Saturday, 29 October 2011

Alien Invasion: How to Defend Earth - Travis S. Taylor and Bob Boan


One thing that has always struck me about much of the scientific community (particularly the SETI community) is that they place a surprising amount of faith in alien benevolence. The concept, expounded by the late Carl Sagan among others, assumes that any alien race advanced enough to cross the gulf of space between their homeworld and Earth will have developed socially to the point where they will not pose a threat to the puny inhabitants of Earth. Like most assumptions, it is not based on any actual fact. There is no reason to assume either alien benevolence or hostility.

Even if ET doesn’t intend us direct harm, contact with him may have harmful effects on our own society. What if ET starts shipping in advanced technology so far beyond what we can produce that we literally cannot understand or duplicate it? We would – like the American Indians – become dependent upon outsiders to supply us with what we needed. What if ET ‘proved’ that God doesn’t exist, or that communism could actually work if we tried? Or, just like a charitable NGO, unaccountable to the people it aims to help, ET tried meddling in our society for our own good? You don’t need bad intentions to do a great deal of harm.

This book is written from a more pessimistic point of view. If aliens exist, they may be dangerous; they may be unrelentingly hostile, bent on conquest, or maybe they would just regard us as competition – not evil, in any human sense, but still extremely dangerous. It is a point of view anthemia to SETI.

I should note one point before we begin the formal review. This book is actually an updated version of An Introduction to Planetary Defence, written by the same authors in 2006. Although the book was very interesting, it suffered from a number of production (as opposed to content) flaws; it was expensive, didn’t offer value for money (I’d expect a hardback at the very least) and had a number of spelling and grammar mistakes. The electronic version was PDF-only, fitted with a password and DRM, awkward to use. This version, updated, is cheaper, with a blessed DRM-free electronic version.

This is one of many curious oversights. I disagree quite strongly with the idea of benevolent aliens coming to help us, yet Carl Sagan has been much more successful at promoting his ideas. The rather tedious Contact was mass-produced as a cheap paperback novel, with the result that people were less inclined to write dire reviews of it once they’d read it.

One of the problems with considering alien invasion in general (apart from the snigger-factor) is that all of our knowledge of aliens is purely theoretical. On the other hand, we can say some pretty definite things about aliens we might actually happen to encounter in the next 50 years. Barring a revolutionary development in drive technology (as suggested in Travis Taylor’s Warp Speed) the aliens will encounter us, not the other way around. They will logically be able to cross interstellar space and secure control over the high orbitals (Earth orbit). Even a race with an equal level of technology to our own – but driven by a determination to get into space – will be able to take the high orbitals.

The first chapter of the book discusses the probabilities of aliens existing and alien encounters, covering such fixed ideas as the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox. The authors provide a valuable discussion of both concepts, although they spend a considerable amount of time dismantling the latter. In my opinion, both are largely worthless – if only because we have no data. It would have been far simpler to note that there are hundreds of stars like Sol (the sun) within the Milky Way Galaxy – and the only one we have studied closely did produce an intelligent race, humanity. Simple extrapolation tells us that there could be many alien races near us.

Of course, we have very limited technical data on what is and isn’t possible. Based on human experience, societies can rise and stagnate (like Imperial China), before being replaced by another society. If Europe had been dominated by a single power when Columbus proposed his voyage of exploration to the Indies (and ran into America) it is quite possible that he would never have been permitted to sail. The breakthrough that became the industrial revolution might never have happened. Generally speaking, a hypothetical alien race would have to develop intelligence, develop technology, survive its technology (i.e. without nuclear war, blowing itself back into the Stone Age), reach into space and start crossing the interstellar gulf before it encountered us. That’s quite a few bottlenecks they’d have to surmount. What that does tend to imply is if they succeeded, they might be a powerful and aggressive race – just like the Europeans who arrived in the Americas.

One point the authors do make that puzzles the hell out of me is an assertion that the laws of physics may be different in other parts of the universe. (Chapter 1.6). If I understand it correctly, the laws will be identical everywhere (unless we postulate an encounter with an entirely different dimension with different physical laws). ET may well be more advanced than us, but his technology should be understandable, at least once we work out how it works. I don’t think that alien technology would be incompatible with our atmosphere.

It does raise the issue of what there might be to fight over if the aliens were genuinely alien. What if the aliens live in gas giants? Earth would be useless to them, except perhaps as a source of raw materials – and they could get those much more efficiently by mining the asteroids. We and the Jupiter-aliens would be ships that pass in the night. We might not even be able to communicate.

The chapter goes on to note that humans aren’t particularly good at preparing for a new threat. This is unfortunately true, although it reads oddly when compared to later statements regarding secrecy and classification. We need a threat to be present before we react to it. NATO is a good example of this; it was formed to withstand Russian threats to Europe. When we don’t see a threat coming, the results – as on 9/11 – can be disastrous. We are currently broadcasting our existence to the rest of the universe. Is that really such a good idea?

Even so, I seriously doubt that we could have a global ban on radio transmissions. It would be politically unacceptable.

Chapter Two discusses the human approach to war and how it might be shaped to face an alien invasion. A great deal of the material here is interesting, although it suffers from MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over). This isn’t a section for someone who isn’t prepared to think hard about the material. In some ways, reading a good alien invasion novel – Footfall, for example – would provide a more usable primer in the use of space in dominating the Earth. The authors are entirely correct to suggest that we should have a plan for meeting the aliens. However, such a plan would have to be very generalised. We won’t know what’s coming until we meet it.

A problem that does appear is that the book discusses next-generation technologies like armoured combat suits (mecha) and orbital weapons. They do not exist at the moment, at least not in a workable form. What do we do if the aliens arrive tomorrow? Rumsfield’s doctrine – you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want – applies here, far more than anywhere else.

Chapter Three discusses alien motives – why would they want to invade Earth? Many of the reasons are drawn using pop culture examples, which is actually a very good idea. It helps put faces on abstract possibilities. Mind you, what if we did run into ‘Q’ (Star Trek)? Star Trek fans have endlessly debated Q’s actions in ‘Q Who.’ If Q hadn’t thrown the Enterprise into the path of the Borg, the Federation would have been unprepared for their arrival. Q handed out a painful lesson that was, ultimately, for humanity’s own good. What might Q-like aliens decree for us in the future?

This chapter can be fascinating, although in some respects it is let down by the examples cited. The Transformers universe can be great fun, but it isn’t particularly realistic.

Chapter Four is difficult to review, if only because I disagree quite heavily with the authors. The authors assert that there is no ‘need to know’ about an alien threat and cite Heinlein’s dictum that a ‘secret weapon must remain secret.’ The problem is that both examples – they include one from Independence Day as well – cut in different directions.

In The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress the rebels have a secret weapon – the super-intelligent computer that runs the lunar colony is on their side. The Professor (one of the leaders) states that Mycroft Holmes (the computer) must remain a secret, an advantage that the main baddie, the Warden, doesn’t know about. He is, from his point of view, quite right. Losing that advantage will make the rebellion a great deal harder.

The problem is that we, in the event of an alien encounter, will be playing the Warden.

Think about it. The Warden’s job is to suppress dissent and keep the colony working for Earth. He has an absolute ‘need to know’ about Mycroft Holmes; from his point of view, it’s a weapon in the hands of the enemy. Removing the computer will make his job easier; he has to find out about Mycroft.

The main advantage the aliens have, right now, is that no one knows they are coming. If they lose a UFO somewhere over CONUS, that secret is blown – we will know that there is a new threat, one that we need to prepare for, now. Except – if the authors of this book have their way, the secret will remain secret. There will be no warning.

Let’s assume that the aliens are hostile and intelligent. They know they’ve lost a craft. They may know where it is – they are unlikely to assume that it was destroyed beyond recognition. Their secret is out – how will they react? As I see it, they can bring the invasion plan forward and hit us before we can mobilise, they can back off and retreat into interstellar space, they can attempt to communicate with us – or they can continue with their original plan. But which one will they choose? And what was their original plan, anyway? We don’t know.

If we keep the UFO crash a secret, we are effectively preserving the alien secret and making it impossible for the rest of humanity to get ready before the aliens arrive. An American would call that treason, the rest of the world would call it a crime against humanity – and they’d be right. We are not talking about hiding a US-built secret weapon; we are talking about hiding the existence of an unknown enemy.

Let’s consider the argument from a different point of view. The latest Russian mobile radar/SAM launcher is supposed to be able to track stealth aircraft. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it can provide perfect tracking of an F-22/F-117. And the Russians supply a few dozen of them to Iran. More through luck than skill, the CIA discovers this – and says nothing. When war starts with Iran in 2014 (or whenever) the early stage of the air campaign is an absolute disaster. Forty US stealth aircraft are shot out of the sky. What – exactly – do you think that the President, Congress, the Senate and the American public would say about the CIA when the truth came out? They’d be branding the CIA as traitors. They kept the enemy’s secret weapon a secret!

Independence Day actually illustrates this point quite nicely. The UFO crashed in 1947. If we assume that the invasion took place in 2000, the US had a priceless advantage and squandered it. The bare fact that there was an alien race out there would galvanise the space race and start generating weapons that could be used when the aliens finally show up. FIFTY YEARS of lead time was WASTED. If the example used in this book is accurate – the aliens, travelling near the speed of light, would only experience a few months while we experienced fifty years – they wouldn't even have a chance to realise that something had gone wrong!

There is a vast difference between a secret weapon and a secret enemy. Can you imagine the US undertaking the build-up it did for the Cold War if the USSR didn’t exist? Or if the US Government constantly assured the population that the USSR didn’t exist, or was of no defence significance? Now, if the US did build a secret weapon to use against the aliens, that does need to be kept a secret (unless it might deter the aliens from attacking) – but keeping the aliens a secret is doing their work for them.

I disagree with the authors, almost completely. If there is an alien threat, the entire world has an absolute ‘need-to-know.’ Why? Because we would not be caught unawares when the aliens arrived. Military reserves would be called up, aircraft would be distributed around the various countries, civil defence precautions could be implemented, diplomatic teams would be prepared for contact, military alliances could be activated…hell, we’d look a great deal more intimidating to any alien threat if we were clearly ready for them.

There’s also the political issue. The aliens may well be playing from a sophisticated political and military playbook; we can hardly hope to run into rampaging berserkers. If it turned out that the US had warning of the aliens and didn’t provide any warning, NATO would shatter and the aliens would have ample opportunity to turn the world against the US. Alliances can stand a great many things, but they cannot stand outright betrayal – and that would be exactly what had happened.

The authors appear to believe that it is an all-or-nothing situation; full disclosure or complete secrecy. That isn’t necessary. There are certain details that no one outside government has a ‘need-to-know’. The location of the crashed ship should be classified, the exact level of success in understanding and duplicating alien technology should be classified, military plans to resist the invaders should be classified…

Chapter five discusses how we have handled alien contact in the past – or what passes for alien contact. The early parts of the chapter focus on the UFO craze, before blurring into generalised thoughts about alien encounters. I doubt that we could choose who shows up to say hello to planet Earth. Much of the advice is very good, although limited. A study of the Spanish invasion of Mexico and the lessons it offers for our preparations would not have gone amiss. What it doesn’t offer is a specialised plan; ET is coming, what do we do?

The final chapter discusses ways to prepare for alien encounter. The authors suggest that a ‘Sixth Column’ – a classified study and preparation program – be created to meet the possible threat. They point out, correctly, that lack of a prior plan can lead to disaster. However, many of the objections they raise to disclosure are somewhat disingenuous. For example, they assert that any sharing of technology would grant it to rogue nations. I doubt that that is possible, at least not within a meaningful timeframe. Having a complete set of plans for the F-22 would not allow North Korea to build its own. It took them decades to produce nukes.

Obviously, some manner of global cooperation is required. NATO has served well when it came to meeting threats that all its members agreed were threats. An alliance against an alien threat might reasonably include the G22 states, providing enough economic, political and military power to deter rogue nations from acting up. Why, you might ask, would the Chinese or Russians cooperate? Answer; they’re just as threatened by ET as everyone else.

One of the main problems with the Sixth Column’s position is funding. Developing advanced weapons in total secrecy is likely to cost a LOT of money. It’s hard enough to convince governments in these days of economic belt-tightening to pay for equipment to meet threats that are clearly seen; why would anyone expect the government to pour billons of dollars into a black project without it turning into a political football? And what if there is no clear proof of an alien threat? That is one good reason for disclosure – to frighten governments enough to get them to unlock the purse strings and push money into the military.

There are ways to make some preparations on a limited budget. Have biohazard teams (prepared for immediate deployment to a biological attack) trained to deal with a UFO crash. Have diplomatic teams study alien contact as a theoretical exercise. Have the laws and regulations governing commercial space travel abolished, allowing the covert development of a space force that might pass unnoticed. There are many others, which need careful thought.

I enjoyed reading this textbook, honestly. However, there are some curious oversights.

There is no serious literature review. OK, there hasn’t been an alien invasion and there are no serious studies of past invasions. However, there are a considerable number of novels published concerning alien invasion – and the authors barely touch upon this subject. They prefer to concentrate on movies and television shows. This isn’t a bad idea, in some respects, but it is very limited.

In my opinion (I have been reading SF since I was 7) there are three alien invasion novels that must be read by anyone seriously interested in the possibilities. The War of the Worlds (HG Wells), Footfall (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) and Operation Thunder Child (Nick Pope). The War of the Worlds was the first novel concerning alien invasion. Footfall was hard science-fiction, without any ‘magic’ technology. Operation Thunder Child touches upon government and military responses to alien encounter and invasion. These books are not mentioned by the authors, even though they are vitally important for any serious study of the genre.

Following on, there are many others. The Alien Years explores the problems in dealing with far more advanced aliens. A Matter for Men and its sequels consider an alien terraforming of Earth. The Kraken Wakes considers contact and war with aliens we never see, hiding within the ocean deeps. The Midwich Cuckoos considers the dangers of a very stealthy and insidious alien invasion. Even Out of the Dark offers useful thoughts on how alien invasion might play out.

A second oversight – potentially more serious – is that there isn’t much information that might be useful at once. What should a USAF officer do when confronted with a crashed UFO? He’d be better briefed if he read Operation Thunder Child. What should we do if we detect an alien mothership heading towards Earth? Footfall offers some helpful suggestions. This book should have included a provisional SOP for possible encounters.

I enjoyed reading this book. Ignore most of my quibbles; this book is a daring and worthwhile read. However, this book has its flaws – and we should not be blind to them. It could cost us…everything.

What lessons can we draw from the past?

  • Unity is important. We must present a united front to the aliens. The Aztec Empire included subject nations that fought beside the Spanish, helping to overthrow the Aztecs.
  • ET may play with a different political/diplomatic guidebook. Learn as fast as we can. We may end up having to accept their version of the law.
  • Learn how to overcome alien tech advantages and duplicate their technology. The Aztecs had a habit of ritual warfare rather than serious warfare – and it cost them. The Native Americans never managed to duplicate European technology to any great extent.

Any others?

Implied Spaces - Walter Jon Williams


I have what I tend to think of as a shit list of authors. Generally, it consists of authors who come up with great ideas and then fail to execute them properly – while making me pay full price for a copy of their books. One of the many reasons why the Baen Free Library and Free Samples is such a great idea is that even if I don’t like the samples, I haven’t actually spent any money on the book and don’t feel inclined to bash the author, publisher or anyone else.

Walter Jon Williams has been on my shit list for quite some time, after I paid for a complete set of his Dread Empire Falls books. They were badly written, poorly conceived and completely failed to live up to the promise suggested by the back covers. It was only because I saw Implied Spaces in the library that I decided to buy it and read it. I am pleased (and astonished) to report that it is actually a very good book, reminding me of A Fire Upon the Deep and other far future yarns.

It is several thousand years in the future and humanity has passed through the singularity. Under the benevolent oversight of eleven powerful AIs, humanity has solved most of its ills and has spread out over countless star systems. Most of the human race enjoys living in artificial universes, where they can indulge themselves to the full. Others set out on STL trips across the universe, looking for new worlds to explore.

But all is not well in this paradise. A shadowy figure has launched a plan to take over the world and impose his own order on paradise. A desperate war ensures between the shadowy figure – who has subverted one of the AIs – and the loyalists. The war is a strange mixture of very high-tech and theories that would be understandable today. Much of it is strange and confusing at first glance, yet it makes a certain kind of sense. In a nod to Peter F. Hamilton’s work, backed up copies of dead people can be revived, allowing the dead to live on. One of the enemy’s nastier tricks is an infection that ensures that all who rise from the dead are his devoted loyalists. One gets the feeling that the only thing preventing humanity from being destroyed or enslaved by the AIs are the safeguards built into them, which ironically prevent the AIs from evolving to the point where they can simply out-evolve the enemy.

The villain actually raises a very good point in his megalomania. If there is nothing to strive for, what purpose is there to life? It is not an argument I have much sympathy with, I admit. The people who starve to death each day on our world would love to live in a post-scarcity world. His conception – that the universe is the creation of the Inept, an incompetent God – suggests a greater purpose to life. I do agree with the hero though, in some ways. What are they going to do – seek recompense from God?

In some ways, the ending is too simplistic for my tastes, but it fits in neatly with the rest of the book. The epilogue is actually – although this is not made clear – a note of the price of backsliding into barbarism, as a make-believe world of swords and sorcery becomes real and the mighty civilisation that birthed it nothing more than myths and legends. I’d like to see a sequel at some point.

Those who enjoyed John Ringo’s There Will Be Dragons may note some similar themes, but the story is very different. There are problems with presenting a post-singularity world to modern-day readers, a problem faced by other authors, yet Williams does very well. It really required an appendix too.

Overall, the book showcases the promise – and terrors – of singularity. It is definitely worth a read. A couple more like this and I may even take him off my shit list.