Aliens Artifacts & Xenoarcheology
The episode is sponsored by Skillshare. For a human mind, the exploration of alien ruins could be almost as much a psychological labyrinth as a literal one, driving many mad. One of the most common tropes in science fiction, back to the dawn of science fiction, is that of the intrepid adventurer uncovering a mysterious artifact or exploring an alien ruin. It’s another Scifi Sunday here on the channel, where we let our hair down and explore more common scifi concepts to ask how realistic they might be. On today’s episode, we’ll be looking at how you might explore an alien relic or ruin and if and where you might encounter one. Now, from a story-telling perspective, these objects are often irrelevant beyond being the inciting cause of the plot or initial character interactions, what’s commonly called a MacGuffin, but that’s hardly limited to science fiction as a trope. Whether it’s the titular Maltese
Falcon or the suitcase from Pulp Fiction, its purpose in the story is to drive events simply by mysteriously existing. Somewhat parallel is the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings. It is not actually a MacGuffin, but we mostly see its fairly mundane power of invisibility while hearing about its Earth-shattering past and vast powers in the right or wrong hands, which as it turns out, is nearly everyone’s. We never see it do much else besides provide the temptation of power and control, and of course that’s its point in the story. Similarly, a science fiction story involving advanced alien technology treats it in much the same way, as some associated temptation, greed, or madness drives tension and problems to help further the plot. Even the alien ruins in the classic H.P. Lovecraft story, “At the Mountains of Madness”, is an iconic
example of a story centred on alien elements, but even that example is really less about the alien elements and terrifying secrets than it is about the human responses to those things. A more common example, but one that’s often overlooked, is the case of a continuing series, be it episodes or books, where the world-shattering insights or technology promised by an alien relic or ruin often never actually materialize. This gives rise to another trope, “Reed Richards is Useless” named for the super-scientist of Marvel’s Fantastic Four series, who seems to have an inventory of technologies which would end hunger and disease or environmental challenges, but none of these ever seem to make it out of his lab. Something we want to consider today then is what really would happen if alien relics were uncovered and deciphered, suddenly giving us access to advanced technology? Of course a lot of folks think that’s how we got some of ours, by deciphering pyramid relics or crashed UFOS, so we’ll look at that today as well. A common way of handling that in fiction is that the alien relics get boxed up and put in a secret bunker or warehouse - as we see with the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones once its done melting the bad guys – or even destroyed to keep its secret from harming us or our society or the powers that be, and we’ll contemplate that today too. Of course from a reader perspective it
can often be frustrating when authors ignore all the potential benefits and effects of some new bit of super-tech, or all the plot holes around how the relic or ruins got made. From the author's perspective these often exist because they didn’t care, it didn’t matter to them what the big artifact actually did or if the reason given for the alien ruins coming into existence made sense because they are simply the backdrop for a fictional story or the motivator for it. We might ask why the heroes didn’t take more precautions before entering or why they didn’t nuke the dangerous place from orbit and fans sometimes argue over why not doing these things made sense, but the reality is the main cause was because there would have been no story if they had. The difference between a good writer and a bad writer is the latter typically gives plausibly good reasons for why the exploration occurred or writes such an otherwise good story their audience is willing to suspend disbelief. To us, in the real world - probably - it certainly
does matter why some alien outpost hidden in a remote part of Earth or on the Dark Side of the Moon or around a distant star got abandoned and nobody ever came back. That’s especially true when authors start talking about things which have been sitting around for millions or even billions of years, or sometimes are even artifacts from earlier Universes. As an example, if we’re in some classic space opera setting where the galaxy is full of alien races that wax and wane all the time, then there’s something especially worrisome if you’ve got a dead world that’s been left untouched for a million years full of ancient and powerful technology. Because if you’re out exploring and found it, presumably other folks from other civilizations did too, and either they wised up and didn’t land on it, or they did and the world swallowed up every trace of them. But that’s not really plausible, either. Even in the case of rogue grave robbers
from a civilization that frowns on disturbing dead worlds, someone should follow up to see why they disappeared. While they may not have left a record that they were out to plunder some alien ruins, their ship might still in orbit. Even assuming they didn’t leave a ship or crew elsewhere in that system, it would only be a matter of time and disappearances before someone builds a beacon saying “Hey, be cautious, this planet seems to eat explorers.” Of course we often have humans as new kids on the block, but curious ones, who get warned by older aliens not to venture to Planet X or Z'ha'dum or the Necron Tombworld where peril lies and no one returns from. Which gets promptly ignored, partially because little is actually known, and given that beacons warning people to stay away presumably only last so long, it is plausible that everybody stays away while the beacon is up, then stories and rumors of the dangers persist increasingly vaguely for some centuries or millennia, until finally getting vague enough that someone decides to ignore them and venture forth. Possibly
this would result in many cycles of re-discovery and explorer loss and ruin quarantine. That’s also a bit more plausible in some respects, since two of the big technologies any civilization planning to persist a while should want are ultra-durable or self-repairing materials that withstand millions of years of wear and erosion. And as we’ll be discussing in our upcoming episode Human-Machine Teaming, one of the probable directions AI might take inside civilizations is the helper who is invisible not by being secret but simply by being the non-squeaky wheel. It just does its job in the background so well that nobody pays it heed or gives it orders, and so it just keeps on repairing the building until hell freezes over and keeps guarding the building and resetting its traps until it reaches it preset maximum kill count or runs out of cake or the Universe experiences Heat Death. Ironically, I could imagine that for something like an actual museum, one purpose built for that role and not just the last unintentional relic of a civilization. A museum has valuable stuff in it that’s not meant to be taken, in some cases for the express purpose of its preservation, and automation is likely going to cut down on the expenses associated with that care. It’s a bit of a joke with some city managers I know that,
given long enough, every building in the city gets registered as a historical building. Since it’s often a big drain on budgets to keep them running, AI might be able to help with that a lot. To be fair, I can’t imagine the Smithsonian in DC or the Natural History Museum in London employing lethal or arcane traps to protect its contents, but I could also imagine an AI left alone at a task of guarding a place for millennia, long after its creators died, going more than a bit bonkers. And of course some civilization might be much less tolerant and non-lethal toward thieves.
Or alternatively have traps that dumped people into simulated realities to rehabilitate them, possibly mazes meant to challenge and correct. A museum though is a decent explanation for why archives intentionally left for others to find might be tricky. If a civilization or its handful of survivors knows its on the way out from some calamity, they might well build some archive for those who follow after to find – either a warning or a history. We see an example of the latter in the award-winning Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Inner Light”, a personal favorite. However, as we discussed in our Episode Dead Aliens, there is a chance the archive they leave might be instructions for how to resurrect them in some fashion. Or alternatively, a trap designed to let them body snatch the explorers and live on inside them like some possessing demons. If it’s a warning though, you have to wonder why they
didn’t or couldn’t heed it, and if the warning would actually benefit whoever received it. I also posed a mystery of what killed those aliens off in that Dead Aliens episode, and while its been a while, last time I checked I had only one person offer the correct answer. I won’t give it here, since it's become a bit of a mystery unintentionally, though I’ll add that unlike some writers I could name, I don’t throw my audience great mysteries for whole books or seasons I’m too lazy to come up with an actual answer for. Insane AI acting as the Archivist or Librarian can’t be ruled out, nor can alien behavior or psychology that drives a human mad when attempting to decipher it, especially if it was a warning of an existential crisis that wiped them out. However, beyond that such a ruin should not be hard to find as it’s presumably intended to be that way. You want things to be found and understood, and thus are more likely to put your effort into minimizing the effort required by future explorers. One exception that comes to mind can be found in
one of our most-referenced books on the show, “The Mote in God's Eye”, where an alien race prone to perpetual cycles of self-collapse into barbarism, have created a museum to help facilitate their recovery after each subsequent collapse. In cases like that you’d obviously want the place found, but might only want it to happen at a certain point, or for it to be unlocked in stages, restricting access to certain knowledge. Such being the case, you might have many archives, each located elsewhere that get found at certain stages of advancement, or one archive with puzzles of increasing complexity or scientific understanding required to unlock new bits. The Asgard of the Stargate Franchise seem to follow this particular route, and something similar seems implied with the unknown aliens in the 2001: A Space Odyssey series.
Sticking something in hard to reach places such as the peak of the highest mountain, the exact North or South Pole, or on the dark side of the moon, might be one good approach to this sort of staggered archive design. Incidentally most moons will be tidally locked and have that side you can’t see from the planet, the occasionally misnamed Dark Side, except in the context of being unseen and unknown to those on the world. You aim to pick a place that people can’t reach until they get to a certain level, but also somewhere they are almost bound to take a look at eventually. You’d also probably want to pick out several spots just for the sake of redundancy, since having your all-inspiring archive at the bottom of the deepest undersea trench or the center of the biggest asteroid crater might not only get missed but also might not stay #1, no longer the deepest part of the sea or highest mountain peak. Planetary poles can change for instance. But this is assuming that the alien ruin or relic you’ve uncovered was meant to be found, and so it was either placed in a significant location or near to one. We’ll get to asking what might get left behind unintentionally by a dead or departed civilization in a moment, but another option is that the relic is your world. It’s a popular notion that aliens
might have seeded life on Earth long ago or seeded civilization more recently, both have been common storylines in science fiction and are also popular candidates for real history in both older human mythology and many a modern belief too, see our Ancient Aliens episode for a discussion of that. Douglas Adams put an interesting twist on it in his famous Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, where Earth was built to be a computer for figuring out the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything… or rather, the Ultimate Question, since a previous smaller computer had already determined the Ultimate Answer to be 42. That series also features a civilization that builds planets, Earth having been one of their bigger commissions, and building artificial worlds is certainly something we would expect of an advanced civilizations, be they artificial planets or merely classic rotating space habitats like the O’Neill Cylinder, or even goliath stellar-class habitats in the Dyson Sphere or Birch Planet range. Perhaps it’s also worth noting that even in that case, with a purpose-built planet-sized computer, it still ended up being accidentally paved over for a cosmic highway, which is probably a good example of the designers not putting Earth somewhere that kind of thing wouldn’t eventually become an issue. If you’ve got some planetary experiment or world packed full of treasure then
sticking it out in the middle of nowhere has a lot going for it, and we see this with another Scifi classic, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, where the Foundation world of the new empire, Terminus, is placed way off at the edge of the galaxy rather than near its center where the old capital was. Of course the colonists on Terminus were unaware of their role as future capital, merely that they were a protected archive of knowledge far from troubles and distractions. Alternatively, the secret power behind them, the second foundation, was quietly built right on top of the ruins of that old capital now inhabited by farmers who grew their crops among the ruins of millions of grand palaces and plazas. It is not hard to imagine that a post-technological remnant of a civilization might live among the collapsed ash heap of their empire and view it as a reminder of past wonders and hubris, fallen Babylon. In such a case they might not explore their ruins but adventurers from far away might do so, with or without their blessing. Which raises another interesting point, in
that one way a civilization might discover alien ruins is by realizing their world itself was one. That they are dwelling on the remnant of an artificial world made by their precursors, and possibly progenitors. Maybe they are direct genetic descendants, maybe some subordinate race kept as slaves - or pets, since given enough time and the right conditions, something like cats or dogs might evolve to be an intelligent species. It might also be an experiment, which would also help to explain the disappearance of those progenitors. They might not have really disappeared, in favor of hiding and monitoring the situation, or may have been victims of their own experiment, some lab creation run amok that wiped them out and which left you behind, or turned into you.
One of our more popular disaster scenarios for civilizations is grey goo, runaway self-replicating machines that disassemble everything to make copies of themselves, and as we often note, grey goo is not that dissimilar to the green goo believed to have arisen on this world and evolved into our own diverse ecosystem. It is plausible enough to believe that something which wiped out a civilization might not remember that it did. Possibly because it was dumb and became smart, possibly because time is the great eraser, possibly because a civilization that wiped someone out might choose to forget a couple generations later or be wiped out itself by its own offspring, ashamed at the act or simply looking to emulate it.
By and large though, civilizations don’t schedule doomsdays, and while a lot of them probably would have an “In Case of Apocalypse” plan or bunker in place, by and large if some calamity is on the way, many folks are going to be want to divert resources being spent on preserving the memory of the civilization to projects which prevent it from needing such an archive to begin with. Which is often a good idea. You don’t build a bunker to handle an incoming asteroid, you build a detection grid and swarm of long range nuclear missiles with multi megaton packages. You might be better off doing both but you can’t prepare for everything and money spent building the End of the World Bunker could probably see better use invested into many other projects. So assuming the ruins are just what got left unintentionally, what might those look like? I often joke that based on known archeology, if you find a big building full of books it's a lot less likely you found their library or museum than their tax records or courthouse dockets. The basic notion there is that you are far more likely to encounter the mundane when digging around a ruin, simply because there is so much more mundane stuff than there is exotic.
Indeed this is the fundamental concept behind the Mediocrity Principle or Copernican Principle which science uses as its bedrock. So when exploring ruins in some alien world’s bedrock, we should tend to assume they are not exotic until proven otherwise. Take for instance the real-world example of pottery shards, or broken clay pipes, which can actually be used with great accuracy to date a site and make guesses about the folks who lived there. A lot of what we learn about older civilizations, even the ones who wanted to be remembered, is done by digging through their trash. You can obviously learn a lot from the mundane, but the random stuff left behind in that way is more likely to be mediocre examples of that civilization’s achievements, rather than their ultimate works. Now it's true that things they prized might have been built to be more durable, but often what’s built durable is something that needs to be durable, like a bridge or a dam or some bunker around a dangerous lab or experiment or reactor. We don’t typically build sculptures to those standards, and even if we did, it’s likely
that most of the exterior details and complexities would still be weathered away over the years. What might once have been a beautiful statue could eventually end up looking like an amorphous blob. The classic film The Planet of the Apes ends with the scene of Charlton Heston chewing the scenery while lamenting his discovery that the planet he was on had actually been Earth all along. This is because he found the remnants of the Statue of Liberty. In practice, even if New York City had been repeatedly nuked, there should still be considerably more obvious relics of humanity there than that statue, because there really is not much intrinsic durability in a big human shaped statue sitting on an island on the coast. Of
course in the sequel, we find that other things have survived as well, like the Subway system, and a hoard of mutant telepaths who worship an unexploded atomic bomb or doomsday device. But that really is the sort of thing that might unintentionally survive. Not an atomic bomb specifically, since those involve materials that are short-lived and decay in a fashion that damages the rest of the device, but a classic doomsday device is the sort of thing you probably store in a very safe place, including safe from time and natural disaster, and which you might have built with a lot of sturdiness and redundancy in mind.
It is also exactly the sort of place you might put an AI in charge of guarding, because the thing about a super-weapon is that it’s a better option to lose the keys to it or forget your password, so to speak, so no one can have it, then to lose it to someone who wasn’t supposed to have it, or have it accidentally go off. So it is the sort of thing you might guard with a robot who was absolutely implacable, merciless and unreasoning when it came to unauthorized visitors and who did not care when you tried to prove to it that its creators were long extinct. It’s got a job, to protect the weapon from anyone who isn’t authorized to play with it, that everyone who is authorized to use it is now dead changes nothing. The same applies to dangerous experiments. Those you might build inside very sturdy and durable facilities with a ton of automation. Now a common concept for how a civilization might get wiped out is by one of those experiments, hence why secure and durable facilities for them full of traps for explorers might make sense. But we tend to assume those experiments got out of their box
and that’s what ended civilization. On the other hand, it's entirely possible your civilization has been keeping a lot of entirely different dangerous and terrifying experiments, prisoners, relics of even older civilizations, and doomsday weapons in various secure facilities. Maybe one of those got out of its containment, ending the world leaving the others behind. Genie’s in their bottles, boxes tempting Pandora, gateways needing unlocking. I mentioned a while ago that some stories with MacGuffin’s have characters driven to insanity by them, and this of course is one potentially good reason you might box the relic up and hide it. As a result you might get a rather cyclical doomsday, like some insanity-inspiring twisted AI or alien mind-upload that carried in its head something like an existential crisis of why existence was pointless that wrecked its civilization and just gets passed around to new civilizations, bringing around ruin.
For that matter one way to keep powerful AI around for emergencies that often gets overlooked is to simply keep them shut off when not in use, so some explorers unboxing the thing is plausible. That’s another worry with an alien artifact. They might be intended to be discovered by curious minds not out of friendship but hostility, something like a poison pill meant to be carried back to a species nest – or homeworld – to wipe them out, possibly by some virus-like concept or existential crisis. Possibly by playing on their curiosity or greed for new technology. Possibly just as a cheap beacon to let the alien overlords know something new and smart has arisen and needs wiping out. That’s a popular notion in scifi too, and a key plot point in the book series I recommend most on this show, Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space. However, as we’ve noted in some of our alien civilization series episodes, this is not really an effective or efficient means of killing species off. You don’t need some eye-catching trap aliens
find and switch on, proving they’re around and need killing, there’s a ton of ways to sterilize a galaxy of all life or monitor for life emerging or even just monitor for intelligent life emerging. You’ve probably heard about how you can see our cities from space these days, at night time, but all those ancient walls and canals and roads we built in pre-modern times were clearly visible from space too, just not necessarily to the naked human eyeball. Since we can assume that spacefaring aliens have something more advanced than the mark 1 eyeball, potentially even satellites with infrared monitors that can pick up obviously artificial campfires like we already have, then they don’t need to be waiting around for civilizations to emit radio waves or poke at some alien beacon on the moon or another world. Indeed given that any galactic empire or galactic predator presumably is one that’s pretty powerful over very long periods of time, to even contemplate building such beacons let alone keeping them running, we should assume their tech is durable enough to allow them to construct a few trillion satellites and send a few dozen to orbit around each life-plausible world. Such being the case, the alien trap meant to lure folks in seems implausible, because it's too much work when easier options are available.
Though we could also imagine a relic being a lost ship or a crashed satellite meant for observing. Spaceships are generally likely to be more durable than their crew and passengers, possibly even if their crew and passengers are post-biological, so finding one crashed a million years ago on an airless moon or floating through deep space is decently plausible, but we wouldn’t expect anything remarkable to be on board. Of course an advanced civilization’s mundane tech and even their garbage is a less advanced civilization’s treasure. So that covers most options for why you might have some alien artifact or relic, but before closing we should always remember one key thing about exploring them. Whatever made them get abandoned might still be around, you wouldn’t want to assume a civilization wiped out by a biological virus left nothing nasty behind, like that virus. If you find an artifact,
there is a reason it was made, and a reason no one who built it is still hanging around. If you find ruins, there’s a reason they are ruins. In reality I’d not expect to find vast troves of alien archeology to do, because I’d not expect to find alien civilizations. However, the sheer
scale of any galactic civilization is one that is likely to see untold trillions of ruins around, simply because of all the untold quadrillions or quintillions of them that might be made. If you build a trillion O’Neill Habitats in a given solar system, then even if only 1% of them ever spend any time abandoned, and even if that’s only about a decade out of millennia lifespan, than that would still mean at any given moment there would be 100 million derelict space habitats in that system, and nearly a trillion systems in a galaxy each with their own trillions of habitats and hundreds of millions of derelicts. If of that 100 million derelicts though, we assumed only 1% spent got lost in the shuffle and spent many decades or centuries rusting away abandoned, that’s still a million ancient relics to explore, in each of a trillion systems. So plenty to keep a Xenoarchaeologist busy, even if it’s examining relics of extinguished human and post-human civilizations rather than aliens who predated us. I was commenting early on the absurdity of the Statue of Liberty being the only blatant sign of Old Earth left behind on The Planet of Apes, but it’s a thing to remember, that the longer civilizations are around, the more junk they leave behind. This being the reason for
the old joke that whatever a city was originally built on, be it a coastline or riverbank or hill, forest or sand or swamp, after a long enough time what it’s really built on is itself. There’s a classic Dying Earth fantasy series “Book of the New Sun” by Gene Wolfe, where our protagonist wanders around the world and after a long enough time if you’re paying attention you realize the landscape is all layer upon layer of old civilizations, the mountains ancient super-buildings and monuments, folks with the job title of ‘miner’ really being grave robber or garbage sorter or archeologist. And by the same reasoning of scale as from a moment ago, but in the sense of time not just size and population, we really would expect to see ancient civilizations leaving ruins behind, layer after layer, all over the galaxy. Many might be hidden too, but odds are in most cases not intentionally but simply covered by the sands of time, only to be uncovered long ahead. And who knows, maybe our civilization will be uncovered one day, maybe even this video.
There’s a fairly large number of authors and writers in our show’s audience and many aspiring to write a novel or improve their skill with fiction, and if you’re interested in upping your game, there’s a great video course by Professor Lincoln Michel on “Science Fiction & Fantasy: Creating Unique and Powerful Worlds” available over on Skillshare. He has some excellent discussion on worldbuilding and also how to find new angles on classic tropes, to turn the cliche back into the fascinating. So if today’s episode inspired you to write a story, and you want some pointers on plots and design, check out his video lesson on it. Skillshare is an online learning community for creatives and Skillshare has classes to fit your schedule and skill level. It’s curated specifically for learning, meaning there are no ads, and they’re always launching new premium classes, so you can stay focused and follow wherever your creativity takes you. Skillshare is where millions come together to take the next step in their creative journey, and Members get unlimited access to thousands of inspiring classes, with hands-on projects and feedback from a community of millions. If
you’d like to give it a try, the first 1,000 of my subscribers to click the link in the description will get a 1 month free trial of Skillshare so you can start exploring your creativity today! So this wraps us up for today but we’ll be back this Thursday for a look at Fusion Propulsion designs and concepts for Spaceships before closing the Month out by heading all the way out to the Edge of the Universe, on Thursday, August 26th, then we’ll have our Monthly Livestream Q&A on Sunday, August 29th at 4 pm Eastern Time. Then we’ll leap into September with a look at the Future of Thorium. If you want alerts when those and other episodes come out, make sure to subscribe to the channel, and if you’d like to help support future episodes, you can donate to us on Patreon, or our website, IsaacArthur.net, which are linked in the episode
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