With all the fervor in recent times over identity politics, high-profile trials, and the unending government response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the public barely got a glimpse of another story that entered the news cycle ever-so-briefly: potential first contact. Several months ago, the Department of Defense released hundreds of videos of unidentified flying objects that seemingly defied known physics. Were they extraterrestrial spacecraft? No one can definitively say because those who observed the craft could not collect sufficient data to accurately analyze or determine their origin, composition, or how they could move in such a manner. So we are left with a huge question mark that we likely will not get answers to anytime soon.
I wanted to take a break from writing about national security and domestic politics and don my tinfoil hat while sharing some of my theories on how humankind might make first contact. In my youth, I read Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and Arthur C. Clarke, and as an adult, I love science fiction movies, even some of the terrible B films. It is arrogant and intellectually stunted to believe we are alone in the galaxy, much less the known universe, and contact between humans and an alien lifeform will eventually happen. So I would like to take an opportunity to present my hypotheses through a cinematic and literary prism because it is chock-full with excellent examples to analyze and explain those ideas better.
The Unseen E.T.
Given the sheer volume of bacterial and viral organisms present on Earth alone, it is more than likely that humankind will first have contact with bacteria or viruses originating from another interstellar body. Of those two, the latter is more likely because of the inherent hardiness of their composition, which would be necessary to survive the harshness of space and potential entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists recently discovered thirty-three viruses and microbes on Earth, twenty-eight previously unknown to the scientific community, frozen in a Tibetan glacier for approximately 15,000 years. The researchers have not disclosed whether any of these organisms are still alive or have the potential for resurrection, but it is well within the realm of possibility.
I should note that there is a significant amount of debate within the scientific community whether viruses are actually “alive” based on the current understanding of biology, but that is irrelevant to the overall discussion. Feasibly, a virus or bacteria could hitch a ride on a comet or asteroid and summarily collide with the Earth. However, the organism would have to be robust enough to survive the freezing temperatures and vacuum of space, bombardment from stellar radiation, and the intense heat from friction upon entering Earth’s atmosphere. This theory is the basis for the novel and film “The Andromeda Strain.”
In “The Andromeda Strain,” an extraterrestrial virus comes to Earth via a meteor that crashes outside a small American town. The virus wipes out the entire town’s population except for an older man and an infant at an alarmingly fast rate, and the U.S. government dispatches a scientific team to investigate what happened. The scientists discover the source is a virus, quarantine the town, and begin researching the organism in a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Level V containment facility. Unfortunately, the virus later mutates and starts attacking plastics and other synthetic materials in its replication process, resulting in a thrillingly intense attempt to contain the release of the virus. I will leave out the details of the climactic ending and how the science team stopped the virus or why the two townspeople survived exposure for those who have not read the book or seen the films and wish to do so. There is also a two-part mini-series that was also enjoyable.
As humans begin expanding into greater space exploration, it is more likely that scientists would discover a virus or bacteria on another planet or interstellar body like a comet (the European Space Agency landed a probe on one in 2014). In addition, astrobiologists could inadvertently expose an extraterrestrial microorganism to Earth’s population if a sample brought back was accidentally released or mutated unpredictably. This scenario is the premise for films like “Species” and “Life.” I will not expand on these films for brevity, but they rebuff the theory that humankind’s first alien contact will be with a microorganism.
Humankind could very well find itself in a “The Andromeda Strain” or “Life” scenario, and the first contact could be benign or catastrophic for our species. Think of Europeans unintentionally introducing Smallpox to the Americas, but potentially much, much worse. Even if the virus did not directly infect humans, a zoonotic (animal) or phytosis disease could have devastating effects on the Earth’s ecosystem that would ultimately impact humans. Yet, on the other hand, the virus could also be utterly inert because life on Earth, or other earthly materials, does not support its replication process and cannot evolve fast enough to adapt and survive.
Unintended Malfeasance and Tragedy
One of my all-time favorite films is John Carpenter’s 1982 “The Thing” based on an old novella called “Who Goes There?” (also known as “The Thing From Outer Space”), which I read in comic book form as a kid. The story’s background plot from the original novella and the 2011 prequel film, also titled “The Thing,” is about a group of Norweigan Antarctic researchers discovering an alien spacecraft and its lone occupant frozen in the ice bringing the latter back to the research station for examination. Unfortunately, the creature thaws and reanimates itself, inflicting devastation on the station and ultimately escaping to an American research station, where the original film picks up. Again, the alien lifeform wreaks havoc on the research station as it insidiously kills and replaces the outpost’s various occupants. However, the creature does not entirely “understand” earthly life’s physiology and mutates in randomly horrific ways, even including genetic memories from other replicated alien beings.
How does “The Thing” stack up in terms of potential first contact? First, it is improbable that humans will uncover a spaceship frozen for 10,000 years in a glacier or that its occupant would reanimate itself and become a malevolent force. With the vast majority of the Earth’s oceans largely unexplored, discovering a crashed extraterrestrial spacecraft underwater is more probable but still unlikely. Again, the chances of an ancient multicellular organism resurrecting itself are equally slim. However, such a craft could contain one of the previously discussed microorganisms and is brought out of stasis when introduced to a new Terran host.
However, there is another alternative scenario. In the recent film “Tomorrow War,” a predatory alien species was intentionally kept in status and later released onto the Earth’s inhabitants (by a technologically advanced race as a proxy force, perhaps? More on this in the next segment). These creatures were not acting maliciously, only off of instinct, not unlike accidentally releasing a pride of lions in a densely populated urban center. Ultimately, we do not know how an alien organism will react to Earth’s ecosystem and could inadvertently become an invasive species significantly threatening to life on Earth as it adapts to its new environment.
There are dozens of films and novels to choose from for this section, so I want to focus on just a few to highlight different potential scenarios. The section’s main ideas revolve around an invasion for colonization and exploitation of resources and whether the invading element is “unmanned,” a proxy force, or the actual beings themselves. There is a lot to unpack in this subtopic, but I will try not to get too lost in the weeds in my theoretical analysis.
In USA Network’s “The Colony,” an enigmatic alien race uses drones to decimate Earth’s militaries and assert control of the population. However, the aliens themselves rarely visit Earth; instead, they enlist unscrupulous human proxies as administrators for individual fiefdoms while exploiting Earth’s resources, primarily human slave labor. Likewise, “Battlefield Earth” (the L. Ron Hubbard novel, not the abysmal John Travolta film based on it) used near-indestructible crewless ships to deploy poison gas, wiping out ninety-nine percent of the human race. However, in this example, a small contingent of the alien race operating an outpost overseeing the shipments of Earth’s resources to their homeworld.
Thinking of how human exploration right now is largely probes and other crewless spacecraft, an advanced extraterrestrial civilization would likely use this method when they first contact humankind. These alien probes and drones will probably conduct reconnaissance and research missions first (what we are witnessing now?) to determine what resources are of value to them, the evolutionary and technological level of the planet’s inhabitance, or if the world is suitable for colonization. The alien intelligence may not use human proxies for governance and control or have a small ex-pat group operate an outpost but solely use drones to take whatever they want. In this scenario, the extraterrestrials may not seek to subjugate or exterminate humankind directly. Still, their exploitation of resources has a devastating impact on Earth’s ecology or environment, indirectly harming us.
The next possibility is an alien race deploying a lower-intelligence lifeform as a proxy force to reduce life on Earth to manageable levels for colonization or resource mining. For example, the 2013 film “Pacific Rim” briefly eludes to the enormous Kaiju as part of this strategy. Similarly, in the “Aliens” franchise novels and comics that succeeded the original films (not the disappointing prequels), the Engineers created the Xenomorphs to penalize other spacefaring species’ expansion across the galaxy. An intriguing fan theory for the “Quiet Place” suppositions that the auditorily-enhanced creatures were such a proxy force for a more developed species to diminish Earth’s human and fauna populations to negligible levels for an unknown purpose.
Finally, we will address the occupation by force plotline, which comprises the bulk of extraterrestrial invasion first contact movies revolve around. “Independence Day” naturally comes to mind wherein a technologically superior alien race enters into Earth’s orbit and dispatches an armada to systematically exterminate the intelligent species so they can strip-mine the planet to the core for resources and then move on. A more thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating alternative stems from the series “V,” both the 1984 original and the 2009 reboot. The interstellar travelers arrive and present themselves as benevolent benefactors for humanity, but in reality, it is a soft-power takeover. Once again, the resource they are gleaning from Earth is people as a food source. In both scenarios, there were years of reconnaissance, research, and in the latter case, infiltration to prepare the objective – Earth – for the main invasion force’s first contact.
Of all the possible scenarios discussed in the article, the military and intelligence communities would refer to those discussed in this section as High Impact/Low Risk and Most Dangerous Course of Action (MDCOA). This assessment is because the number of conditions and variables necessary for this to occur are astronomical. First, an extraterrestrial species would have to be advanced enough for space travel and likely faster-than-light travel. Next, there is no telling if Earth would be considered habitable or have desired resources. Consider M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs,” where a supposedly highly-intelligent alien race extremely vulnerable to water that has been conducting reconnaissance for years decides to invade a planet where water covers seventy percent of its surface. Conversely, the aliens in “Battlefield: Los Angeles” chose their target exceptionally well because they used water as their fuel.
Additionally, there are unforeseen consequences when a species lands in a foreign environment. In H.G. Wells’ classic novel and panic-inducing radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds,” addressed this very thing. Envious Martians invaded Earth to eradicate humanity but within days were felled by the common cold virus. Humans have spent millennia on Earth and are still discovering organisms harmful to them and new toxic substances. Regardless of decades or even centuries of research, there is no way an invading species would be able to identify what fatal substances or organisms might be present on Earth that even terraforming might not even eradicate. As we are finding out with the development of Moon and Mars-capable biospheres and habitats, staying in an environmentally sealed suit or enclosure long-term might be prohibitively restrictive or not cost-benefit efficient.
Live Long and Prosper
In conclusion, there are numerous possible scenarios in which humanity might encounter an alien intelligence. First, with the volume of interactions in recent years with unidentified flying objects, we could very well be experiencing first contact from reconnaissance probes or drones. As humankind expands its space exploration and prevalence of viruses and bacteria in our world, we might also and in all probability encounter an otherworldly microorganism during our indeavors, requiring extra care to mitigate the risk of exposure/infection. Third, other instinct-driven alien species may inadvertently (or intentionally) find their way to Earth, with unknown results. Next, the presence of potential probes and drones indicates the Earth could be a sign of a larger contingent eventually arriving either for human subjugation or resource collection.
Finally, the likelihood of first contact with an evolved and highly-advanced alien race, altruistic or maleficent, is infinitesimally minute but still worth creating contingency plans to address. Here I would reference “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” either 1951 or 2008 versions (critics of the latter failed to understand Keanu Reeve’s emotionless portrayal of the alien intelligence relative to the original and messaging of the story). In this story, an accidental shooting occurred due to a misunderstanding changing a benign encounter into one that nearly resulted in the annihilation of humanity. This situation, too, reminded me of a Gary Larson “Farside” comic where a farmer sparks an intergalactic war after shaking the hand-shaped head of the alien leader. Contact with an off-world intelligence will have an exigent diplomatic option in conjunction with a military alternative standing by to respond.
In closing, there are countless possibilities of how first contact with extraterrestrial life might happen, our imaginations further spurned by cinema and literature. But, of course, no one knows if truly verifiable first contact will be a virus that almost instantly solidifies our blood or turns us into zombies (“Night of the Comet”), are simply animalistic predators, or use drones or trickery for farming us. Alternatively, they could also seek to annihilate us just because, want to welcome us to an interplanetary alliance (any of the “Star Trek” series) or are mind-controlling parasites (“Puppet Masters” and “Invasion,” not discussed but deserving of mention). Until then, we will have to settle for our books and movies or listen to wild stories from that oddball townie who swears aliens abducted him to speculate.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on November 29, 2021.
Ben Varlese is a former U.S. Army Mountain Infantry Platoon Sergeant and served in domestic and overseas roles from 2001-2018, including, from 2003-2005, as a sniper section leader. Besides his military service, Ben worked on the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq’s protective security detail in various roles, and since 2018, he has also provided security consulting services for public and private sectors, including tactical training, physical and information security, executive protection, protective intelligence, risk management, insider threat mitigation, and anti-terrorism. He earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies from American Military University, a graduate certificate in Cyber Security from Colorado State University and is currently in his second year of AMU’s Doctorate of Global Security program.
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