Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Big Round Numbers

Over at tor.com, a post by James Nicoll: Doing the Math: Aliens and Advanced Tech in SF.

Everyone loves them some aliens. But …if the encounter is to work out to the satisfaction of all concerned, it is best if the aliens not be too advanced (because they could brush us aside like ants) or too primitive (we might brush them aside like ants). No, there’s a Goldilocks zone for aliens, in which they are close to the same tech level as humans … and can interact peaceably with us.

Which leads me to wonder: just how likely is it that two unconnected civilizations could reach the same technological level (roughly) at the same time?

Time for some large, round numbers.

Not a new topic, but always fun. I’m not sure Nicoll mentions this, but in order for (many) stories to work, the species in question also have to be (relatively) close together; that is, preferably in at least the same galaxy, though if you push me, I’m sure I can think of some wormhole stories where physical proximity in real space is totally unimportant. 

Moving on —

To put it another way: if we imagine that ten billion years as one day, humans have been around for a bit over 2 1/2 seconds. High tech has been around for about a thousandth of a second.

For a second species from an unrelated world to have evolved into intelligence and invented tech—specifically tech that hit human levels at just that thousandth of a second…it’s extremely unlikely. Even the possibility that we’d show up in someone’s sky while they were still playing with stone axes seems unlikely .

But alien races are fun! So how can authors deal with the grim numbers? The usual way: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

That’s the way! Onward with that! Always fun to apply random pop psych in completely inappropriate ways. (I’m serious. I get a kick out of seeing things like the so-called stages of grief turn up in odd contexts like this one.)

My favorite is bargaining, though I’m not sure I would use any of the examples given. I can come up with my own semi-plausible hand-wavy explanation, I bet.

I would, as an author, be pretty okay with using Denial or Acceptance, too. 

In fact, if I were writing an SF series, not a standalone, I might well start with Denial and then go for Bargaining later as I decided I really had to figure this out.

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