Asimov’s humans-only galaxy

I attended the European Planetary Sciences Congress 2013 in London a couple of weeks ago, and gave a talk to a session on the societal implications of astrobiology.

It was an extremely interesting session. Although everyone there was interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and indeed many participants are actively searching for signs of life beyond Earth, I felt there was a recognition that it’s entirely possible that complex, multicellular life might be rare in the universe. (One of the talkers, David Waltham, has a book out next year entitled Lucky Planet. He argues that the four billion years of good weather enjoyed by planet Earth was an unlikely, although necessary, precondition for the emergence of intelligent life. He’s as gloomy about the prospect of SETI success as I am – although both of us would dearly like to be proven wrong! Be sure to read the book when it appears.)

I was reminded of the session yesterday when I read a yet another criticism of the “humans only” universe portrayed by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation series. Such criticism was often levelled at the Good Doctor: his fictional universe contains only humans and robots, the argument goes, because he lacked the imagination to create convincing aliens. The criticism is unfair. Asimov limited his fictional universe because his editor at the time, John W. Campbell, insisted on a human chauvinism that Asimov simply did not share; better not to write about alien intelligence at all than be forced to write about human superiority in order to guarantee a sale. Besides, Asimov’s novel The Gods Themselves disproves the allegation: Odeen, Dua and Tritt are among the most convincing aliens in all of science fiction.

Even though Asimov the science writer wrote about the likely prevalence of alien intelligences, the humans-only Galaxy of his science fiction writing might turn out to be a better description of reality. That was certainly the tenor of my discussions during EPSC13.