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There was an xkcd comic a while back about this topic that got me thinking on it again, so I figured I’d toss this one out there.  Incidentally, if you don’t read xkcd, start.  Now.

I’ll wait.


The Killing Star is a book by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski, released in 1995.  To be totally honest, it’s not the best written piece of fiction out there, but at the time it was for me an intriguing exploration of the Fermi Paradox.  The short version of the Fermi Paradox, incidentally, is that given the number of stars in the galaxy, the likelihood of those stars having planets, and the likelihood of life arising on those planets, by many estimations the galaxy should be teeming with civilizations.

And yet, we have found no evidence of them.

So where is everyone?

The plot of The Killing Star revolves around the most sinister of the possible explanations for this absence: the reason we cannot find any other civilizations is because there are one or more rogue civilizations out there wiping out all the other ones, the “killing stars” of the book’s title.  The book’s shining moment, for me, was in the following (somewhat dated) metaphor:

We ask that you try just one more thought experiment. Imagine yourself taking a stroll through Manhattan, somewhere north of 68th street, deep inside Central Park, late at night. It would be nice to meet someone friendly, but you know that the park is dangerous at night. That’s when the monsters come out. There’s always a strong undercurrent of drug dealings, muggings, and occasional homicides.

It’s not easy to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. They dress alike, and the weapons are concealed. The only difference is intent, and you can’t read minds.

Stay in the dark long enough and you may hear an occasional distant shriek or blunder across a body.

How do you survive the night? The last thing you want to do is shout, “I’m here!” The next to last thing you want to do is reply to someone who shouts, “I’m a friend!”

What you would like to do is find a policeman, or get out of the park. But you don’t want to make noise or move towards a light where you might be spotted, and it is difficult to find either a policeman or your way out without making yourself known. Your safest option is to hunker down and wait for daylight, then safely walk out.

There are, of course, a few obvious differences between Central Park and the universe.

There is no policeman.

There is no way out.

And the night never ends.

The main difference for me in this book versus, say, Saberhagen’s Berserker series was that Pellegrino and Zebrowski didn’t invoke Clarke’s Third Law.  There’s no hyperdrive hand waving; the science is all easily understood.

And that’s what makes it oddly horrifying.  Because it’s easy to follow the logic; in a universe where the speed of light is an absolute, conquering another planet is functionally impossible.

Destroying it, however, is easy.

Not only easy, but in a perverse way, logical.  Once you have the capability to make a vehicle that travels at relativistic speeds, you can as readily exterminate a planet as explore it, and any other civilization with the same technological level has the exact same capability.  To make things even worse, there’s functionally no way to know if another civilization has already pulled the trigger on you; with a weapon whose velocity approaches the speed of light, it will be almost impossible to track or intercept.  By the time you know it’s coming, it would already be too late.

It’s rather analogous to a duel between snipers.  If you’re extremely lucky and happen to be looking in exactly the right direction, you might spot the muzzle flare from the shot that kills you.

But you probably won’t.

It’s not hard to imagine an alien mindset that takes this information, and decides that Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto You is the first commandment of a hostile universe.

Now, obviously the premise has flaws (What if you don’t kill them all?  What if a third party is looking and decides that you need to be next on the hit list?), but it made for an interesting counterpoint to the more Roddenberry-esque view of the universe that was prevalent when I read it for the first time.  Particularly when you realize that aliens are not likely to be all that alien.

Because the logic of The Killing Star has been carried out in human history more times than I care to contemplate.