Alien: Covenant is a Reminder that Space Might Be Pretty Damn HORRIBLE

Space is a damn scary place to be, at least according to movies like Alien: Covenant. If you’re not impregnated by facehuggers that vomit eggs down your throat, you’ll be eviscerated by xenomorphs who rip people apart for fun. It implies something dark, primal and aggressive lying in wait amongst the stars, and the idea of going to space is suddenly made 100% less appealing. It’s a horror film, naturally, but it does raise the possibility that our universe won’t be easily conquered.

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If we find life out there among the stars, we might get more than we bargained for – concept art by Valentin Petrov

New planets hide unknown threats, and some might be microscopic; it stands to reason that an alien world would carry alien bacteria if there really is life out there, and this is a threat our bodies aren’t ready for. While that isn’t nearly so horrific as a monster crawling its way out of your chest, the result wouldn’t be all that different – you’ll still die in a lot of pain and indignity.

Our immune systems are unprepared for such viruses, and they’d be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Consider the death-toll when conquistadors marched into South America: local Aztecs were unfamiliar with the likes of European smallpox, and their immune systems crumbled beneath the strain. It’s easy to see how extra-terrestrial germs or pathogens could have a similar effect on us (if they existed, anyway).

Accordingly, spores like those unleashed in Covenant aren’t unrealistic… even if what follows isn’t. The image of someone falling desperately ill for reasons unknown hits close to home. Cheerful, right?

We may not have to fend off inhuman creatures when we start colonising the stars, but our problems aren’t over nonetheless. We’d probably be better off with the xenomorphs: at least you can see them coming.

Star Wars isn’t a Space Opera; it’s the Wild West

Tactical ignorance is a flaw most of us share. Specifically, we prefer to forget that life can be ugly. These kind of reality checks are uplifting in a way you wouldn’t expect, though; they demonstrate how far we’ve come. Our ancestors puzzled out mathematics despite rampant disease and the threat of being pillaged, for heaven’s sake. That’s to say nothing of natural disasters they simply weren’t equipped to handle. Fast-forward a few centuries and we’re firing satellites toward the other end of space. These bundles of technology then trundle around alien planets, beaming data back at us.

Applying this kind of logic to fiction is intriguing. Take Star Wars. We associate the franchise with devices that let you cover light-years in a matter of moments (hurling ships into what’s known as ‘hyperspace’), but this makes you wonder what the galaxy looked like before they were developed. We’ve got very little idea now the expanded universe has been booted unceremoniously from canon. Books, comics and games before Disney acquired the franchise no longer ‘count’, leaving a gaping hole in the timeline prior to Phantom Menace.

What’s left suggests a less romantic universe. Mention of millennia-old ‘hyperspace sextants’ in The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary hints at a simpler time, one where faster-than-light travel wasn’t possible. I’d assume they were used in charting a new frontier, supported by the ‘historical’ need for carbonite stasis to survive long journeys beforehand. While it’s best known for snap-freezing Harrison Ford in The Empire Strikes Back, apparently the process was intended to put travellers into suspended animation during long-haul trips.

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Early Star Wars concept art, courtesy of the incomparable Ralph McQuarrie

As with the Alien franchise, this breed of star-trekking isn’t glamorous. For starters, astronauts might wake up to a universe that’s rather different from the one they remember. Then you’ve got to factor in scientific mind-benders like time dilation, whereby time is relative and dependant on the rate you’re travelling. It’s a low-key version of time travel; those jaunting around space may find that everyone else has aged ‘faster’ than them.

It’s not a great alternative, basically. Being realistic, you need months to bridge the distance between planets. Exchange that for decades when crossing the void separating solar systems. Colonies are likely to have been established closer to home as a result. They’d also be notably smaller than those seen on film, because it’s expensive transporting supplies across the cosmos. According to Planetary Resources, shipping enough water for six people on the International Space Station costs $2 billion per year. Even breaching the atmosphere is pricey. You need an absurd amount of energy to clear gravitational pull. As NASA researcher Kevin Fong noted, making sure vehicles achieve ‘an orbit wide enough to get it to miss both the Earth and the upper layers of the atmosphere… you need to travel at around 17,500mph’. Consider the cost of reaching those speeds. When coupled with the provisions and fuel needed for a single astronaut, you’re staring down the barrel of a very expensive project.

These outposts would probably be isolated, too. Help is hard to come by in the depths of space, particularly when it takes weeks to arrive. This leaves settlers to fend for themselves. Aside from foreign weather patterns, flora and fauna, they’re stranded on a planet that may not even feature oxygen. And what about the physical cost of living on another world? Although Star Wars never troubled itself with reality (and nor should it), this might rob us of our health. Lesser gravity wastes bones and musculature, to say nothing of radiation. Then you’ve got to consider the psychological impact of being cut off, not to mention other people. Astrobiologist Charles Cockell pointed out that space ‘is a tyranny prone environment… If somebody gets control of oxygen, they could very well have control over the whole population and could threaten dire consequences in return for extraordinary levels of power’. It may sound ridiculous, but experts are already planning a bill of rights to avoid those problems – not to mention ways of toppling dictatorships.

In a nutshell, it’s a lifestyle which strips away every luxury. The fact that Maz Kinata’s pirate empire has existed for one thousand years indicates a frontier more like the Wild West than anything else. As observed by Frederick J. Turner in 1894, settlers of North America returned to ‘primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line’. That doesn’t sound dissimilar to Tatooine.

Which raises a question of its own; did early inhabitants of Star Wars piece this all together through trial and error, or were they sped along by first contact with one of the series’ extra-terrestrial races? Perhaps the answer is ‘neither’. The Tarkin novel references an ancient civilisation which constructed interstellar weapons of mass destruction. This became an inspiration for the Death Star, so it’s possible the remains of an older society provided the technological leap needed (a la Mass Effect).

No matter their origin, it puts the Empire’s advancement into context. It must’ve taken decades at the very least to reach that stage, especially when those efforts had to have been funded by competing nations. We’re told that Coruscant (the prequels’ city planet) is humanity’s homeworld, so did it host different countries before galactic rule? Do they still exist at the time of the Skywalkers?

It’s wild and unnecessary speculation on my part, obviously. But that’s fun of it. What we don’t know is often more entertaining than what we do; we can fill in the gaps ourselves. Many criticise the removal of EU content. This is my counter-argument.

Sources: BBC, American Historical Association, Wired, The Guardian