The Big Idea: Ness Brown
If you’ve ever wondered if aliens are out there, author Ness Brown is right there with you. In their new novel, The Scourge Between Stars, aliens might be a lot closer than the characters think. Follow along in Brown’s Big Idea to see if we’re really alone in the universe.
Astronomy is sometimes called humanity’s oldest science. Given our species’ long history of stargazing, I believe humanity’s oldest question might be “are we alone?”.
As an astrophysicist, I am part of a long lineage of people dedicated to deciphering the mysteries of the sky. Though my research interests orbit around extreme objects like the first stars and supermassive black holes, I share that ancestral curiosity about whether one of the thousands of stars visible on a clear night is home to a giant rock populated with beings wondering the same thing.
For six years I taught a course on astrobiology, a subject that investigates the conditions needed for and the possibility of discovering extraterrestrial life. My students and I discussed everything from habitable worlds beyond our own, interstellar travel, and even the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. While studying the prospect of life emerging on other worlds, however, we also looked at the morbid possibility of life one day ending here on our own.
Since human irresponsibility is slowly deteriorating the conditions on Earth that gave birth to our species, we listed what next steps humanity could take if and when the degradation of our mother planet is complete. Among these, we considered the solution proposed by countless films and fiction stories: can’t we just find another planet to call home?
Our conclusion—and that of my sci-fi horror novella The Scourge Between Stars—is that it won’t be nearly that easy.
The story follows a decaying generation spaceship limping back home to Earth after failing to colonize a nearby exoplanet. Just as the perils of interstellar space, starvation, and unrest threaten to tear the ship apart, the crew begin to realize that there’s something else onboard with them.
Space horror is one of my favorite genres because few things are scarier than the hostility of the cosmos itself. Being confronted with the dangers that lurk beyond the boundaries of Earth can make us rethink our place in the universe.
Humans tend to idealize space colonization as an inevitability, the next step in our evolutionary journey. This arises from a deep misunderstanding of our current technological capabilities, an ignorance of the precious coincidences that led to our evolution, and a sad tendency to take the Earth—the only world of its kind out of thousands that we know of—for granted.
Even if we could take to the stars, realistically not every human will be granted a ticket off this sinking ship. The technologic aids that we may conscript into service—artificial intelligences, droids, and other common robotic visions of the future—will be exploited for those lucky few. And there’s always the possibility that the next planet we try to colonize could already be host to someone or something else. Can we really say that humans take priority over all other forms of life or awareness?
Like many space horror stories, The Scourge Between Stars challenges the reckless assumption that humans will find another welcoming world so easily after trashing our own. Beneath the jump-scares, spooky corridors, and alien menace, the story questions whether our species alone has a right to survival, and how we might deal with other lifeforms equally committed to finding better prospects elsewhere in the galaxy.
Humanity has wondered whether we are alone in the universe for thousands of years. The Scourge Between Stars looks at a future where we discover the answer the hard way, and maybe end up wishing for a different truth entirely.