Consider the following. The Universe as we know it is estimated to be 13.8 billion years old. The first stars emerged roughly 100 million years later, which were short-lived by our standards. These stars were almost entirely made up of hydrogen and helium, and the fusing of these elements in their cores gave rise to heavier elements. These include lithium, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, and iron, key elements that would become the building blocks of planets and life!
A consequence of this was that second-generation stars (aka. Population II) and third-generation (Population III) stars would contain traces of metal. Another consequence was the formation of planets in new star systems. At this point, roughly 4 billion years after the Big Bang, the Universe was seeded with the elements for life and places for it to emerge. That was just shy of 10 billion years ago, about 5.5 billion years before our Solar System formed.
This is the true meaning of “Ancient Aliens,” which is not to be confused with that crap show on the History Channel! While the idea that aliens visited Earth in the past and even left their mark on our species is very cool (and science fiction gold, there’s no proof of that! A far more realistic and intriguing possibility is that they are out there today, using technologies and engaged in activities that we can barely fathom.
Some of the greatest scientific minds have explored this idea, and dammit, I want a piece of that action! But first, here are some examples of what these great minds had to say. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the “father of rocketry,” spoke volumes on the subject of space exploration, extraterrestrial intelligence, and the big existential questions. In his 1932 essay – “Is there a God?” – Tsiolkosvky theorized that a state of “perfect intelligence” lay in humanity’s future.
Always the cosmological thinker, Tsiolkovsky ventured that this state would have already been achieved by older lifeforms in the Universe:
“Millions of milliards of planets have existed for a long time, and therefore their animals have reached a maturity which we will reach in millions of years of our future life on Earth. This maturity is manifest by perfect intelligence, by a deep understanding of nature, and by technical power which makes other heavenly bodies accessible to the inhabitants of the cosmos.”
Alas, there remained the question of why humanity had not met any of these ancient and more advanced species (aka. the Fermi Paradox). Tsiolkovsky offered his thoughts on this question in his 1933 essay “The Planets are Occupied by Living Beings.” In a dialogue with himself, he asked why, if there are any [ETIs], why hadn’t they visited Earth by now. To this, he replied:
“Perhaps they will visit us, but time has not come yet for this. Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans of past centuries saw Europeans visit them – but many millenniums passed before they arrived. Similarly, we will see such a visit in some time. The powerful inhabitants of other planets, perhaps, have been visiting one another for a long time.“
That same thread of thought has since been formalized as the “Transcension Hypothesis,” one of the many proposed resolutions for Fermi’s Paradox. The idea is that a sufficiently-advanced species would no longer be recognizable to humanity. Not only would they cease to have physical bodies of flesh and blood, but their mastery of physics may eventually extend to spacetime itself.
For all we know, advanced intelligence exists everywhere in the form of clouds of computronium or even photons encoded to host the minds of ancient beings. Or, as has been suggested by John Smart, a modern proponent of the Transcension Hypothesis, a highly-advanced species may choose to live around the event horizon of black holes, where they’ll enjoy access to endless energy, privacy, and maybe even the ability to see into other Universes!
While this sounds really speculative and way out there, that’s what we’re left with. When it comes to examples of life-bearing planets and technological civilizations, we have only one example to work with apiece (Earth and us!). Hence, we can do nothing but speculate about the evolution of life and advanced species since we have no other examples to go by. It’s therefore logical to take what we anticipate for ourselves and consider that someone, somewhere, has already achieved that (and then some!)
Interestingly, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke contemplated these questions at length while working on 2001: A Space Odyssey. According to the popular narrative, Kubrick wanted to do a scene with the alien intelligence that was the focal point of the story. According to a recent article by journalist Will Dowd at the Boston Globe, Kubrick originally wanted to with the classic lanky, humanoid grey skin design for his aliens, only taller:
“He dragged his visual effects team to a Giacometti exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and pointed to the humanoid sculptures. He wanted his ETs to be just as thin and gangly, but 20 feet high. As the film ended, one of these spindly space creatures would reach down and take the astronaut Dave Bowman by the hand and together they would walk off into the sunset.”
Eventually, Kubrick turned to famed science communicator Carl Sagan for help with his dilemma. Saga advised him to drop the idea, claiming that an actual advanced alien species would be beyond anything humans can imagine with our limited perspective. This realization made Kubrick and Clarke decide to go with the Monolith, which was an example of the aliens’ technology! Each Monolith was composed of unknown black material in the shape of a flattened rectangle. While they differed in size, their proportions were exactly the same – 1:4:9, the square roots of 1, 2, and 3.
“Instead, his film would focus on humanity’s encounter with alien technology — those eerie black monoliths — rather than with the aliens themselves,” Dowd added. “It was a wise choice. The film remains as haunting today as when it premiered in 1968. And it’s more plausible. Scientists believe we’re far more likely to encounter a galaxy-traversing drone than, say, a species of galaxy-traversing space octopi.”
This very simple but intriguing design made the Monoliths awe-inspiring, imposing, and even terrifying. Looking at their black facade was like looking at an inscrutable face; worse, even, since there was no way of knowing if the things had a face. Their mysterious appearance only amplified the mystery surrounding their presence, capabilities, and ultimate intentions.
In the novelization, written by Clarke and released concurrently with the film, he gives the species a name: “The Firstborn.” As the name suggests, this species emerged in our galaxy long before humanity began exploring the stars to search for others like their kind. This inevitably led them to Earth, where they influenced the evolutionary development of early hominids. As Clarke describes it:
“In their exploration, they encountered life in many forms, and watched the workings of evolution on a thousand worlds. They saw how often the first faint sparks of intelligence flickered and died in the cosmic night,. And because, in all the galaxy, they had found nothing more precious than Mind, they encouraged its dawning everywhere. They became farmers in the fields of stars, they sowed, and sometimes, they reaped. And sometimes, dispassionately, they had to weed.”
As for the monoliths themselves, Clarke added that this was part of the Firstborn’s own evolutionary development. What he wrote was consistent with what Tsiolkovsky and earlier cosmologists speculated about how life may one day achieve a state of Transcension and become a “perfect intelligence.”
“The first explorers of Earth had long since come to the limits of flesh and blood; as soon as their machines were better than their bodies, it was time to move. First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and of plastic. In these, they roamed among the stars. They no longer built spaceships. They were spaceships.”
It didn’t end there, but this was how the transcension process began, whereby the Firstborn merged themselves with their machines. The monoliths were the eventual result, which no longer carried the minds of these aliens, but remained as sentries on all of the worlds they had visited in the past. Like Innukshuks, they were a testament to the presence of the Firstborn.
However, it was J.M. Straczynski who introduced me to the concept of the “First Ones” in the first place. His SF series, Babylon 5 (1993-1998), remains one of the best I’ve ever seen and one that I’ve watched several times over. The story takes place about two hundred and fifty years in the future when humanity has just recovered from a rather disastrous war resulting from a first contact situation going wrong.
To ensure that such accidents didn’t happen again, Earth partnered with four other species – the Mimbari (the ones they had previously fought), the Centauri (a declining empire), the Narn (a rising empire and the ancestral enemy of the Centauri), and the Vorlons (a cryptic and ancient race). Long before the main story takes place, we learn that the First Ones dominated the galaxy – the first intelligent species to emerge in the Milky Way.
These races were shepherded by a single species that emerged before anyone else. Little is left of them in our galaxy as most passed beyond it to explore intergalactic space and other galaxies. Eventually, most First Ones followed suit, but some stayed behind to mentor new species that emerged in our galaxy. And as is so often the case, a war broke out to determine who would have ultimate control over these species’ evolution. One of the main characters in the story explains it as follows:
“There are beings in the Universe billions of years older than either of our races. Once, long ago, they walked amongst the stars like giants. Vast and timeless. They taught the younger races, explored beyond the rim, created great empires. But to all things, there is an end. Slowly, over a million years, the First Ones went away. Some passed beyond the stars, never to return. Some simply disappeared.
“Not all of the First Ones have gone away. A few stayed behind, hidden or asleep, waiting for the day when they may be needed… when the Shadows come again. We have no other name for them. The Shadows were old when even the ancients were young.”
The Shadows (shown above) are the oldest among the First Ones and believe that evolution is only achieved through chaos and struggle. In appearance, they look like insectoid beings with pitch-black skins that are almost liquid-like from the way they seem to flow. They can remain hidden by altering how their profile interacts with visible light, and their ships look like “something between a spider and your worst nightmare.”
In appearance, the Vorlons look like they might have a humanoid figure because of how their encounter suits are arranged (above left). Otherwise, they will take on the appearance of whatever species they visit, but with typical angel features (i.e., halos, inner light, wings, etc.). But without these pretenses, they look like energy-beings with squiddy-like profiles, and their ships (middle and right) look much the same since they are based on organic technology.
There was a balance of power for eons until one or both broke the truce and began fighting an ongoing war, largely through proxies. The Shadows recruited younger races to fight each other to further their ends, and they always approached would-be allies with the same question, “What do you want?”
The Vorlons manipulated younger species by appearing as beings of light, which less-advanced cultures saw as angels. They also genetically engineered species on many worlds to produce telepaths, which are vital to fighting the Shadows. The question they ask all those whom they approach is, “Who are you?”
Fun stuff? But what was especially brilliant was how J.M. Straczynski’s writing and the aesthetic he and his colleagues came up with captured the awe, mystery, and terror that an ancient species would arouse in less-advanced species (like us!). In the first season, one of the main characters tries to illustrate the dangers of encountering the First Ones by using an ant:
“I have just picked it up on the tip of my glove. If I put it down again, and it asks another ant, “what was that?”, how would it explain? There are things in the Universe billions of years older than either of our races. They’re vast, timeless, and if they’re aware of us at all, it is as little more than ants, and we have as much chance of communicating with them as an ant has with us. We know, we’ve tried, and we’ve learned that we can either stay out from underfoot or be stepped on.”
These words were clearly inspired by the master, Carl Sagan, who wrote and commented extensively on the subject of extraterrestrial intelligence and the search for them. In his 1983 essay, “The Solipsist Approach to Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” he summed it up pretty masterfully.
“We think it possible that the Milky Way is teeming with civilizations as far beyond our level of advance as we are beyond the ants, and paying about as much attention as we pay to the ants. Some subset of moderately advanced civilizations may be engaged in the exploration and colonization of other planetary systems; however, their mere existence makes it highly likely that their intentions are benign and that their sensitivities about societies at our level of technological adolescence delicate.”
Years later, the contributions of these artists and scholars remain with me. When I began taking my first steps as an SF author, I knew that this was a subject that I wanted to tackle someday. Now that I’ve completed my first trilogy, I’m in a position to get into that. Since I haven’t started on it yet, I can’t get into specifics. But suffice it to say the mystery, awe, terror, and the unknown are all things I want to capture when I get around to writing about ancient extraterrestrial intelligence!