One summer long ago my family was staying with relatives in a suburb outside of Toronto. It was late night, and standing in their small backyard and looking towards the city we suddenly noticed something mysterious: a large, saucer-shaped metallic object was looming over the buildings in the distance, glinting the same orange city light that had smote out the stars I was used to. We asked each other what it was, scrutinizing it from afar. It didn’t move, didn’t appear to have lights or make sound. It just hovered. I knew what everyone was thinking: that thing looks like a UFO. And we were partly accurate, because we certainly couldn’t identify it. I was just at that age when I was trying to prove to adults what a grown up I already was by elucidating adult-like points of view on things, and at the same time subject to the wiles of my imagination. Of course there was some down-to-earth explanation, but I still waited to hear sirens, or something to indicate that other people had caught sight of this thing in the sky. The call of the fantastic sent an eerie shiver down my spine. What would tomorrow look like, I tried to imagine, if this was the night of first contact?
My interest died down before long, as the city remained quiet and the thing just sat there motionless in the air. Eventually we decided we’d see what it really was in the morning, and the next day discovered that it was much closer and much smaller than it had appeared in the night. It was basically a pill-shaped structure atop a pole, though the humid summer haze and darkness had rendered the pole invisible, the light only catching the body of the thing, giving the illusion that it had been hovering. It’s relative proximity to us had made it appear above the city from our vantage point. Peter Jackson used a similar effect to make other characters look so much larger than the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings films, and I presume that the majority of UFO sightings are due to something along these lines (a lot of them, it turns out, are actually misidentifications of the planet Venus).
Arthur C. Clarke’s classic, Childhood’s End, kicks off with mankind’s first contact with an alien race, identified as the Overlords, and that contact doesn’t come through the detection of their radio signals from outer space, but via their enormous ships descending over all the world’s major cities at once. This idea of ships arriving over our cities and looming there, combined with unexplained real-life mass sightings such as the Phoenix Lights, has become ingrained enough in pop culture and our psyches that I don’t doubt this is why a silent, completely motionless and vaguely saucer-like object, in an urban setting filled with myriad other man-made structures, would make the acronym UFO even cross my mind that night in Toronto.
Clarke once wrote: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” I wonder at what he meant by terrifying, in terms of there being other life out there. Unlike the aliens of War of the Worlds or Independence Day, the visitors of Childhood’s End treat mankind benevolently, thwarting the escalation of the Cold War by sheer means of their arrival and bringing about a utopian golden age on earth. Later in the novel Clarke describes a vision of life on other planets that captivated me and set my imagination on fire, here more than six decades after it was first published. It would seem that he wasn’t one to consider the Universe teeming with particularly hostile civilizations, but then again, should any of them reach us by means of interstellar craft, it would only take one unfriendly race to make short work of exterminating us: any intelligent species that can reach earth from their own star would be vastly more advanced and powerful than our own, so much that they might look at human civilization in the same way we look at an ant colony. What does eventually happen to mankind by the finale of Childhood’s End might be frightening, disturbing, or wonderful depending on how you view humanity and our place in the cosmos. I was left in something like awe, overwhelmed and even sad, and I’m still thinking about it now a couple weeks later, but in case you haven’t read it and may someday, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it for you here.
For myself and you who are reading this in 2014, it’s possible we will never find evidence of extraterrestrial life within our lifetimes, but here’s hoping. As far as picking up radio signals and sending/receiving messages, well, the closest star to our sun is a red dwarf called Proxima Centauri, about 4.2 light years from us, so even if SETI picked up scraps of a Centaurian version of Big Bang Theory tomorrow and sent a message of contact their way, it would be over four years until the message reached them and vice-versa–considering that they were even able to detect us. Get much further out then that, up to 10, 50, 1000 light years or more, and we can forget about having any radio dialogue while our generation is still around. In terms of us actually reaching another solar system, that’s a long, long way off too, which leaves alien visitation to earth as our means of direct contact with another civilization.
I’d like to think that if an alien ship does show up in the skies over Toronto one day, whoever is inside it will be interested in befriending the residents of this planet, and be more trusting, far-seeing and understanding than most of us are now. I’d like to think that the destructive versions of alien visitation portrayed in our movies and fiction are little more than us humans projecting ourselves–the way we treat and have treated each other for millennia–onto the unknown. That’s a terrifying thought to be sure, that they could be just like us, but I hope that any civilization capable of building star ships will have long passed that stage of their development, if indeed they ever had one. In the meantime, we’re fortunate to have great science fiction writers, old and new, to make us think about these things, and perhaps, unknowingly, ready us for the day we find out that we’re not alone in the dark.