Aliens Artifacts & Xenoarcheology

Aliens Artifacts & Xenoarcheology

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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,, which are linked in the episode  

description below, along with all of our various  social media forums where you can get updates   and chat with others about the concepts in the  episodes and many other futuristic ideas. You can   also follow us iTunes, Soundcloud, or Spotify  to get our audio-only versions of the show.   Until next time, thanks for  watching, and have a great week!

2021-08-17 23:29

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