The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why alien invasions scare us

At a June 3 screening of the finale of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” the sequel to Carl Sagan’s classic science education series, host and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse paused to reflect on what he wished he could have included in the thirteen-episode run. At the top of his list? “What it would mean to come into contact with life that we would judge to be intelligent, or that other life would judge us to be not intelligent.”

Specifically, Tyson pondered theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s prediction for what might happen when humans and alien species first made contact.

“He commented that if aliens came upon us, they would clearly be more advanced than we are, because they’d traverse large gaps of space to get here, and they would just enslave us and suck our brains out,” Tyson mused, suggesting the scenario was a reflection of human fear and shame about the history of contact between societies at different levels of development.

“We actually have some evidence of what happens when a high technological culture meets a low-technology culture,” he explained. “Our species bears this out multiple times in the history books, and it doesn’t bode well for the culture that has less technology. But I would say to fear an alien for that reason is more a reflection of how we know we treat each other than it is on how we could ever possibly suspect an alien to treat us. And so why should we be the measure of hatred in the universe?”

Many alien invasion stories explicitly address our anxieties that a more advanced species would treat us even worse than we have treated each other. In the Wachowskis’ dark fantasy “The Matrix,” intelligent machines use sedated humans to generate energy. That scenario is a step beyond colonial economic plans that tried to turn subject populations into both cheap labor and new markets for imperial powers’ products.

Many fictional alien invaders do not see even that limited value in human existence or human labor, and they certainly lack the anthropological curiosity or missionary zeal that might lead to more sustained communication between the species. In movies like “Independence Day,” aliens just show up and blast away from the skies. In “Edge of Tomorrow,” a new thriller starring Tom Cruise that opens this weekend, the invaders fight for every meter of ground in battles reminiscent of World War II.

There are riffs on this theme, of course. “District 9,” Neill Blomkamp’s sharply-observed 2009 film suggested that an alien invasion could actually bind up the wounds of colonialism, though not in a way that reflects particularly well on the human character. When a ship carrying less-advanced members of an alien species stalls out over Johannesburg, black and white South Africans quickly focus on their shared identity as humans, turning the machinery of racial apartheid against the new beings stranded in their midst. It is science fiction by way of  Nell Irvin Painter, who studies the history of racial identity.

Carl Sagan’s own novel “Contact” and the 1997 film adapted from it also suggest a gentler model. In “Contact,” a very highly advanced alien species tries to ease human beings into the idea of a cross-cultural exchange. First, they send humans blueprints that are effectively a challenge: if they can rise to a level of technological sophistication that would allow them to build the vehicle in the plans, they get a shot at meeting the drafters.

Construction does not prove to be the only issue. The first launch site is destroyed by a terrorist. When a dedicated scientist (played by Jodie Foster) dares to take a ride in another version of the ship, the aliens present themselves just a little bit at a time so as not to overwhelm her. These aliens are not colonists–rather, they are trying to find ways to share the best of themselves with a culture whose technological development lags behind their own.

Most recently, Nnedi Okorafor’s novel “Lagoon,” which is not yet in print in the United States, has another spin on technological imbalance and conflict. In another story, Nigeria’s challenges might have made the country a point from which aliens could start an invasion. Okorafor has the good sense to shake up convention. In “Lagoon,” an alien species come to Lagos in the hopes of becoming Nigerian citizens because they find the country, with its fervent Christianity, Igbo masquerades, oil economy, 419 scammers and brave gay rights activists, energizing and attractive.

After some initial rockiness, the aliens eventually promise the Nigerian president to help the country transition away from its dependence on oil. “It’s a great time to be in Africa!” one of the aliens tells a young American rapper who is performing in Lagos at the time of the landing “And at least you can say that you saw it all begin.” “Lagoon” has the same optimism for Africa that shows up Dayo Olopade’s excellent policy book “The Bright Continent.”

If Tyson’s analysis is correct, a hopeful vision of first contact between humans and aliens is a vote of confidence in human potential to be gentler with each other, too.