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Second Contact: Would We Go Back?

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A spacecraft from Earth enters the Crab Nebula and finds the last thing they were expecting: a spacecraft from another planet, exploring the same part of space. A standoff results because neither spaceship has the ability to destroy the other, but neither group of "aliens" can flee confident that the other won't be able to track them back to their home planet.

This is the situation that plays out in a short story from 1945 called "First Contact" by Murray Leinster. The story is told from the point of view of the humans from Earth, but the decisions made by both sides end up mirroring each other.

Both species are superficially similar: bipeds with arms that end in hands with grasping fingers and thumbs, and both have the forward facing eyes of a predator species. And, because the story was written in a much more sexist age, both crews are male. The only major difference is in the mode of communication; they "speak" via radio waves while we "speak" via sound waves.

Despite these differences, as they figure out what to do next, similar tastes in humor emerge, as well as similar social institutions, like hierarchies and families. Both societies value curiosity and scientific exploration.

The standoff results because of fear, the fear of a stranger, even one that shares some of the same values. The potential benefits from friendship and trade are huge, and both species would very much like to take news of this encounter back to their home planets -- but they can't without fear of revealing their home planet to a potential enemy.

So they come up with a solution: trade spacecraft, and each goes home after removing or destroying all maps and references to their home planets as well as any means to track the other ship. After making arrangements for a second meeting in one galactic cycle, they each head home.

My students read Leinster's story in my Literature class, in a unit about aliens and humans (others include the film Contact, the stories "Arena" and "Mars is Heaven" and the novel Left Hand of Darkness). As part of our discussion of the story, students participate in an activity that places the whole class in a new story that begins when the crew returns to Earth in an alien spaceship with the offer to meet again, only in this story the students are the characters, and their decisions create the plot.

Four different classes have participated in this activity so far and the results usually follow the same path. Oh, there are variations: Once, the student playing the President of Earth did decide to go, but then the leader of Earth's parliament conspired with Earth's military leaders to assassinate her and build up a huge war fleet instead, in case the aliens find us without a second meeting. Another class ended with the representatives of the colonists on Mars rebelling at Earth's demands, throwing the scenario's plotline into chaos.

Whichever variations appear, as the students interact with each other in their roles, caution and fear end up dominating the discussion. As they discuss and debate, the focus shifts from opportunities to risks, from a second contact to preparing for an invasion. The questions they ask are these: What is the level of acceptable risk? We know they are like us when it comes to jokes, families and curiosity. But what if they are like us when it comes to aggression? To lying? To desires for conquest and supremacy? Can we trust them? Can we trust ourselves?

So far, students have never asked what I would do in this situation -- what I would choose to do in this improbable situation. And the truth is, much as I love thinking about aliens and robots as characters in stories, I would be cautious before agreeing to a second contact. Yes, there would be amazing potential in a friendly relationship with a society that survived long enough to travel vast distances through space. There would doubtless be fascinating differences and similarities. But what if those similarities echoed the dark side of human history? What if they were more like us than we expected when we agreed to try to meet again?