In my suspense novel, A Human Element, we’re faced with the question: Is there life out there? And if there is, will it be hostile or welcoming? The theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking says he’s nearly certain that alien life exists in other parts of the universe. He also says that humans should avoid contact with alien life forms. “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” Hawking said. Definitely not.
And H.G. Wells wrote in his classic War of the Worlds in 1898, “Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.” Are there worlds out there drawing their plans against us?
My fascination with life “out there” really began 20 years ago when I read Whitley Strieber’s The Forbidden Zone, a horror novel with monsters unleashed from underground. It was not unlike the Martians unleashed on Earth in War of the Worlds, one of the earliest stories that detail a conflict between mankind and an extraterrestrial race.
Alan Finn wrote recently about the Panic Broadcast of an inventive radio adaptation of War of the Worlds, performed by Orson Welles. Strieber’s monster-mash up horrified me, invoked real nightmares, and led me to research this author who claims to have been abducted by aliens back in 1985 at his cabin in Upstate New York. He would later write about his abduction and how he was experimented on by “The Visitors” in a non-fiction account, Communion, and start a website on alien encounters called Unknown Country. His account, bizarre and frightening, will lead you to wonder about your own reality–whether you believe his account or not.
And when I discover the occasional new scar or lump upon waking I wonder for a split-second (in my creative chaotic mind), if I was abducted in the middle of the night, implanted with a tracking device, and returned to my bed unaware. Would I want to know? I do believe there are intelligent worlds out there, perhaps some would be hostile and some would not. This is the undercurrent of my novel, A Human Element. And although this novel is an adult novel, I not only explored the possibilities of other worlds but in my exploration I discovered my true voice as a writer: a young voice. My developmental editor caught on to it right away and noted I had future writing for tweens and teens. And I wasn’t expecting that. “I write murder and mystery with steam, not kid lit!” I protested.
Hmm…But there was a time in my life when I only dreamed of writing any kind of book. Now I’ve written The End on four of them. But back to that later. So, in research for A Human Element I learned that in 1961 US radio astronomer Frank Drake developed an equation to help estimate the number of planets hosting intelligent life in the galaxy. He estimated 10,000. Wow, right? But that’s not the final word. In 2001 more rigorous calculations connected to the 1960s “Drake equation” suggests that our galaxy may contain hundreds of thousands of life-bearing planets. Just imagine. And as these numbers became bigger and bigger, I reflected on smaller worlds we can’t see. The many worlds we each have inside us, unexplored–other lives to be made, skills to be honed, paths to be forged, art to be created, and words to be written. Other worlds we may also never know (like writing in a genre we never considered). And last year NASA discovered three worlds potentially like Earth. This discovery they said was “a progressive step on the road to detecting the first truly Earth-like planet orbiting a star like our Sun.” At hundreds of light years away we can’t truly know what kind of life is on these planets. But just imagine if there were beings there once–or now, or even in the future.
The movie Contact, based on a novel written by astronomer Carl Sagan, raises the debate, too, about whether life is out there. I saw Sagan speak back in 1995 while in college at The State University of New York at Albany. His goal was to educate the world on the infinite wonders and discoveries to be found in space. “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself,” he said. I think a way for us to also discover ourselves.
Sagan died the next year, but I think he attained his goal, and forever leaves his imprint on not only how we look at the stars–but how we should dream about what’s amongst them. And in looking outward it offers us the chance to open ourselves up inward to find the worlds within. At one point in Contact, Dr. Arroway says, “The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us…seems like an awful waste of space. Right?” I believe that too.
And we should dream about what’s beyond our world, as Sagan inspired us to do. But it’s pretty big inside each of us too with possibilities bigger than anyone has ever dreamed of before. Those infinite wonders and discoveries Sagan talked about are just waiting to be found in our own darkness. Of dreams and unexplored possibilities.
Of writing in a new voice we never dreamed of before. Or writing at all. Or teaching. Or sailing. Or running a marathon. Or learning a second language. Of discovering new worlds in outer space. Of discovering what’s inside our own infinite space. Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.
I’d hate to wake up one day as my life has gone by to say “Is this all I have inside? If so, seems like an awful waste of space.” In writing my adult novel, A Human Element, I discovered my young adult voice through my characters. I enjoyed it so much I went on to write a sequel, with new young voices–A Hidden Element. Releasing in 2014, this book also opens up the possibilities of encounters with other worlds.
I then went on to write a middle grade adventure fantasy. And where is this book set? On another world of course. In the meantime, I’ll keep wondering if there are other worlds out there reaching out to us, maybe not so far away after all. And I’ll keep wondering about the new worlds to explore inside my own space. New worlds I never thought existed before. Are there more worlds in me? I hope so. I’d rather believe in myself than believe other worlds are infiltrating us with their own agenda.
Do you believe in other worlds? What do you imagine they are like? Is there something incredible hidden inside you still waiting to be discovered?