Note this post is adapted from a 2014 post on my personal blog and looks at where alien life may realistically be found in our Solar System, including possible intelligent life. And what that should mean for science fiction writers, including Christians who write science fiction.
It’s interesting that all the way back to the earliest days of what can be considered science fiction, Lucian in the second century AD talked of traveling to the moon in order to meet intelligent beings living there (though in a satire). Likewise the “The Adventures of Bulukiya,” which is part of the medieval Arabic-language classic One Thousand and One Nights, features travels in the cosmos and interactions with various beings there. It was also a staple of science fiction as we know it that began in the late 1800s to expect at least some of the other planets of the Solar System to be inhabited. Mars especially, because it showed changes in its icecaps in seasons that seemed to be like Planet Earth and had linear features that reminded some people of canals (especially Percival Lowell), became the center of attention for many early science fiction stories, from being the home of invaders of Earth in HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds, the home of the people of “Barsoom” in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s science fiction, and also for a lot of other science fiction, including Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.
Image copyright: Warner Brothers
Mars still fascinates people, in spite of scientific data showing the planet is a far more hostile environment for life than Antarctica and the Atacama Desert combined. Mars, a beneficiary of being one the planets nearest Earth, remains a focus for most future plans for human interplanetary travel–and sometimes people have even believed aliens must have lived on Mars in the past, even if they don’t do so now (as the Face on Mars was supposedly an alien construct, as featured in the year 2000 film, Red Planet).
We could even say that the lack of clear evidence for life on Mars when the Mariner probes passed by it in the 1960s and the Vikings landed on it in the ’70s changed the expectations of science fiction fans concerning where life would be found in the universe. Instead of moving from planet to planet within our Solar System, science fiction like Star Trek would feature future humans travelling from star to star and finding inhabited worlds around each star (though the aliens found there often shared features in common with creatures previously imagined to have lived on Mars).
It only takes a little scientific knowledge to see how the expectations for Mars probably were always a little inflated, since it was evident as soon as telescopes were first turned on Mars that it lacked the blue we associate with large bodies of water. Mars clearly was a dry place, and deserts on Earth happen to be those places where life is least abundant. And the drier the desert, the less life it has. (Parts of the Atacama desert in South America are so dry that not even microbes live there.) Coupled with its cold temperatures and lack of atmosphere, yeah, expecting to find even microbes on Mars seems to be a long shot.
If alien life is ever going to be found in our Solar System outside of Earth, Mars almost certainly won’t be the place. A much better place to look for life is beneath the icy surface of certain moons in the outer solar system. This notion has not entirely escaped science fiction writers. But it deserves much more emphasis in stories than it’s received.
I say this for simple, straightforward reasons. Everywhere on planet Earth where water is abundant, life teems. The water can be that of a geyser in Yellowstone Park (or elsewhere), extremely hot, yet life is still found in these geysers. The glaciers of Antarctica support some life themselves, but drilling under the ice to a region where pressure is high enough to preserve liquid water has shown much more abundant bacterial life below one half mile of Antarctic ice.
Jupiter’s moon Europa shows clear signs of having liquid water under an icy surface. The smoothness of the planet (as opposed to being a cratered planetary surface, like the moon) shows cracks that appear to heal themselves as liquid water from below solidifies, as if all the features on the surface were gigantic floating glacier formations on top of a deep, dark ocean under the surface.
Europa, a world whose water has erased most of its craters.
Saturn’s moon Enceladus does even better. Not only does it have an icy surface, the Cassini probe has photographed it shooting out into space what have been verified as plumes of water (reminding me of the geysers of Yellowstone Park).
Enceladus shooting geysers of water into space.
As early as Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010: Odyssey Two in 1982, science fiction writers have been speculating that the persistent link on Earth between life and liquid water could mean that Europa teems with life under its relatively thin crust. But it turns out that icy moons with liquid water under the surface is a fairly common phenomenon in our Solar System (and possibly would be common around other stars as well). Among Jupiter’s moons, both Ganymede and Callisto may also have liquid water deep under a thick icy crust–rather like Antarctica, though much deeper.
While a number of science fiction writers other than Clarke have noticed the potential of water oceans under icy moons, this notion has barely crept into the science fiction with a broader audience, the sci fi of films and television. If there was an episode of any of the Star Treks where an alien civilization came from underneath an icy crust, or where a crew landed to make contact with or explore the life in a sub-surface ocean, I missed it.
Our expectation in most science fiction remains that life will be found on worlds similar to Earth. And not just in science fiction. NASA officials and other scientists continue to engage in discussions of whether Mars, the most Earth-like planet in the Solar System, may have hidden water remaining from its past and if we should search for life there–public support for searching for life in whatever small bits of water that remain on Mars seems higher than going to other worlds further out that have much more water.
Overall I’d say that the likelihood of life on Mars is very low and the likelihood of life in places like Europa and Enceladus is good. Which is a simple enough notion. As is the idea that where life may be, intelligent life may also exist.
So how should what I said above affect science fiction writers, including especially Christians who write sci fi?
It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but authors who write science fiction while self-identifing as “Christian” generally tend to believe God had some role in the creation of the universe, be it as little as a guiding hand in evolution or as much as creation ex nihilo in a time frame that matches the 6,000-year framework of a straightforward, literal reading of Biblical genealogy. Writers who see God’s hand in creation ought to be thinking about what happens when the watery oceans under these icy moons are finally explored.
If the water under these moons is as sterile as the Normal Saline Solution administered to hospital patients, that would say something about Earth being a special place, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t such a finding support the idea that Earth is the unique place where God created life? Though of course materialists would not necessarily admit that’s what such a finding would imply. Instead they’d search for naturalistic reasons for why planet Earth is different.
But what if life under these icy moons if found, but is found to be genetically linked to life on Earth? Or even perhaps closely related to or even identical to at least some life on Earth? Wouldn’t this point to a common Creator of life both on Earth and these other worlds? Those of us who believe in a form of divine intervention in the creation of life (no mater what kind, even if only providential) would say so. Though of course those with no notion of the existence of a Creator God would be searching for alternate explanations, such as Panspermia.
What if life is found, but it has no genetic relationship to any life on Earth whatsoever? Would this imply that evolution is a strictly naturalistic process that occurs whenever the conditions are right and potentially could turn out many different ways via the chance interaction of forces? Of course for believers in any form of divine intervention in creation, but especially for those who believe God has providentially guided evolution, finding bizarre alien life would not necessarily be a concern. God’s creative acts will simply be seen to be more mysterious that we previously thought by most believers.
Note especially that the conditions that are thought to have influenced the development of human intelligence would not have existed on an icy moon. So I think few people who have a strictly materialistic view of the universe would expect to find intelligent life on these icy-covered ocean worlds. Yet for those who see evidence of the existence of a Creator God, we are not under such limitations. God could create alien intelligence wherever he wants, right? And why not in a place where life is already abundant?
If alien intelligence is found in one of these oceans, what will it be like? Clearly not like dolphins, who need to come up for air (and there’s no way to do that on Europa or Enceladus). But might it be more like an octopus? Or like something we’ve never imagined before? As of now, only God knows.
I personally have never written a science fiction story set on an moon that has an ocean under an icy surface. But perhaps I should do so. Perhaps finding life on one of these moons will be the most important discovery of the 21st Century–and only God knows if in finding life out there (if the human race does find it), that discovery will include meeting intelligent beings we will be able to find a way to converse with. Perhaps it will.
Perhaps the old dreams of meeting intelligent life in our own Solar System will prove to be prophetic–even if that intelligent life won’t show up on Mars like nearly everyone thought. Whether that discovery of life happens or not on the moons this post mentions is something science fiction writers have no direct control over.
But we do have the ability to consider what might be there lurking under the surface of these icy worlds and to craft stories that imaginatively go there. And such stories might even influence how any discovery(ies) of alien intelligence(s) in our own Solar System are interpreted and understood in the future–if any (God willing) should come to pass.
For readers of this post, are you familiar with any science fiction that features exploring oceans under the icy surfaces of moons (in our Solar System or elsewhere)? If so, who wrote it and how did the story turn out?
And what do you think might be found in these deep oceans around other moons or planets?