Stories of aliens versus us are really commenting on our own dark side

I got to see the movie Battleship (2012) on TV the other week. I’d eschewed it on first release because it looked dumb on so many levels. And I wasn’t disappointed. The dumbness was monolithic.

USS Missouri firing her 16-inch guns in 1944. US National Archives 80-G-K-4546, public domain.
USS Missouri firing a shot from A-turret in 1944. US National Archives 80-G-K-4546, public domain. Note the scale of the 660-lb propellant burst and the muzzle-blast effects on the sea (never mind the photographer).

I suppose any story that’s been squeezed out of a game is going to have problems. Add the inevitable studio requirements for box-office draw and the result was predictable – cliché characters and contrived character arcs strapped across a story about aliens attacking with what looked like dirigible buzz-saws and steroid-enhanced rifle grenades. The WW2-vintage battleship BB-63 Missouri – a museum ship at Pearl Harbor since 1998 – saved the day.

USS Missouri after her mid-1980s modernisation. Just because I do
USS Missouri after her mid-1980s modernisation with updated electronics, 20-mm Phalanx CIWS, Tomahawk and Harpoon missiles, and improved helicopter facilities.

This involved some great special effects. But the aliens missed the obvious weapon – pointed out by Robert A. Heinlein in Time For The Stars (1956). You have (let’s say) a thousand metre long interstellar spaceship with motors capable of boosting its half-million tonne mass to light-speed. Want to destroy anything? Hover over it and turn the throttle up a tad. A ‘star drive weapon’ also featured in some of Larry Niven’s ‘Kzin’ stories, but Heinlein thought of it first.

Luckily the aliens in Battleship hadn’t thought of that. Nor had they thought to use their impenetrable (magic physics!) force-field to protect their own ships. This meant they were vulnerable to 16-inch shells. That, at least, was credible. I do ‘navy geek’ and can tell you that Missouri’s Mk 7 16″/50 cal guns were exceptional, the last word in big-gun ordinance, firing a Mk 8 2700 lb AP shell at 2,500 feet per second. At muzzle – essentially the range shown in the film, where Missouri engaged from about 1500 yards, which is point-blank for those guns – those shells could penetrate 32.62″ of face-hardened armour. Enough to give any alien a headache. To put that in perspective, these guns were designed to defeat battleship armour on a vessel over the horizon. The range-penetration tables I’ve seen start at 10,000 yards, where the 2700 lb shell could penetrate 26.26″ of armour.*

By the 1950s a shell with a nuclear bursting charge was also available for this gun – the 1900 lb Mk 23 ‘Katie’, with a yield of about 50 kilotons. These rendered the Missouri and her sister ships the most powerful battleships ever deployed in the history of the world. With a single salvo they could defeat entire enemy fleets, destroy small nations, and – doubtless – annihilate the intruding aliens of the decade who arrived to take Earth’s water and America’s women.

Using Earth tech to tackle intruding aliens has been portrayed before – H G Wells pioneered it in The War Of The Worlds. But he also underscored the real purpose of such tales. This story was an acerbic social commentary about the First Matabele War of 1893-94, where with Blackadderish zeal, Cecil Rhodes’ private army used four heavy machine guns to annihilate an indigenous force armed with sticks. It was out of line even by period standards, bringing down the opprobium of the western world on the ethics of late nineteenth century British colonial attitudes. ‘Whatever happens,’ Hilaire Belloc intoned in The Modern Traveller, ‘we have got/The Maxim Gun/and they have not’.

Wells contribution was to wonder what would happen if ‘minds immeasurably superior to ours’ descended upon London – a tale which, as Wells very well knew, was really a commentary on humanity’s dark side, and on its fears. So too have been many of the smarter aliens portrayed in entertainment since, including Gort. And especially Daleks which – explicitly and directly – were faceless Second World War era stormtroopers. To me, that’s what most of our ‘alien’ visions have always been about: creatures from elsewhere that either behave as we try not to. Or, alternatively, which behave as we idealise, and who are here to show us the error of our species-and-culture-specific ways. Even though they’re alien – as in, from an utterly different biological origin and evolution.

Uh – do they exist for real like that? Really? Go figure.

But let’s suppose that aliens turn up – the Googly Eyed Monsters from Squidgy 3 turn up, demanding the missing episode of I Love Lucy, or we die (something like this was a Futurama plot, as I recall). To me, the chance of the aliens’ tech matching us – or not being too much beyond – is the interesting question. It’s easy to imagine that aliens capable of interstellar travel would have technologies far more capable than our own. But is this true, given that we already understand the physics – and limits – of our everyday environment, thanks to Einstein, and have since hit some of the limits of materials physics?

Don’t forget, fifty years ago we confidently believed that by now we’d have flying cars, atomic Mars rockets, lunar colonies, a world where disease had been conquered forever, and all the rest. None of it came true. And yet nobody – except Sir Arthur C. Clarke – predicted the information revolution that actually happened. Part of this came about because we ran into the limits of materials physics – and, to some extent, funding. Would aliens have the same problems? I know what I think about this. Let’s discuss…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

*See R. O. Garzke and W. H. Dulin, Battleships, MacDonald and Janes, London, 1976, pp. 137-138. These guns were in many ways the equal of Japan’s Type 94 18.1″ weapons, which were mediocre examples of that calibre.

8 thoughts on “Stories of aliens versus us are really commenting on our own dark side

  1. After I read this post I was rummaging around my study looking for something totally unrelated when I came across an essay titled “Alien Minds” by a worker named Susan Schneider. Schneider makes an interesting (if not, to me, wholly convincing) case for advanced alien intelligences being “postbiological” or artificial in nature. I agree with her contention that there is no fundamental reason that an artificial intelligence cannot experience “consciousness” (a subject the definition of which we might spin in one spot for decades while discussing). I also agree with her contention that within the near future — say, 100 years — we will be able to acquire cybernetic augmentation for our minds.

    This applies to your post as follows: one could see in it the decades-old fear that we will all be replaced by machines. Those machines will outclass us in every way and end up replacing us. Humanity will become extinct via its own creation.

    One might also argue that the principles of automata are essentially mathematical in nature, raising the implication that AIs wherever produced by “biologicals” will be very similar, perhaps even functionally identical. So all us biologicals, regardless of planet of origin, might arguably produce the same type of AI. (It might be one way of researching Godel’s Theorem!) I suggest, as a further argument, that although we cannot know if AIs must be exclusively digital (what about trinary logic? or “fuzzy” logic?) nonetheless any AI based on a digital system will be able to understand and interface with any “alien” AI. Or, to put it in terms of our dark side, Resistance is futile, and one or the other AI will be assimilated. So, again, AI reflects your post, at least as far as digital AI goes.

    I find either alternative tedious. My doubts are largely existential, i.e., is the Universe really likely to be that simple?

    By far the more interesting alternative, philosophically and scientifically, is the attempt to imagine a truly alien intelligence that is not “us.” We would have to know the dark side of our fears before we could do that, and science fiction helps with that.

    As for “Battleship” the scene with the USS Missouri was the best part. I loved those old geezers firing up the boilers and taking their ship out to sea — battleship sailors to the end! The crew of HMS Thunder Child would have seen them as kindred spirits. Sometimes I like to imagine the scene on Thunder Child’s bridge when the captain decides to ram the Martian fighting machine…imagine him slowly lowering his telescope as his duty is laid plain before him…and giving the order for full steam ahead.

    And it makes me wonder if that fighting spirit, to never give up, to face forward and move into the future, is one expression of the best in all of us. Will any AI have that? If an alien intelligence has it, how “alien” can it truly be? If we share with aliens that urge to move forward and solve the secrets of the Universe (“discover new life and new civilizations”) how alien can they truly be?

    1. The idea of machine evolution being convergent is a good one. Clarke explored it fairly well in his “2001” sequence. For a different take there’s also Lem’s ‘Invincible’, where the calculation devolved to available energy. Yeah, the “Battleship” sequences where they got the old Missouri going were fantastic. I don’t know whether the ship could actually be run with such a small crew – certainly, I think, they’d need more hands on the guns. But definitely spectacular and, absolutely, in the spirit of Wells’ ‘Thunder Child’ (a far better name than its real-life progenitor Polyphemus).

  2. So much potential in that movie. The writing was awful. I don’t believe they could get the Missouri up and running that fast. I’d also like to see aliens who are just a little more complex than “we’re going to attack until we die.”

    1. Well, the ‘attack until we die’ variety of alien are easy to predict and defeat… 🙂 Yeah, I’ve got my doubts about Missouri being so easily startable – on checking, I gather the ship last ran under its own power in 1992 and was towed to Pearl in 1998. I’d expect it’d take months in refit to make the ship run again – she was 3 months in a 2009 refit merely to patch leaks and keep her afloat at the mooring as a museum. And of course there aren’t any munitions on board. But those battleship startup scenes were fabulous in terms of the movie! 🙂

  3. I also watched this piece of crap. I’ve visited the Mighty Mo at Pearl and couldn’t understand how a defueled, disarmed museum ship could be put into action by a handful of pensioners. Call me a navy geek….

    1. “Navy geek!” ☺ You’re right, of course. It would take months in dock to refit and repair the ship even to move under her own steam, plus a crew numbered at least in hundreds – mainly for the guns which were not automatic and where the firing procedure demanded many careful steps for which wartime crews trained relentlessly…

  4. “fifty years ago we confidently believed that by now we’d have flying cars, atomic Mars rockets, lunar colonies, a world where disease had been conquered forever, and all the rest.”
    No money to be made in these things. The technology is there. Just need the funding and the government support.

    Have not seen the movie and based on these reviews, won’t be seeing it anytime soon. But, the Missouri is a marvelous ship. Hard to believe that anything capable of chucking a ton and a half projectile that far with enough accuracy to hit a single house, is “obsolete”. But that’s another post. hint…hint!

    1. A British think tank has just released its designs for a ‘Dreadnought of 2050’. And there was a project (HARP) that tried to use a Missouri type 16-inch gun to put small satellites into orbit. I really must do a post for sure!

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