I think about terraforming a lot. Probably more than most people. I think about the future of humanity, how we may some day become post-terran, how we may [hopefully] some day discover sentient life out there among the stars and rocks hurtling through the nothingness.
My good friend Bart and I talk about it nearly every time we talk. How the greatest sadness we’ll ever know is the probability that we won’t be alive when all the vast life beyond earth reaches us. There’s life out there. There has to be. And even if it comes one day as a coloniser or exterminator, I’d still like to see it with my own eyes. I think of the astronomical differences between intelligences that may exist. How we may be like baboons to them. Or what if we meet them first? What if we arrive to their pre-interstellar worlds?
I imagine it would look similar to the centuries after Columbus.
I don’t think it has to be this way. I don’t think we or they need to be an existential horror, but we know that’s how humans, at least, tend to behave towards the Other. And this is quite a big Other.
It makes me think of Embassytown by China Mieville and how it captures this so beautifully. How one day even humanity will become other to itself and how vast the Otherness can become or will be between species.
And all this comes back to terraforming, in a way. It’s always presented so wondrously. Almost like magic. We discover a world, and we make it home. As if planets were like apartments that just needed some touching up to feel cosy.
But no one really thinks about the ethics or morality of terraforming. It may be an existential necessity for humanity. In fact, I’d argue that it already is. We haven’t destroyed earth. What an absurd notion! But we’ve tipped the ecosystem over the edge. Soon it will become inhabitable for humans and for many other species we’ve come to know. The earth will go on, of course, but it will be a very different place than the one we’ve know for thousands of years. And so we need to flee. We need to flee to new worlds and find a way to live there, or we need to learn to geoengineer our own planet. Geoengineering is a radical approach and it’s quite controversial and there are already plans to make it happen. Disastrous plans. Horrifying plans. Plans to combat global warming and climate change by diminishing the sun’s ability to reach us here on earth. And, yes, that’s a real plan that people have thought up and that has support.
But we either need to adapt our biology to the changing earth or manipulate the earth to deal with our calamitous and suicidal interference. Or leave earth and conquer new planets.
But what happens when you terraform a planet? It becomes like earth, which means it becomes Other to itself. Whatever life may live there will live there no more. We will erase a possible strain of evolution. We will abort billions of species before they have the chance to progress past single cells or reach sentience. We’ll arrive and rip through and tear apart all the potential history that could have been just so that we can survive a bit longer, and maybe lay waste to that newly habitable planet as well.
It’s not just biological warfare. It’s geological. Humanity is a disease, ever spreading, and we lust for new worlds to bend to our will.
But we also need to bend those places to our will, or bend ourselves to them.
We need to remake humans or we need to remake new planets.
Humanity, the Great Unmakers.
And so when I see Abiogenesis by Richard Mans, it’s through this lens. It’s a gorgeous film about seeding new life. So you may see this is a beautiful horror or a simple beauty.
But maybe this is how life began here, on earth. Maybe we were seeded. And that seeding created all the wondrous things that belong to the earth. What if terraforming begins like this? Xenocide, certainly, but it gives rise to the unimaginable, the sublime: life.
And when the Tree of Life rises, it stirs inside us. We feel something deep within us that we carry. Something we carry in our very DNA. The desire for life, for beauty, for awesomeness.
Abiogenesis is the process of turning simple organic matter into life. It happened here billions of years ago. It likely happened in many places over the last fourteen billion years. We may be some grand experiment by a species that stopped existing a billion years ago, or that species may still be watching us. Or we could be some cosmic mistake.
I always think it’s interesting how young earth is, relatively. It truly is possible for species to have grown far past us technologically, to have existed for several billions of years, and then simple died out before earth even existed. There are ten billion years between the big bang and earth’s existence. Who’s to say what came and went in that time?
We may be all that’s survived of these long gone civilisations. We may be their only surviving experiment, and we’ve grown and developed to the point that we can escape the playground we were born into.
Or maybe none of that’s true. Perhaps there are billions of species at our technological point but there’s this huge barrier hanging over all of us. This final barrier keeping us on our planets. Or maybe it’s only us, humans, who desire so much. Who long to be so much more than we are, that the world we were born to simply isn’t enough and it will be a monstrous day when we land on the shores of another world with colonisers ready to go.
Though Abiogenesis by Richard Mans is a very short and very beautiful film, with impeccable animation and awe inspiring visuals, it brings me to a very dark place. To a place that forces me to look at my species as a loveless and unkind monster, forever hungry, eternally a terror.