In amongst all the froth and thunder of a rocket launch, sandwiched somewhere between the technicians inputting Latin sounding equations into German sounding machines, will be a figure who is utterly, emphatically finished. “I’ve done all I can’ is a common refrain amongst the tired, sleep-deprived and long-time tenants of their last nerve. But for the architect of Spacecrafts, the launch draws a very definite, fiery line under all their work.
After all, the perfectionist chef can run screaming from the kitchen to slap a not-quite-done blini from an open mouth. Even a surgeon can, having looked with increasing horror for a mislaid instrument, call a patient back in for profound apologies and a second round of exploratory surgery. But for the designer and builder of Spacecraft, there is no such last-minute recourse, as his handiwork screams high and away from human eyes.
There might, however, be several people, stood in a control room not so far away, who feel that same sense of irrevocability. And these people— semioticians, linguists and scientists all— might well gaze at the diminishing rocket, turn to one another, and ask “ You don’t think we made ourselves look a bit… weird, do you?”
In 1977, the NASA spacecraft Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 set off on a grand tour of the solar system. Forty years later, they comprise two of the five craft to achieve the escape velocity that will allow them to move beyond into unchartered space. Voyager 1 is, at 13 billion miles and counting, the furthest man made object from the earth (and, by extension, the sun, which suggest Icarus’ fate stemmed from issues in direction, not ambition). One apparently incidental feature of the rockets is a golden record, containing pictures that purport to illustrate the earth’s geography, biology and culture to any alien lifeforms that chance upon either craft.
Passage of this golden record into unexplored space arises from humankind’s capacity for innovation, and it’s desire to hold out a hand to whatever indescribable being might exist in the fringes of the great beyond. So it is a shame, therefore, that several of these pictures look like they were picked up off the cutting room floor of the latest Adam Sandler gross-out ‘comedy’, and it is these pictures, these impossible-to-change pictures, that might just usher a wave of creator’s remorse over the watching semiotician.
Why? Well, one particular photograph is clearly intended to communicate how we eat, drink and taste. Accordingly, it depicts three people: one eating bread, one licking an ice cream, and another drinking water. So far, no obvious causes for regret. However, for clarity of purpose, the actions of three are highly exaggerated: one man pours an entire jug of water down his throat, whilst the other two set about their food with exaggerated focus and strikingly little concern for each other’s personal space. In yet another picture, a man forces what appears to be an entire bunch of grapes into his mouth.
Now, we might, secure in the embrace of our space-lizard spouse, gilled children frolicking in the communal vortex, remember the record as having provided the necessary information needed for a grand union of species. On the other hand, might it not be possible that a species capable of docking a spacecraft and extracting data from a storage device—both featuring technology that presumably developed at a severe tangent to their own— would cast their eyes over the bug-eyed, drooling creatures in each picture and decide to pursue something other than a relationship of mutual respect and reciprocity? It’s just as well they wont be human, else our fate would be utterly inescapable: the Dutch East India Company did not exactly communicate the finer points of windmill design to it’s colonies in Java or Sri Lanka. Nor did the Conquistadors rush to the Americas bearing copies of Don Quixote. Bear in mind, moreover, that these peoples were degraded on account of cultures and skin tones that coexisted on the same planet. It’s difficult to imagine pamphlets depicting them as gluttonous caricatures being of any particular help.
The alien as evil overlord has found it’s way into innumerable films, books and video games, of course. But even this less than utopian idea is guilty of egregious presumption. We assume that, for all the destruction, the invading forces would, same as the Europeans before them, at least concede that humans were the extant power. But why should aliens make that same assumption? They might well recoil from us without giving up hope on finding earth’s responsible adult. In essence, we have taken grotesque photos of ourselves, attached them to a projectile, and fired it in their general direction. But if a little gobshite sellotapes pictures of his gurning face to a brick and throws it through your greenhouse, one might still expect to reasonably make a case for reparation to some member of his household. It is not logical to assume that you’ve just had dealings with the highest form of life.
On first glance, this is a ridiculous argument to make. Ok, they may say, a race of hyper-intelligent dolphins might identify with our own ocean-bound variety, but surely, excluding such extreme cases of synchronous anatomy, no argument can be made that we are anything less than the undisputed masters of earth?
When really, it would take no more than an extension of logic to conclude that the earth’s dominant species are, in fact, Statues. Now, assume that considerations as to motion, cognition and life cycles might not mean a whole lot to aliens, that they might instead analyse us according to our social roles and effect on the world. And sure, on such a metric the human race does pretty well. No other animal comes close to our domination.
The nature of this domination is brutal and messy, however, and a perceptive alien sociologist would realise that, generally, the more removed an individual from the struggle— the more sedentary the lifestyle—the higher their social standing in the world. Well, what could be more sedentary than that stone subspecies of humans who never seem to starve or struggle, never seem to lift a finger whatsoever? Furthermore, keen alien eyes will notice that these statues often stand in the sacred areas of humanity, in areas of politics, religion or communal gathering, and in many cases are cleaned and even worshipped by their flesh-sheathed inferiors. As if this weren’t enough, they stick around for a fantastically long time and are quite invulnerable to disease or drowning, causes of death to the lesser Homo Sapien.
Well then, what of the fact that we, y’know, made the statues in the first place? Simple: a midwife to the royal family does not leapfrog said family in social rank for having assisted the birth. Anyway, how deliciously louche to delegate the tiresome business of your own birth to a subordinate race. Now, admittedly, this alien sociologist might find it hard to make head or tail of all the moral panics in which religious fanatics rampage around chiselling the testicles off any effigy they come across. But then one doesn’t look for mathematical precision in the social sciences.
Naturally, it is equally possible that the aliens may be a belching, slurping race of sentient gelatine who find the pictures quite charming. The possibilities for extraterrestrial life appear infinite. You really couldn’t blame the semioticians were they to shake their heads, draw a line under the whole incident, and follow the spacecraft designers back to the mess.