Thursday, November 02, 2006


A story written and published in a couple of small literary magazines years ago. I think it tells us something fundamentally true about the universe, while having some satiric fun along the way.


John Chuckman

It was the first transmission ever received from another world. Picked up by a radio telescope pointed at a nearby star where the existence of planets had only recently been absolutely confirmed. The signal was extremely weak, coming, as it did, across several tens of trillions of miles of space, through a cosmic sea of radiation, the churning, pulsing clatter of numberless stars being born and dying.

It was only through recent advances in technology that it was possible to identify it. Apparently, there was no doubt from its first reception that it represented intelligence.

It hadn't been a big story in the press when they actually confirmed that planets existed around other stars. Lots of scientists had speculated for decades that planets were as common as stars in the universe. And for years they found all kinds of hints and bits of evidence. But, still, that wasn't the same thing as proving planets existed. So you'd think that would have been a big story, but, outside of scientific circles, it wasn't.

After the first discovery they went right on discovering more. But it still wasn't a big story. Just a brief mention on most popular broadcasts. There was an article in Scientific American, an interesting piece in The Economist and a full page in The Science Times.

But even the transmission wasn't a big story. Maybe it was because they couldn't understand it at first. But you'd sure think that the first proof of other intelligent life in the universe would have more of an impact than it did.

There were tantillizing little bits that appeared in the press as they processed the data through big computers and got some preliminary indications of what they contained. There was a fair amount of interest when they were pretty sure it was a television broadcast of some kind. For weeks after that, there were rumors about images of strange beings. There was a rumor about images that looked like lizards, or as some of the tabloids put it, like devils.

Interest really picked up with that rumor. Every tabloid in the supermarkets had artists' renditions of berserk, lizard-like aliens shooting people with death rays and heading back to their spaceships with beautiful girls slung over their shoulders.

The rumors caused a huge surge in TV evangelism. It got so some of those guys were on every night. The networks bumped a lot of their regular, primetime shows. The money must have just poured in. Several of them had special offers on videos and books telling you all about prophecy and aliens. Even though they all seemed to agree it meant the end of the world, you could still use your charge card to order.

The scientists, apparently concerned about the impact of their findings, delayed announcing them. They said they wanted to do some more work with the computer to be absolutely sure. But that just had the effect of creating more rumors. There was a flood of new tapes and books about stuff like ancient authorities trying to prevent Ezekiel from telling what he knew about flying saucers.

Finally the big day came. It was on every channel. An actual taped transmission from another world. Just before the broadcast all the networks had experts on hand, sitting in front of sets that looked like book-lined studies, to discuss the impact of the tapes. They agreed it likely would be serious, particularly on children.

Every stadium in America was rented out either to evangelists holding end-of-the-world services or rock-concert promoters holding space-alien parties. The places with jumbo TV screens and stereo sound were sold out. There were plenty of space-alien block parties, too. One of the big pizza chains had an alien special on deliveries that night.

People everywhere gasped when the first images flickered onto the screen. The aliens were repulsive. Hideous, with slimy skin and bulbous, glassy eyes. They did look like demons of some kind.

But as the tape continued, it became clear that it was only the appearance of the aliens that was strange. In every other respect they seemed just like people you'd meet in any nice suburb. It wasn't long before you could hear yelling and booing about what a disappointment it was. Boring. A waste of time. Although there was some laughing.

The next morning at work a lot of people talked about how boring it was. Not scary at all. They complained about the poor picture quality or the black and white. Or the fact you couldn't understand a word they were saying. The way it looked like some old thing from the 1950s. The TV ratings showed that a lot of people turned their sets off before the tape was over.

One especially perceptive critic in a newspaper column that day said he couldn't be positive but he was almost sure the tape actually was an alien version of an early episode of Ozzie and Harriet.