Do you worry about making a good first impression? How about a first impression with an alien race? Author Kimberly Unger discusses in her Big Idea just what would happen with these first impressions… if our emissaries weren’t necessarily the ones everyone expects them to be. Read on to hear more, and how it involves her new novel, Nucleation.
Hey folks! Thank you for taking the time to check out the Big Idea today.
My name is Kimberly Unger and I am here to talk to you about one of the Big Ideas behind my debut novel, Nucleation.
At some point, we stopped plunging headlong into the great unknown and did the smart thing, the safe thing. We let the robots go first. We send probes and satellites and rovers and landers, we peer through telescopes and send out radio signals. We bounce frikkin’ laser beams off everything in frikkin’ laser beam range. All of this, every signal, every nuclear-powered tin-can, gets out there before we do.
Because we don’t want anyone to die who doesn’t have to.
I don’t imagine that’s a uniquely human drive. Once you get past a certain level of self awareness, the preservation of that self (and of related selfs) becomes very important. It’s pretty likely that other intelligences are going to try the same trick. First contact is probably not going to be between us and them, it’s probably going to be about our stuff banging into their stuff. And with our farthest out stuff travelling at 38k miles per minute (or 17 kilometers per second), I hope nobody’s particularly precious about their toys.
But until live beings get involved, it’s just an interstellar traffic accident. The risk is not to life and limb, but to our stuff. This is where Nucleation begins. Enter Helen Vectorovich, a best-in-class waldo jockey who pilots those far-reaching robots from a billion miles away. It’s not a job without risks, being deeply embedded in a reactive VR simulation can do some harm to mind and body if one isn’t careful. Her NAV, Theodore. has the safe and cushy half of the tasks. On an average day the two of them make an unstoppable team, on their best day ever they saved an entire off-planet colony from disaster. But after this interstellar side-swipe, someone or something reaches through their quantum communications link to hit back. Ted is the one to suffer the consequences and Helen is the survivor left to unravel the whys and hows of just what happened.
And, despite the levels of automation, the endless checklists, an exploratory process that was supposed to run on autopilot for decades at a time, it takes Helen’s observation, human observation, to step outside the plan and discover the truth behind a first contact scenario that has well and truly gone off the rails.
The Big Idea, one of the pieces I was working to bring across in Nucleation, is that these things we reach out with may very well be our inadvertent ambassadors. If our little robots just execute their programming, and their little robots just execute their programming, when we finally get out beyond our solar system we are going to find that relations have already been established. Like Helen Vectorovich stepping into the middle of an interstellar war on a nanotechnological scale, our first contact might be a little more like second contact; trying to repair mistakes, put out fires and follow up with the diplomatic paperwork.
I find the point where people and technology intersect to be a deeply fascinating place, not just the front-facing pieces like social media and videogames, but the deeper surfaces that drive supply chains and make predictions about where to search for medical breakthroughs. There is a little something of us in everything we create, both for the good and the bad. We are just now working on figuring out how to make that a deliberate choice, rather than just an unconscious reflection of our bias. We are privileged to observe our own technological processes as they get out into the wild and we can see what they do and the effects they can have.
Ideally the things we send out into the black on our behalf will be the better version of us so that when we do finally connect face-to-face, our biological selves will make the same good impression that our robot-selves did when negotiating that first collision out among the stars.