Indistinguishable from Magic

Treating aliens as gods in the past? This edition published by Corgi Books 1971. Cover by Solution.

Arthur C Clarke’s well-known adage that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” has a possible consequence which could be rather more worrying – any sufficiently advanced technology is likely to be handled by someone who appears to be a magician.

As sophisticated space-faring beings travel the Galaxy, visiting other worlds where they may find less advanced, but nonetheless highly intelligent species, there is every chance that they will be treated as extraordinary magicians by the locals.  If our space-farers also adopt some variant of the famous Star Trek Prime Directive, meaning that they should allow indigenous cultures to develop on their own without interference, they may have little opportunity to correct such erroneous views without serious and permanent alterations to the civilizations they encounter.

Ursula K LeGuin’s 1964 short story The Dowry of the Angyar (also published as Semley’s Necklace), which was later incorporated in her 1966 novel Rocannon’s World and began her Hainish cycle of stories, depicted a planet where intelligent aliens live in some degree of awe of the Starlords who have occasionally visited their world in the past.  These superior beings from the stars have provided some help, to at least some of the species on the planet, but undoubtedly have their own agenda.

Taken to a more extreme level, William Tenn’s The Liberation of Earth from 1953 shows humans becoming no more than bystanders as the Earth is used by warring groups of aliens who occupy it in turn during the comings and goings of their interstellar war.  There is no attempt at meeting any Prime Directive here, nor any suggestion that the visitors have supernatural powers, but the planet is devastated as a result of events about which humanity has little knowledge, and in which it had little previous interest.  But then, the people of Earth are powerless to do anything about it anyway.

The troubling scenario could be all too clear – god-like aliens with a clear purpose of their own, who are not necessarily acting maliciously (in their terms) towards the human race itself, turn up, do their own thing regardless of the long-term effect it might have on us, then go away again.  They might return one day, or they might not.  But the consequences for those left in their wake are serious.

This is, of course, the premise of Erich von Dӓniken’s famous 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? which argued that extraterrestrials visited the Earth in ancient times and left behind evidence of their highly advanced technology.  Scientists and historians have been refuting von Dӓniken’s claims ever since, but there is no doubt that the overall concept of advanced space-farers having made their mark on our planet in the past has a certain fascination about it.  And, as with any evidence that may be put forward sensibly, it deserves to be properly investigated – and rejected if appropriate.

Venerating apparently superior visitors could happen.  The “cargo cults” of undeveloped societies in our recent past created superstitious rituals aimed at bringing about the return of the relatively sophisticated European and American visitors who had previously brought, if only temporarily, the benefits of a wealthy civilization to their lands.  Perhaps most famously, Melanesians hoped to see again the American troops who had passed through their Pacific islands during the Second World War, leaving memories of the riches of their cargo.  In National Gallery: Melanesia (History Today, July 2018), Rhys Griffiths observes that the “John Frum” cargo cult is still active today in Vanuatu.

We may be somewhat arrogant if we think it couldn’t happen to us.  If faced with the arrival of a vastly more complex alien society whose technology is, in every sense, indistinguishable from magic to us, can we be sure that at least some of us wouldn’t start treating them like magicians – or gods?

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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