Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 10: Microscopic Aliens On Earth

Five decades ago, I started my college career with the intent of becoming a marine biologist. I found out I had to get a BS in biology before I could even begin work on MARINE biology; especially because there WEREN'T any marine biology programs in Minnesota.

Along the way, the science fiction stories I'd been writing since I was 13 began to grow more believable. With my BS in biology and a fascination with genetics, I started to use more science in my fiction.

After reading hard SF for the past 50 years, and writing hard SF successfully for the past 20, I've started to dig deeper into what it takes to create realistic alien life forms. In the following series, I'll be sharing some of what I've learned. I've had some of those stories published, some not...I teach a class to GT young people every summer called ALIEN WORLDS. I've learned a lot preparing for that class for the past 25 years...so...I have the opportunity to share with you what I've learned thus far. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Let me know what YOU'VE learned. Without further ado...

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN had a profound effect on my young life as a reader. I’d read the book about two thirds of the way through, when my dad came into my room and said he was going to take me to the theater “now”. It was the summer of 1971 and I I’d recently turned 14 and I’d be starting ninth grade in the Fall. No one else in my family was interested in it, so I was going alone.

I was going to go to the Park Theater in St. Louis Park, MN. The movie I was going to see had the same title of the book I was reading. I WAS SO EXCITED!!! I knew the plot from having read the book, but I didn’t know the end yet. I’d never read anything my Michael Crichton, so this was a first for me, but the idea of an alien microorganism infecting Earth was fascinating…

But my point this time isn’t to look at PLAGUES, but to look at alien life forms that AREN’T world-shattering plagues.

One exception that springs to mind is David Gerrold’s WAR AGAINST THE CTHORR, in which an alien civilization releases microorganisms whose purpose is to change Earth so that it’s habitable for THEM. “With the human population ravaged by a series of devastating plagues, the alien Chtorr arrive to begin the final phase of their invasion. Even as many on Earth deny their existence, the giant wormlike carnivores prepare the world for the ultimate violation--the enslavement of humanity for food!” The current cover is actually pretty boring. The OLD cover? Follow this link: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/4b/Amatterformen.JPG

Another instance of microorganism-intelligence “invading Earth” is the short story “Blood Music” by Greg Bear in which a scientist invents intelligent blood – not just “smart blood”, rather, his blood actually becomes an intelligent being. It also escapes into the sewers where it will presumably become an “alien” monster.

There’s even a scientist who is seriously pursuing the search for alien microbes: https://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_rugheimer_the_search_for_microscopic_aliens/transcript?language=en#t-54853

Her inspiration for the search for extraterrestrial life started: “"I had never heard anything more exciting. Finally science is beginning to start answering humanity’s most fundamental questions of how we got here, and is there life elsewhere in the Universe? Are we alone? These are fundamental questions we have been thinking about for thousands of years.”

There has been some poking around at the idea of ET being microscopic, but perhaps we need to consider it more seriously?

Maybe combining the idea of microscopic alien life with the serious exploration of the OTHER two thirds of the Earth’s surface might yield more alien life than we expected.

For example, what about the life around “black smokers”? A black smoker, technically a “‘hydrothermal vent’, is a fissure on the seafloor from which geothermally heated water discharges. Hydrothermal vents are commonly found near volcanically active places, areas where tectonic plates are moving apart at spreading centers, ocean basins, and hotspots. Hydrothermal deposits are rocks and mineral ore deposits formed by the action of hydrothermal vents.”

What’s pertinent here is the life that has evolved around these vents. WHOLELY different from life anywhere else on Earth. These black (and white) smokers are where “complex communities fueled by the chemicals dissolved in the vent fluids [exist]. Chemosynthetic bacteria and archaea form the base of the food chain, supporting diverse organisms, including giant tube worms, clams, limpets and shrimp. Active hydrothermal vents are thought to exist on Jupiter's moon Europa, and Saturn's moon Enceladus, and it is speculated that ancient hydrothermal vents once existed on Mars.”

I refer you to another Creating Alien Aliens post I made: https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2018/03/slice-of-pie-exploring-solar-system.html. I find it crazy that Humans are talking about exploring other worlds when there is a virtually unexplored word along the planet’s tectonic plate boundaries. The idea was proposed by Alfred Wegener in 1915 and was completely REJECTED by all Earth scientists until 1965!!!! (Ah yes, the open-mindedness and willingness of the entire scientific community to accept new ideas! So heartwarming to know that scientists are fair and thoughtful!) “All this evidence, both from the ocean floor and from the continental margins, made it clear around 1965 that continental drift was feasible and the theory of plate tectonics, which was defined in a series of papers between 1965 and 1967, was born, with all its extraordinary explanatory and predictive power.”

It also seems that there are vast, unexploited fields of minerals around the smokers…when we figure out how to work that deep – in order to make money, of course! – and start mining the ocean floor, maybe we’ll finally begin to be able to prepare for the exploration of water environments in a meaningful way.

In the meantime, I hope that intelligence hasn’t evolved around the smokers, because…well, go to this link https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrothermal_vent
and scroll down to EXPLOITATION and tell me there isn’t a story there waiting to be written!

But to write microscopic alien life as a story? How could I do that? WAR OF THE WORLDS has an alien virus (to THEM it was alien!) wipe them out. So, one way is to have a Human character witness their destruction. In WAR AGAINST THE CTHORR, the main character witnesses the destruction of life on Earth through plagues and weird plants, and finally the full-sized “monster” Cthorr themselves. “Blood Music” takes a bit of a different tack when the main character “hears” his own blood talking to him.

How else? IF I were to write a story in the hydrothermal vents and DIDN’T want to follow one of the tropes, what would I do? Maybe: In a world where we finally get serious about exploiting the other seventy-two percent of Earth’s surface covered by water, someone gets the bright idea to mine the hydrothermal vents. They already know there’s life there, so they take precautions. Divers are already in sealed suits, the subs are sealed, so they don’t worry about that. I also LOATHE the idea of telepathic aliens. So…how DOES the life around the vents communicate among themselves? Chemical scents won’t work as the water is incredibly turbulent around the vents. Electrical? Same problem, water would disperse and electrical discharge and it would be difficult to have subtle electrical fields…

But what about the calmer areas around it? With pyrite, FeS2, being a semiconductor, what if a lifeform concentrates it to form internal structures? Semiconductors are used in computer chips…what if the aliens communicate “electrically”? Not in code, but rather directly via naturally extruded pyrite wires that are grown into complex arrangements? Powered by chemosynthesis, would they need any other "source of power" than that? Maybe not...

OK – the idea, but HOW DO THEY THINK? What would a semiconductor intelligence at the bottom of the ocean in total darkness value? What would “drive them”? Would they care about us? What if you kidnapped one and brought it to the surface? Would it notice? If it did, so what?

What else can we imagine for this…pretty strange form of life?

References: https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/coronavirus-feels-like-something-out-of-a-sci-fi-novel-heres-how-writers-have-imagined-similar-scenarios/2020/02/27/7dc59386-57f5-11ea-9000-f3cffee23036_story.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Rugheimer, inside the black smokers: https://www.washington.edu/news/1998/07/18/brief-scientific-background-on-sulfide-chimneys-black-smokers/

Image: https://image.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/alien-human-600w-136457129.jpg

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp. He thinks out loud in print at: https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/