The question, then, would be who could impose meaning on such an event. “Instead of a land grab, it would be a narrative grab,” Diana Pasulka, author of “American Cosmic: U.F.O.s, Religion, Technology,” told me. There would be enormous power — and money — in shaping the story humanity told itself. If we were to believe that the contact was threatening, military budgets would swell all over the world. A more pacific interpretation might orient humanity toward space travel or at least interstellar communication. Pasulka says she believes this narrative grab is happening even now, with the military establishment positioning itself as the arbiter of information over any U.F.O. events.
One lesson of the pandemic is that humanity’s desire for normalcy is an underrated force, and there is no single mistake as common to political analysis as the constant belief that this or that event will finally change everything. If so many can deny or downplay a disease that’s killed millions, dismissing some unusual debris would be trivial. “An awful lot of people would basically shrug and it’d be in the news for three days,” Adrian Tchaikovsky, the science fiction writer, told me. “You can’t just say, ‘still no understanding of alien thing!’ every day. An awful lot of people would be very keen on continuing with their lives and routines no matter what.”
There is a thick literature on how evidence of alien life would shake the world’s religions, but I think Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, is quite likely right when he suggests that many people would simply say, “of course.” The materialist worldview that positions humanity as an island of intelligence in a potentially empty cosmos — my worldview, in other words — is the aberration. Most people believe, and have always believed, that we share both the earth and the cosmos with other beings — gods, spirits, angels, ghosts, ancestors. The norm throughout human history has been a crowded universe where other intelligences are interested in our comings and goings, and even shape them. The whole of human civilization is testament to the fact that we can believe we are not alone and still obsess over earthly concerns.
This has even been true with aliens. The science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson reminded me that in the early 1900s it was widely but mistakenly believed that we had visual evidence of canals on Mars. “The scientific community seemed to have validated that finding, even though it was mainly Percival Lowell, but it’s hard to recapture now how general the assumption was,” he wrote in an email. “There being no chance of passage across space, it was assumed to be a philosophical point only, of interest but not world-changing for anyone.”
What might be more world-changing is the way nation-states fall to fighting over the debris, or even just the interpretation of the debris. There’s a long science fiction literature in which the prospect or reality of alien attack unites the human race — Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” and the movie “Independence Day,” to name a couple. But a more ambiguous contact might lead to more fractious results. “The scenario you outline would be politicized immediately on the international stage; the Russians and Chinese would never believe us and frankly large numbers of Americans would be much more likely to believe that Russia or China was behind it,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, the chief executive of New America and a former director of policy planning at the State Department, told me. And that’s to say nothing of the tensions over who actually owned, and thus could research and profit from, the technologies embedded in the debris.
Slaughter went on to make a point about the difficulty of uniting humanity that I’d been contemplating as well. “After all, we are facing the destruction of the planet as we know it and have inhabited it for millennia over a couple of decades, and that does not even unify Americans, much less people around the globe.” If the real threat of climate change hasn’t unified countries and focused our technological and political efforts behind a common purpose, why should the more uncertain threat of aliens?
And yet, I’d like to believe it could be different. Steven Dick, the former chief historian for NASA, has argued that indirect contact with aliens — a radio signal, for instance — would be more like past scientific revolutions than past civilizational collisions. The correct analogy, he suggests, would be the realization that we share our world with bacteria, or that the earth orbits the sun, or that life is shaped by natural selection. These upheavals in our understanding of the universe we inhabit changed the course of human science and culture, and perhaps this would, too. “There are times in science when just knowing that a thing is possible motivates an effort to get there,” Jacob Foster, a sociologist at U.C.L.A., told me. The knowledge that there were other space-faring societies might make us more desperate to join them or communicate with them.