Forgotten Science Fiction: A For Andromeda by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot

In 1960, astronomer Frank Drake pioneered the concept of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) with Project Ozma.

In 1961, the BBC ran a seven-part TV show called A for Andromeda about a SETI success story, later made into a book by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot.

Sometimes forgotten science fiction is worth pursuing when it is first to explore a new idea.

I’m reviewing the novelization, and my edition is the 1964 Crest paperback.  Only one complete episode and fragments of other episodes exist for the original television series, which featured Julie Christie in an early role.  According to Wikipedia the idea was developed by Fed Hoyle, an astronomer and author of The Black Cloud, and expanded with characters and dialog by television producer John Elliot, who wrote most of the script, and probably the novelization, but Fred Hoyle is given top billing.  Hoyle was a noted astronomer and I’m sure his name sold the book. 

I wish the original television serial was available, because the clips on Youtube make it look pretty good for a 1961 science fictional TV show.  The show was remade in 2006, but is not available on Netflix yet.  Youtube does have the complete “Face of the Tiger” episode in 8 video parts – this will give you an idea of what it was like.

 

However, we do have the whole book if you’re willing to track down a used copy, because it’s been out of print since 2002, and never widely circulated.

 

A for Andromeda 001

As far back as 1896 Nikola Tesla suggested using radio to contact ETs, and in 1924 radio audiences had to endure 5 minute blocks of radio silence hoping astronomers could hear broadcasts from Mars, so the idea has been around for awhile, but it was never used all that much in science fiction.

The basic plot of the story is scientists discover a signal from space with instructions to build a computer, which then decodes further instructions for building life forms.  Two other movies, along with A for Andromeda have covered this topic in film, first the 1955 This Island Earth, and more recently with the 1997 Contact.  In all three,  the early part of the story is about making SETI contact, and the rest of the story is about following the alien instructions.  This Island Earth was based on a book by Raymond F. Jones, a long forgotten minor SF writer who had some moderate successes in the 1950s and 1960s.  Contact, of course was based on Carl Sagan’s novel, and it’s probably the most famous SETI story.

James Gunn took a more realistic look at the idea in The Listeners from 1972, by having the story span a hundred years.  Any real SETI conversation will take centuries if not thousands of years.  Jack McDevitt tackled the subject in 1986 in The Hercules Text.  Less well known, is His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem, first published in 1968 in Poland, but with English translations still in print.

All of these stories deal with common themes and issues surrounding the impact of SETI contact.  A for Andromeda was written during the early days of the cold war, so in that story, the message from the stars was mostly kept secret from the public.  I don’t want to tell you much about A for Andromeda in this section because there’s not a whole lot of dramatic plot develop, so why give away what little there is.  I read A for Andromeda just after reading The Day of the Triffids, and unfortunately Andromeda pales in comparison, because Triffids is a gripping classic page turner.  A for Andromeda is an interesting read, especially if you like to read stories about messages from space, which I’ve discovered that I do.

Strangely, science fiction has seldom used SETI as a theme, even though it’s probably the most realistic of all alien contact methods.  There are thousands of alien invasion stories, which says so much about our paranoia and lack of knowledge of physics and the reality of space travel.  If we’re to make first contact with alien intelligences who live on planets orbiting nearby stars, the odds are almost 100% it will be through SETI contact.

I thought it interesting in A for Andromeda that the story was less about aliens and more about getting technology to uplift Great Britain’s falling status as a world power.  It was also about computers and scientists working for secret government projects, and how the government has to spy on their own people because of national and industrial espionage.   I got the feeling while reading A for Andromeda that  the writers might have been influenced by Ian Fleming.

A for Andromeda is not a bad read, but it’s not a great one either – I’d mostly recommend it for the science fiction historian.

Analysis with Spoilers

Don’t read beyond this point if you haven’t read the novel and still plan to read it.

The aliens who send the message in A for Andromeda are very smart.  They give instructions to build a computer that queries the Earthmen about what they know and then customizes the message and results for them.  When the computer is finished it queries about the biological life on Earth, and then gives instructions for building a DNA sequencer.  Then it produces a strange Cyclops creature that has a symbiotic relationship with the computer.  From this experiment the computer learns more about Earth biology and then builds a beautiful young woman that the scientists call Andromeda.  Part of the book is about her education.  The novel doesn’t deal with artificial intelligence, but it gets very close.

As usual in these stories, some scientists are gangbusters to move forward as fast as possible hoping for a big technological payoff, while other scientists contemplate the horrors of what the aliens might be planning.  In This Island Earth, A for Andromeda and Content, the message has instructions to build something.  This is great for developing a novel plot, but I’m not sure if it’s realistic.  Would we ever follow such instructions without many back and forth messages of getting to know the folks at the other end of the SETI phone line?

All these novels have another common problem – how to present alien intelligence that’s greater than our own?  In This Island Earth the message turns out to be local, and the instructions to build a machine, a test to prove the scientists worthy of further contact and a flying saucer ride.  The moviegoers are taken to a distant planet.  In Contact, Jodi Foster is sent on a fantastic worm-hole jaunt to meet some rather god-like aliens, but upon her return her story is disbelieved.  Most alien contact stories are about invading Earth, or weird comedies like Men in BlackStar Trek and Star Wars are both famous for developing alien diversity, but how serious have they ever been?  Vulcan and Klingons aren’t very realistic aliens.

Science fiction seldom deals with the actual problems of SETI, making first contact and the dynamics of languages.  A for Andromeda handles the later problem by having the human form Andromeda commune telepathically with the computer.  Most real scientists believe our initial conversations will be about math, which will lead to physics, chemistry and eventually biology.  It will take a long time before we get to religion, philosophy and technology.

In the end, Andromeda is accidently killed before she can communicate what she might know about distant worlds.  The computer is destroyed before it’s real mission is revealed.  In other words, Hoyle and Elliot chicken out rather than speculate about what the aliens might really want.  There is a sequel, The Andromeda Breakthrough, but I haven’t read it or seen the TV show.  It is available as a special DVD edition along with the remaining fragments of A for Andromeda, but it’s not available in the U.S.  The Andromeda Breakthrough is available for digital rental and sale through Amazon, but I haven’t been tempted, it more about espionage.

Like I said in the first section, A for Andromeda is pleasant but mild read, mostly likely to appeal to readers who study SF literature.

JWH – 7/1/12 

SETI: What Can Aliens Tell Us That We Don’t Know?

First off, decoding any messages from the stars will be difficult.  Just think about what aliens would have to figure out if they received Morse Code from us?  First, there’s the code, and then there’s the language behind the code.  Any kind of pattern recognition program would figure out the code quickly enough, and even discover the alphabet behind the code, but then what?  They might number our alphabet 1-26.  So they end up with a word like 7-18-5-5-14.   Of course, they don’t know that A=1, so the sequence 7-18-5-5-14 could be 26 different words if they knew the order of our alphabet without the starting point, and a whole lot more if they don’t the order at all.  But isn’t alphabetical order even an illusion for us?  Words are far more than letters.  Writing itself is a code, and language is hardwired in our brains.  Could we ever communicate with a differently evolved life form?

Would it be any easier if they got a radio signal with our voices without any kind of coding?  If they heard us say “green” would that be any use to them?  Okay, let’s go to video and have someone point to a color chart and say green.  Now we’re getting somewhere, we need video to have a visual Rosetta Stone.

Now imagine we get TV from the stars, what can aliens tell us that we don’t know?

Religion

Unless our bug eyed friends tell us about a God that’s just like one of ours, we’re going to think anything they say about religion to be just another one.  But what if they smugly inform us they rejected religion 100,000 years ago?  Or they draw a complete blank when we ask about their gods?  After thousands of years, we’re discovering that religion is make-believe, so any religion we hear about from the stars will probably be just as make believed.  But what if they try to convert us to some big-ass wild and wooly story about a creator that looks like living 1955 Buick?

If you want to read about alien religions there’s plenty you can hear about from anthropologists.  But if birdmen from Arcturus  emphatically state that metaphysical realms don’t exist, and neither do metaphysical beings, will the people of Earth believe them?

Ultimately, there are only so many outcomes to expect in this area, here are a quick handful of replies we might get over our SETI TV.

  • There is no God
  • There is a God, but our God is better than your God
  • Our God is much like your God
  • Our God says you should serve us or be destroyed
  • Hello God, you finally answered our call
  • Who do you think you’re talking to, we are God
  • What the heck are you guys talking about, we don’t comprehend

Philosophy

Like religion, philosophy is on the decline in our world, so why would we value the works of an alien Plato?  Would we embrace highly developed alien works of rhetoric, logic and ethics?  Wouldn’t it be bizarre if our new friends have a philosophical tradition that went through similar phases as our philosophers?

What if our new alien buddies give us something to think about that we’ve never thought about before?  Is that even possible?  What if their philosophy only works in the context of their biological framework and environment?  Has anything imagined on Star Trek for alien ways of thinking ever been new?  Earth people have thought of some crazy shit over the centuries.

And how many philosophical practices and disciplines do you follow now?  How often do you read Northrup Frye, Michel Foucault or Ludwig Wittgenstein?  Compared to what you know now, to what you could know if you studied, you could make many quantum leaps in your knowledge without SETI.

Mathematics

This is one area that scientists expect us to be in full agreement.  Will we become depressed if we find all the answers to the mathematical puzzles we hoped to solve ourselves for the next thousand years on an interstellar web site?  What if they give us the answer to the grand unified theory of the universe, and we can’t understand it, ever!

Again, is any BEM math we could get from SETI any less far out than all the math you ignore now?

Science

Shouldn’t their science just correlate our science and vice versa?  The whole idea of science is it should be reproducible anywhere.  To the average citizen of the Earth that pays no attention to science now, will it matter that our science will be validated by alien science?

If our new friends have been around millions of years longer than we have,  should we expect them to have science that makes us feel like dinosaurs?

Technology

Alien technology is what we want.  Movies like Contact (1997) and This Island Earth (1955) imagine getting a signal from another star with blueprints that tell us how to build super-science gadgets that will help us travel to the stars.  Would our far away friends trade the specs for a spaceship for the design for the iPad?  We want the tech to hotrod it out of the solar system.  Will we be disappointed if we don’t get it, either because it doesn’t exist or because their Federation bars them from giving it to us?

Art

Will the creatures from afar care about Monet or Breaking Bad?  Will they want to groove to Lady Gaga and Arcade Fire?  Will we want to read their version of Anna Karenina?  How many Japanese pop hits do you play while reading Vietnamese novels?

Does it Matter?

I think it will matter greatly when we discover we’re not alone in this universe, but beyond that, I tend to think we concentrate on very immediate surroundings and ignore the far away, so will stuff that’s very far away really matter that much?  Most Americans pay little attention to illegal aliens from Mexico, so why care about creatures from Epsilon Eridani?  Think about it, we have excellent science for global warming and evolution but most Americans reject those ideas for some stories they heard as kids at Sunday school.

Our world is full of alien concepts we’ve never explored, far out science and math we’ve never learned, mind blowing technology that’s beyond our current comprehension.  What do we do with this cornucopia of knowledge now?  Yeah, I thought so.  We spend most of our time figuring out how to rub genitals or some other physical impulse programmed into our DNA, so do we really expect to be uplifted by video from the stars by super beings?

Science Fiction

And if we do find SETI pen pals, what will they make of our science fiction?  Our dreams are so much bigger than our beings.  If intelligent life on nearby planets pick up this video on their SETI dishes, what will they think?  What if they don’t know it’s fiction.  What if the SETI signals we receive are their science fiction?

What if the most exciting stuff we get from the stars will be alien Sci-Fi?

JWH – 4/10/12

Making SETI Chit-Chat

Humans have been playing galactic wall-flower, afraid to make first contact with our alien neighbors, but what happens when a neighborly little green alien sends us an interstellar text message, what will we type back?  Linguists aren’t even sure if interstellar communication is even possible, but let’s say we overcome the language barrier rather quickly.  What will we say?  Yeah, I know, all those pesky scientists will want to send boring mathematical messages to see if our brains are bigger than theirs, or heaven’s forbid, it’s the other way around.

No, let’s say we can get down to some intelligent species to intelligent species chit-chat, what would you want to ask our new space alien buddies?  I think the first question I’d ask is, “Do you guys know many people from around here?”  I think the first thing I’d tell them would be, “Man, it’s been very lonely in this neck of the galaxy.  Geez, I was afraid we were the only sentient beings in the universe.”

Would we have enough in common to carry on a long distant relationship?  Another question I’d be anxious to ask, “Hey, you guys got television?”  Can you imagine the The Alien Channel?  I wonder if they have a better Monday comedy lineup than “How I Met Your Mother,” “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.”  And what would they think of the human race if they could see “True Blood,” “Big Love,” “Dexter” and “Wipeout.”

SETI gurus assume we’ll have mathematics in common, and that might be true, but what might two intelligent cultures, separated by light years, share?  Music might be a possibility.  But imagine if giant redwood trees were big brain thinkers, with IQs of 300, but only they live in a world of little activity, with long slow lives.  What would they think of us hummingbirds?

Like the geek boys in Sixteen Candles, when asked what kind of proof they would accept, I’d also have to answer:  Video!  Even if we couldn’t understand our B.E.M. friends’ Monday night TV lineup, it would be great to watch anyway, like watching nature documentaries without sound.  Can you imagine the alien porn channel – “Whoa, did ya see that egg depositor on that giant beetle babe with the gold bikini last night!”  And would aliens feel like African Americans watching old movies with racial stereotypes when watching our science fiction films?

That brings up censorship.  Should we try to put on an act and project some kind of high minded normal view of human behavior, or just let it all hang out.  And would alien cultures be as diverse, bizarre and brilliant we we are?  What if we could load up some super laser canon with petabytes per second bandwidth, and blast all the daily human culture into the sky, what would they make of us?

What if they were brilliant mathematical lizards, but mainly lazed around laying eggs and thinking big thoughts about reality, would we blow their minds?  What if our alien neighbors made us feel like a race of Mother Teresas?  What if their pop culture is so vibrant that all we can do is form a cargo cult?

We have thousands of years of far out history that our children find boring.  We have magnificent sciences and mathematics to study, but our kids prefer listening to Lady Gaga or playing Call of Duty.  Most of our pop-culture is about mating, which I doubt has much interest to other intelligent species.  Will we have much to say to each other?  I don’t speak any other languages and seldom read web pages that aren’t based in the United States.  What does that say?

Science fiction always show alien diversity, with humans boogieing with all kinds of strange looking creatures, going on adventures, smuggling cargo, and being all PC BFF.  Einstein’s speed laws will make such joy riding very unlikely, but even if we could get close, would we want to?  Homo sapiens have all kinds of bacteria and viruses living in, on and around us.  Would we want to chance Wookie cooties?  And what’s the likelihood of becoming chums with another sentient race that enjoys the same mixture of air, temperature, gravity and atmospheric pressure as we do?

Science fiction has always assumed everything would be easy, and if we weren’t trying to exterminate each other, aliens would make great friends.  But I don’t know.  That might just be overly anthropomorphic, like imagining bears will be like Winnie the Pooh.

I want to know that aliens exist.  I want to share science and mathematics.  Passing tech tips back and forth will be great too.  But how much chit-chatting can we really expect?

Reality 

If we’re lucky, and I mean really lucky, like life on Earth lucky, we’ll one day detect an intelligent message coming from a not too distant star, hopefully within a few hundred light years.  At first only scientists will understand the signal, because it will probably take a great deal of abstract knowledge to understand the unnatural patterns in the signal from the rich existing energy patterns of our universe – and probably much of public will refuse to believe our eggheads. 

Slowly the science community will build their case that will convert the unbelieving.  It will take years, decades or even centuries to partly decipher the message, and when it’s revealed,  the communiqué probably won’t be all that exciting to the average woman and man, but just knowing we’re not alone will mean a lot philosophically.  Over vast periods, that span many lifetimes, we’ll slowly development interspecies communication.  And one day we might even get video, the real proof for the unbelievers.  Eventually, the excitement will die down, because it’s doubtful we’ll ever meet our new friends, and human life being what it is now, won’t make us that broad minded across light-years, because most of us are focused on the moment, the near and now.

We might be alone in the universe.  Then again, we might not.  But if we do discover other intelligent life, it won’t take away our existential loneliness.  Humans swarm over this planet by the billions, but most of them feel very lonely, because each of us is a singular soul, living as a solitary island castaway, tossing messages in bottles onto the sea, hoping for a little communication.  When the bottles must cross the distant shores trillions of miles away, it won’t feel any different.

Song of the Moment 

JWH – 7/28/9