Back to the Forbidden Planet

Over the last few posts we’ve covered the Fermi Problem and hypotheses, which of the hypotheses sci-fi likes to write about, and which of the hypotheses it’s strategic to write about. This brings us back around to Forbidden Planet.


As a species, we’re faced with a number of big problems that need solving. Some feel more abstract than others, but it sure would suck if we were wrong about that. And while sci-fi can be pure escapism, when it does, hopefully it serves as a mild indulgence rather than something which lets us ignore problems in the real world. As I’ve said before, it is part of my mission with this blog to get readers to not just watch sci-fi but to use it; to understand its effects and limitations; to decide how believable its scenarios are; and to think about the lessons you can take back with you to the real world.

This is why Forbidden Planet is such a stellar movie for me.

It is a singular example (in the survey at least) of humans encountering an ancient, vastly advanced, dead civilization through the “ruins” of its technology. There was no tense tête–à–tête diplomacy, or sexily-foreign green aliens to seduce, or any of those other Terran imperialist thrills.

I'm not exactly sure which of those two possibilities this image represents.

I’m not exactly sure which of those two possibilities this image represents.

I don’t want to demean its historical importance. It came at a time in cinematic history after a few decades where Hollywood created little more sci-fi than space opera for kids, and it proved enough of a commercial and critical success that suddenly sci-fi was a serious consideration for big budget attention. That meant broader reach, and more people thinking about speculative futures. (Heck, it meant enough serious sci-fi that I could keep a blog about the genre. So, you know, thanks for that.)

But more than its historical importance is that it’s the best model of a likely future. Just this past May, Adam Frank (an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester) and Woodruff Sullivan published “A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe.” In the paper they note that the 1,284 new exoplanets discovered by the Kepler observatory scientists puts some lower-limit constraints on a few factors in the Drake equation.

Kepler-11 is a sun-like star around which six planets orbit. At times, two or more planets pass in front of the star at once, as shown in this artist's conception of a simultaneous transit of three planets observed by NASA's Kepler spacecraft on Aug. 26, 2010. Image credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

Image credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

“Three of the seven terms in Drake’s equation are now known. We know the number of stars born each year. We know that the percentage of stars hosting planets is about 100. And we also know that about 20 to 25 percent of those planets are in the right place for life to form. This puts us in a position, for the first time, to say something definitive about extraterrestrial civilizations—if we ask the right question.”

Their work suggests that the odds are in favor of finding alien life—but finding evidence of it long dead. They suggest a shift in our attentions away from contacting a living civilization, towards cosmic archaeology. You know, like Forbidden Planet illustrates.

A graph from "A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe" showing the lower limit to the number of technological species in the universe as being 2.5x10^-24.

Number of Technological Species Ever in the Universe, from the paper.

Frankly it could stop there and be canonized for that purpose, but the film goes one better

We still don’t have great constraints for the other troubling component of Drake’s equation, and that’s how long technological civilizations tend to last. That question in turn raises the darker question of what tends to doom those civilizations. One possibility is that it is that technology itself is the thing, which is, again, what Forbidden Planet illustrates.

This is a blog about sci-fi interfaces, and I presume that readers are, like me, directly involved in shaping technology. So it is that this 60 year-old film has a one-two punch. It shows us both what the future will probably be like, and then turns our attention to something we can think about—and work to make right—now.

And that’s sci-fi we can use.


A Fermi strategy

In the first post I gave an overview of the Fermi question and its hypothetical answers. In the second, I reviewed which of the answers sci-fi is given to. In this post I compare the costs of acting on each answer.

Which should we be telling stories about?

Sci-fi likes to tell stories about the Prime Directive Fermi answer. But is it the most useful answer? Keep in mind that most of us are not working in space programs. For us, sci-fi is less direct inspiration to go build the most kick-ass rocketship we can, but rather inform how we think about and support the space program culturally and politically. With that in mind, let’s spend a little bit of time talking about the effects of confronting each hypothesis in our sci-fi. To be able to compare apples to apples, let’s apply the same thinking to each.

  1. What would be the call to action (if any) if this hypothesis is true?
  2. What if this is true, but we fail to act on it?
  3. What if it’s true, and we do act on it?

Warning: This will be long, but if we’re thinking strategy, risk aversion, and opportunity maximization (as we are) we have to be thorough.

Life is rare


All life is precious, Daryl.

These stories tell us to not get our hopes up about thrilling tales of space imperialism. We need to get our shit sorted, since, no, we won’t have peace treaties with Romulan Sith, but we will have our hands full dealing with our own worst natures and the weirdness of natural space problems like black holes and special relativity. While we go about this, we should take advantage of this freakish circumstance by protecting life for the precious thing it is. Continue reading