The Secrecy of Aliens

Posted in Savor The Flavor on January 14, 2009

Every year across the world, thousands of sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) are reported. Eyewitnesses report seeing strange lights in the sky, oblong objects moving irregularly along the horizon, inexplicable radar blips, or other strange occurrences. Almost all of these cases can be explained by conventional phenomena, but many each year go unexplained. In these murkier cases, where facts are insufficient, belief often takes over. Some see coincidence, merely a set of unusual but natural circumstances made mysterious by limited observation. Some see evidence for human intervention, the results of an elaborate hoax or even a government cover-up. Others see proof of extraterrestrial life, of visitors from another world.

My question is: what do the aliens think about this?

Imagine you're a member of an intelligent race from some planet far from Earth. Your civilization has managed to innovate a way to generate such powerful energies that you can bend space, creating wormholes from your area of the universe to other necks of the woods many light-centuries away. You've also managed to create vehicles capable of withstanding the enormous quantum-gravitational aftereffects of such travel while still getting decent gas mileage. Meanwhile your deep-space astronomers have detected a habitable planet with intelligent life—a little blue job they call Earth, orbiting a star they call Sol—and have charted a route there through the vagaries of bent-space. You're all set for your historic intergalactic jaunt.

You ignite your quantum folding-engines, crinkle the crap out of the universe, and arrive in the nitrogen-rich outer atmosphere of Earth. You've done it—you've traveled the universe, besting the twin gods of space and time in a victory of reason over remoteness.

And yet you don't even make the front-page news.

The quantum distortion of your space-folding is written off as the energetic hiccup of a solar flare—the NASA folks nod sagely, as they see this kind of thing from time to time. The curling streaks from your atmospheric drives are explained as cirrostratus clouds caught between two fronts—unusual, say the local-news meteorologists, but not supernatural. The very freaking observation of your ship by air traffic controllers and picnicking families in the city park is rationalized as a quirk of the light, having been bent through an optical illusion created by a temperature inversion at the horizon, or maybe it was some kind of weather balloon—whatever. In the end, nobody gives your arrival a second thought.

Some welcome. Some momentous interstellar handshake of civilizations. Supremely miffed, you guzzle your wasted moon-champagne straight from the bottle and yell at the computer to chart a course directly back home.

But hold on. In a way, this reception is completely expected. You thought the momentousness of your journey would be cause for awe and pomp—but in fact, its very momentousness is why it was ignored. Your slide through the folds of the universe was so improbable, so counter to everything that normally happens in daily life on Earth, that everyone was more willing to believe the mundane explanations rather than the truth. Your voyage was too groundbreaking (spacebreaking) to be believed.

So maybe it's worth exploring around here a little more. Maybe this encounter could use some real face-to-face. You throw your folding-engines into don't-rewarp-the-universe-yet mode, find a place to park, engage the cloaking device for safety, deploy the gravitic hover-springs, and set 'er down. You walk through the semipermeable magneto-shield that serves as your ship's front hatch, emerge into visibility, and greet the cute human family of picnickers.

Stares. Gaping jaws. "W-w-where did you just come from?"—that sort of thing.

Now that's more like it.

You explain that you're on a transdimensional mission from a world not unlike their own, a mission of peace and communion, that you have traveled far and that you wouldn't mind a bit of media coverage.

The little girl snaps her camera phone at you, but that's about it.

The dad looks you up and down with a skeptical eye and informs you that you don't look like an alien to him.

You enlighten him about your system of microscopic robots that is constantly and dynamically adapting your physiology—not only for your bio-environmental compatibility comfort, but also to put on a pleasing appearance for Earth's dominant local intelligent fauna.

The mom seems to be packing up the picnic. Seriously? You just emerged out of an invisible spacecraft from beyond the stars, and you're getting treated like a talkative vagrant?

The dad doesn't even seem curious about your appearance anymore. He's more concerned with his own life, and with the safety of his family, than with figuring out how you managed to step into conversation range of their picnic from a space of thin air hovering slightly above the park grass. Again, the sheer out-of-the-ordinariness of your visit has served to cause people to look the other way, rather than to embrace your mission of intergalactic peace.

Maybe the forthright plan isn't such a good one. Maybe the xenoethnologists from your planet were right—maybe you shouldn't just lay it all out there. Maybe you should just play it cool. Infiltrate and observe. Live among them to find the best way to make true and lasting contact with their civilization, and then later, when you're sure they're ready, enlighten them about the wonders of the universe that have been forever knocking on the other side of their ionosphere.

But that's ridiculous. You've conquered astronomical distances to get here. You've succeeded at a titanic feat at the cost of several colony worlds' worth of economies. You owe it to those whose energies you sponged to make your trip, this monumental achievement of space travel, worth the effort.

So maybe you should go full-steam the other way. Maybe you should make an even bigger deal of your arrival. Maybe you should decloak your ship, deactivate your nanodisguise, and make a spectacle of it, eye-tentacles and all. Maybe you should wave goodbye to this podunk park, set down your springs in the middle of U.N. World Headquarters, blast a bit of your quantum coils' incendiary waste products into the air for a flashy light show, and blow their little monkey minds. Maybe you should force them to wake up and smell the knowledge, against their will if need be, so that you can get underway with the history-making interstellar commerce already.

On the other hand, that might not be that great an idea, either. For all the technology you possess, yours was not a mission of war. You have little in the way of defenses, compared to their conventional, but massive, arsenals here on Earth. If the locals decide that you're some kind of threat, then you wouldn't be capable of withstanding the full assault of their fear.

So, showy or subtle? The bare facts or a series of disguises? Truth or lies?

Your mission plans are already going awry, so you think hard. Even if you managed to convince some of these humans that you are from a faraway planet while assuring for yourself some reasonable measure of safety, you have no means of truly proving your claim to them. Your nanites are not adaptable to their human physiology, so they can't survive the ravages of the void via your means of travel. Even with a complete refuel using a tremendous application of the local energies, your ship could only carry you back to your home planet, not an Earth visitor. For now, the best thing you could transport would be your own experiences, your information, your recordings of the conditions there on Earth, for your associates back home to study and enjoy.

Perhaps, in the great patience of time, a slow communion of scientists from both your worlds could enable the construction of some sort of two-way travel gate, a stable wormhole or doorway to bridge the yawning gulf of space between your civilizations. But that's far past the farthest reaches of hope.

In the end, you decide that the best thing you can do—for yourself, your home civilization, and your newly-adopted home of Earth—is to go low-profile. Lengthen your potential stay by preventing too many questions about your origins, thereby allowing for deeper exploration for the scientific benefit of all. Build relationships of trust, so that if your alien secrets do come out, you'll have allies you can count on. Minimize your use of ostentatious powers of extraterrestrial technology, so that you can pass as a resident for as long as you need. Gather deep lore about the planet. Become an expert, so that you might one day serve as an educator for those of your world—or an ambassador for those of both.

It's the right thing to do, you decide. Still, as the family hurries to pack up their picnic and the little girl turns to take one more snapshot of you from her mobile, you can't resist the urge to stick out just one eye-tentacle. Maybe your secrets will come out sooner than you've planned—this could be dangerous.

So it is with planeswalkers.

    Agents of Artifice

The Jace Countdown is on! The release of Ari Marmell's Agents of Artifice, the first in a series of planeswalker novels, is less than two weeks away. Mark your calendars for January 27!

    Letter of the Week

A few quickies today.

Dear Doug Beyer,

I was reading over your mailbag column and a weird thought occurred to me. It's been said previously the planeswalker spark is very rare, and it seems it's most prevalent in humans (I'm guessing that this is simply because most planes have them, thus the probability of one of them having a spark is higher then say a leonin) and my question is fairly simple.

Can the planeswalker spark appear in any sentient race? For instance, could you potentially have a merrow planeswalker, or an akki?

Good question, Brad! First of all, the nature of the spark is mysterious—we only know rules of thumb about it, not rules of the rest of the fingers, or however that saying goes. But yes, it appears that any sentient race or being has the potential for the planeswalker spark. Sandruu is a minotaur planeswalker from Ulgrotha, for example, which I consider rather awesome. And Karn became a planeswalker despite being an artifact creature (I mean, he was no ordinary artifact creature, but still). There are a lot of humans spread across the multiverse, so as you say, Brad, many of Magic's planeswalker characters are wrought from the fabric of humanity. But there's no rule, thumb or otherwise, that says there couldn't be a merrow or akki planeswalker.

Dear Doug Beyer,

I was wondering, when it comes to designing a Magic set which comes first: the flavor or the function? By function I mean theme, such as tribal or multicolor. I.e. when it came time to design the Alara block did you guys say "Hey what about a world that was once one shard and now is split into five separate ones" first or was it "Let's do a multicolor block focusing on three-color combinations"? And while I'm here what team gets to decide this in the first place, design, development, or all of Ramp;D put together?


Another awesome question. The design team for a large set is in charge of the vision for the set, and guides the mechanical themes of the block, and those designers officially start their work before we on the creative team do our world-building magic in support of it. However, there is a lot of give and take between design, development, and creative as a set comes together, even in the early going. In the case of Shards of Alara, the multicolor theme with an eye toward three-color play was decided early on by the design team, led by Ramp;D vice president Bill Rose. The assumption was that all the three-color combinations would be explored, including the "arc" shards we know today like black-red-green and green-white-blue, but also the "wedge" combinations like black-green-white and green-blue-black. Creative piped up with the suggestion to focus just on the "arc" combinations, because we had inklings of an awesome five-shard world in our heads (which would only make thematic sense if there were five three-color combinations, not ten). Design agreed to the proposal, even though it took some rework on their part, and the result was the set you see today. And I can tell you that future sets and blocks also have tons of input from Creative right from the get-go, and all along the way.

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