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Review: Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb

41oxPnAPxHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI have a lot of books. In general, when I buy (or somehow acquire) a book I read it right away. I realized a few weeks ago that although my sister gave me a copy of Ingathering by Zenna Henderson some years back, it got shelved without being read. My bad. My review is in my entry for 2/9/2021.

So I went hunting for other books in this situation. The Principle of Mediocrity applies here: If there was one unread book on my shelves, there will probably be others. It didn’t take long to find one: Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb. It’s not a new book. It was published in 2002, and sent to me for review in 2003 by an editor at Copernicus Books, Paul Farrell. 2002 was not a good year for me, for reasons you know already. In a way, it remains the annus horribilis of my life. In 2003 we moved away from Arizona to get away from constant reminders of the horribilis. (For newcomers: 2002 was the year my publishing company here in Arizona crashed and burned, through no fault of my own. Long story.) So I guess it’s unsurprising that the book went onto the shelves unread. In fact, it probably went straight into a box. I (finally) finished it an hour or so ago.

As an SF writer, it’s a topic I have a keen interest in: aliens, and the cogent question asked by physicist Enrico Fermi way back in 1944: If there is life elsewhere in the universe, why haven’t we encountered evidence of it yet?

Good question. A lot of really smart people have grappled with it, but the (obvious) spoiler is that we don’t know. (Yet.) Where Is Everybody? is a systematic presentation of fifty proposed explanations for why we’ve not encountered the Galactic Confederation. The author gives each a number and takes us through them in order, explaining why none of them really answers Fermi’s question. For example, Solution 20 is “We Have Not Listened Long Enough.” There’s a lot of Universe, and we’ve only been listening to “waterhole” frequencies for an insignificant amount of time, compared to the lifetime of our galaxy. Solution 44 is “The Prokaryote-Eukaryote Transition Is Rare.” That was a new one for me (biology is not my field) and involves the jump between primordial single-celled life and the more complex form of single-celled life that eventually evolved into multicellular organisms. We can’t explain how it happened, but somehow it did. Was it a fluke? Don’t know.

Stephen Webb separates the 50 proposed explanations of the Fermi Question into three broad groups: 1. They Are Already Here. 2. They Exist But Have Not Yet Communicated. And 3. They Do Not Exist. A lot of the issues are things I had read about elsewhere. A surprising number were new to me. Along the way, he talks about the Drake Equation and how it relates to the probability of finding intelligent life beyond Earth. In a sense, most of the issues discussed in the book either represent existing terms of the Drake Equation, or could be considered new ones.

All the usual explanations are taken up: berserkers, species suicide here on Earth, the Rare Earth hypothesis (which is actually taken up in several parts, each with its own number and section in the book) gamma ray bursters, asteroid bombardment, giant planets in the wrong places, lack of a Moon, lack of plate tectonics in most rocky planets, and so on.

A few of the proposed solutions may strike some as outre. Solution 7 is “The Planetarium Hypothesis,” which proposes that we are living in a simulated universe, with the superhuman aliens behind the scenes, pulling the levers and observing us. That’s an interesting one because it can be disproven, using what we know about the data and energy requirements of a simulation as good as our reality suggests. Solution 8 is “God Exists,” and He set things up just right for the universe to evolve us–and perhaps created an infinitude of other universes either sterile or fine-tuned to benefit other intelligent life. I’m reminded of Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 pseudo-novel Star Maker, in which an unthinkably powerful being creates a series of universes, each more “mature” than the last. (I found the book largely impenetrable when I read it at 17. It may be worth another look 51 years later. If nothing else, I’ve developed patience in the interim.)

Webb’s writing is refreshingly clear and easygoing. He’s a natural explainer, in the same way that Isaac Asimov was. He cites a lot of researchers and their research as he explains each topic, and there is a fat section of references and pointers to further readings at the back of the book. I came away from it feeling satisfied with the time I spent, and better still, that I learned something–a lot of somethings, in fact–along the way.

Webb does not intend to prove (or disprove) the existemce of Extrarrestial Civilizations (ETCs). The point of the book (or the joker in the deck, if you’re a fervent believer in ETCs) is that we do not have anything close to enough data to form a conclusion. He does confirm the feeling I had as he explained one possible solution after another: There are a lot of very difficult hurdles between a sterile planet and a starfaring civilization. By the end, I felt that he had added a good fifteen or twenty new terms to the Drake Equation. If those new terms are as difficult as our research suggests, yes, we are indeed an exceedingly unlikely Cosmic Fluke, and probably alone in the universe.

This doesn’t bother me, even as a science fiction writer. When I was a teen and for a few years afterward, I wrote stories about aliens. However, I’ve judged only two of them good enough to put before the public: Firejammer and “Born Again, With Water.” My conclusion is mostly this: If intelligent alien life exists elsewhere in the universe and we come upon them, we may not have much to talk about. We may not be able to talk to them at all. Shared experience, even the shared experience of being born into an orderly and comprehensible universe, may be impossible across the gulf to an alien mind.

That is, unless you count my Metaspace Saga, in which aliens create our universe as a way of obtaining a better random-number generator. Except–they’re not really aliens. No more spoilers. I’m working on it. There are some hints in The Cunning Blood. The rest will come out eventually.

In the meantime, I powerfully recommend Stephen Webb’s book. What I didn’t notice until I went up to schnarf the book’s cover image for this entry is that he published a second edition in 2015–and now he’s got seventy-five proposed solutions to tackle. I’ll pick that one up eventually. In the meantime, I’m scanning my shelves for other gems that may have been hiding from me. They’re in there somewhere. Like I said, I have a lot of books.

2 Comments

  1. Tom Orman says:

    Jeff,

    Roughly on this topic… I recently came across this book:

    Why The Universe Is The Way It Is (Reasons To Believe) by Hugh Ross

    It is available online both as an E Book and as an audio book via Hoopla and the Yuma County Library System. Worth a listen or a read, if you haven’t yet…

  2. […] (Contrapositive Diary): As an SF writer, it’s a topic I have a keen interest in: aliens, and the cogent question asked […]

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