about paranormal matters. No, I always say when UFO's come up in the conversation, there is insufficient evidence. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and so forth. Park the UFO on my lawn, let me kick the tires, tool around town with it, and then maybe I'll agree there's something to the idea.

What has surprised me over the years is the readiness of almost everyone to argue that there has to be life out among the stars, and the ferocity with which they are willing to defend the position. It says a great deal about us, but I haven't quite puzzled out yet precisely what that might be.

Isn't it arrogant, we maintain, even to consider that we might be alone? After all, aren't there trillions of terrestrial worlds, with liquid water and plenty of sunlight, cruising through this galaxy and through countless others? Galaxies like grains of sand.

That's probably so.

Did life not start on Earth almost as soon as it was possible for it to do so, suggesting the event was no big deal?

Yes it did.

Could I honestly subscribe to the notion that in all this cosmos, we might actually be alone?

No, I could not. But maybe some part of me is still twelve years old. Or more likely I'm not wired to accept that kind of isolation. In the end the arguments prove nothing. Maybe we are the only occupant on the block. It is after all possible that nothing else anywhere looks up at the stars. The fact is that, until we know for certain how life started, and until we can conclude that intelligence is part of the evolutionary process, everything's guesswork. Even the celebrated Drake equation is based on a statistical sample of one.

I've always been fascinated, less by the notion of aliens than by this absolute insistence by both science fiction readers and those who are not at home in the field, that there absolutely must be Someone Out There.

If there is, why have we not seen their footprints? Why no radio signal? Why no evidence of interstellar engineering? Why, with billions of years in which to do it, have they not filled the Milky Way with exotic blue-glass domes glittering under rivers of stars? As Fermi asked, Where is everybody?

Despite all those aliens in our movies and books, invading Martians and friendly extraterrestrials, sensient oceans and intelligent trees, I can still wander out at night under a starlit sky, look up, and feel the sheer emptiness of it all. Is it my imagination? Undoubtedly. What else could it be?

But it is a disturbing view.

I've wondered why that should be so, why we have always peopled the sky, first with deities and heroes, sometimes with ancestors (whose souls kindle the starfire), and later with whole legions of Others. What would be the effect if we concluded, eventually, that no one's home out there? Would we continue to push into the unknown, settling for exploring gas giants and rocky worlds, poking at black holes and inspecting nebulae? How would it feel to stand on the beach of a sunlit ocean devoid of both gulls and shells? What would it be like to look through a plexiglass dome at Moonbase into another kind of ocean, infinite in all directions, and conclude that it harbored no living thing, no creature with whom we might compare notes, no entity we would recognize, however different in appearance, as a sibling.

The reason we did not go back to the moon after Apollo had nothing to do with budget cutbacks or an unimaginative president. It resulted from the daunting fact that we had looked at Mars and seen only desolation. We needed those canals more than anyone at the time understood.

Infinity Beach engages these issues. Kimberly Brandywine lives in a world of comfort and prosperity. The problems are all solved: War, crime, poverty, and discrimination in all their forms have been eradicated. The human family stands, finally, united. There are no birth defects. Everybody looks good. Humans are all, in the manner of Lake Wobegone, well above average.

Kim's civilization enjoys faster-than-light travel. It has terraformed and settled eight worlds beyond Earth. Life is good. But star travel has become routine. People go out to look at Aldebaran, pop by the Pleiades, turn left at Rigel, swing by Polaris. Scientific surveys provide details about the myriad worlds. We know their declination and surface gravity, their orbital period and mass and diameter. We know the elemental mix, the order of the moons, and the tidal schedule. And while researchers collate the information on whatever passes for computer disks, everyone else has retired to a kind of galactic front porch.

Something is missing.

Just as happened in the 1960's, the human race has left its beachhead and taken a long look around. And it hasn't liked what it sees. So it's returning home. It's lost heart, and some recognize the nature of the problem. "We are coming back at last to Earth," writes one commentator. "To the forests of our innocence.... Farewell, Centaurus. Farewell to all we might have been."

Will we one day need to find those canals that did not turn up on Mars? I suspect we will. So I sent Kim Brandywine looking for them.

—Jack McDevitt 3/30/00