Playing with the Prime Directive


Looking to deep space for new challenges. This edition published by Abelard-Schuman 1976. Cover photograph by Graham Tucker.

It has often been said that science fiction can be overtaken by events, never more so than around the time of the Apollo programme and the successful manned landings on the Moon.  The author Robert Silverberg focused on this in his Introduction to the 1973 anthology Deep Space, where he observed that reality “keeps making life complicated for the writers of science fiction.”

He added that “no longer can one write of the first manned voyages to the moon or the first probes of Mars and Venus or the first controlled nuclear reaction: those belong to history now, not to science fiction.”  So he selected stories for that collection which related to the limitless possibilities in the “uncharted vastnesses of deep space”, where anything might still be feasible.  The first, and longest, of those was the thought-provoking 1952 story Blood’s a Rover by Chad Oliver.

A key point of this tale is that it relates to developments where science – in this case, the science of anthropology – already had much to tell us about events that might well take place in deep space.  Indeed, Chad Oliver was the Chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas, and often used insights from his professional work in his fiction.  It depicts the difficulties of becoming accepted by a primitive society in a Galaxy where space-faring humans from Earth are the most advanced civilisation around (or so they think), which is one of the common explanations for the Fermi Paradox as to why there is no evidence for any intelligent extraterrestrials out there.

The story describes how contact with mankind changes these alien races forever, and not necessarily for the better from their point of view, though the hierarchy of Earth is convinced it is for the long-term good overall.  You get much the same feeling from the actions of the human race in the 2009 film Avatar, though there with much less of an altruistic motive on the part of our own race.

There have been undoubtedly similar problems in contact with more primitive societies here on our own world, and in fairly recent history.  The geographer and mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, probably best known for his 1952 book Seven Years in Tibet (filmed in 1997 starring Brad Pitt) and for being part of the first team to climb the north face of the Eiger, discussed such issues in his 1962 memoir I Come from the Stone Age.  This diary account describes his journey to Dutch New Guinea (now part of Indonesia) which, at the time, was one of the few remaining unexplored regions of the world.

The tribes he then encountered seemed outwardly savage, but were friendly and likeable.  Their most advanced technology consisted of knives made of bamboo and axes made of stone, but their survival skills were, as might be expected, excellent for what they needed.  Yes, they lived in the Stone Age, but Harrer felt that it was not right to refer to them as “savages” at all; “it’s just that their society has different standards from ours”.  He also concluded that it was “quite certain that it would be utterly wrong to try to impose our way of life on these people within a short space of time.”

At a significant point when the tribesmen are keen to demonstrate the skills that have made them so successful in their own environment, in the face of the Western technology that is inexorably encroaching on them every day, he suggests that “the white man with his civilisation had made their lives monotonous.”  That was in 1962, and there are probably few, if any, areas on Earth where it might still be valid now – Western society has changed such societies irrevocably.

The well-known Prime Directive of Star Trek argues that advanced civilisations should not interfere with the natural development of less advanced ones.  It will be very difficult in practice.  Events may well overtake fiction, but both science and fiction will inform us on how to deal best with events.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here:The Lonely Universe: Are We All There Is?| First Impressions Count

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