I once pointed out to Fred Pohl that if FTL is possible and if it does (as the math says it would) facilitate time travel, then the paucity of alien visitors suggests that not only is Earth not interesting to aliens of the current era, but it is also not interesting to aliens of any era.
Pohl said that was the most depressing thing he’d ever heard. I am happy to have enriched his life.
The idea that Earth is simply not worth bothering with may seem counter-intuitive to us. However, our perspective is highly skewed by the fact that we come from Earth. Aliens may have good reason not to bother with the planet. Way back in 2021, I discussed five reasons why aliens might not have visited us. Here are five more reasons.
The simplest reason why aliens might not visit us is because they do not exist. The Earth’s fossil record suggests life sprang up as soon as it could. This seems to imply life could be common. However, our perspective is biased because for us to observe, we need to exist, no matter how unlikely the chain of events leading to our existence. Perhaps our world is a cosmic exception and life is vanishingly rare.
In Frank M. Robinson’s 1991 generation ship saga The Dark Beyond the Stars, the Astron has invested thousands of years methodically examining the stellar systems nearest the Solar System. Many of the worlds the Astron has visited appear to have all the necessary preconditions for life. None have life. This presents the Astron with a dilemma: push forward into an inhospitable galaxy until the ancient ship ceases to function or abandon their search and return to the one planet known to have life: Earth.
The second simplest explanation for the absence of alien visitors is that star flight is impossible. The distances are too large, the required energies too great, and there are no plot-facilitating short-cuts. Aliens do not visit us because they cannot visit us.
David McDaniel’s 1974 novelette Prognosis: Terminal touches on this. As the artist protagonist struggles to find a viable niche in life despite the disruptive technologies offered by the World of Tomorrow!—okay, the world of two years ago, now, but it was the World of Tomorrow in 1974—humans detect signals from a doomed alien civilization. Unable to flee their dying world, the aliens settled for shouting out to the galaxy at large that they had existed. The subtext is that humans had better value the world they have, rather than counting on being able to emigrate to some hypothetical Earth 2.
Alternatively, the reason could simply be that we live in an unfashionable part of the Galaxy. Perhaps the truly advanced civilizations prefer the abundant resources offered by the galactic core. Alternatively, it could be that only the intergalactic depths provide the peace and quiet preferred by the universe’s ancients. Or it could be that the Solar System is on the wrong side of the tracks for some other reason.
In Poul Anderson’s 1954 Brain Wave, the Earth has for the last sixty-odd million years been located within a vast intelligence-dampening field. While the novel takes the position that evolution (absent extraordinary events like exiting a vast intelligence-dampening field after sixty-five million years immersed in it) does not select for intelligence much superior to present-day humans, it seems reasonable to suppose that any hypothetical starfaring species would have learned to avoid our neighborhood, lest their starship crews become as incapable of complex thought as a human or a rabbit.
Perhaps the issue is that some aspect of Earth itself or humans in general is actively repellent to our galactic neighbors. It’s not that our world is being overlooked so much as avoided. Maybe the aliens don’t care for classical music. Perhaps they’re leery of the eldritch horrors that infest our world (of which humans are oblivious). Maybe a map of our continents spells out an obscene word in some alien script. We may never know because the aliens are unlikely to tell us.
In Jody Scott’s 1977 Passing for Human, Earth is home to humans, whom any Galactic could tell you are a collection of gullible, neurotic, voraciously carnivorous primates. To put it mildly, humans are not attractive except perhaps to beings with fantasies about being eaten by barbarians. Add to that Earth’s apparent Satan infestation, and one can see why sensible aliens stay far away from Earth. Too bad for the protagonist that she is not one of those sensible aliens.
Last, and most depressing: perhaps mortality provides the explanation. The average lifespan of advanced civilizations could be very short. The same tools that would let cultures travel from star to star also allow them to destroy themselves as soon as their self-control lapses. It could be that each new assortment of starfarers finds itself alone in a galaxy filled with the relics of long dead civilizations.
This appears to be the case in Andre Norton’s Galactic Derelict. By the time Americans and Russians take an interest in space, the so-called Baldies are long vanished from the galactic stage, leaving only ruins for humans to dig through. Only the development of time travel allows modern day humans to interact directly with the Baldies, something the humans would have been well advised to avoid.
No doubt you have your own favourite explanations. Feel free to discuss them in the comments.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, is eligible to be nominated again this year, and is surprisingly flammable.