Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


Chapter 18.  Alien Weapons


"Space was full of darting, flashing, madly warring ships. The three Black superdreadnaughts leaped forward as one. Their massed batteries of beams, precisely synchronized and aimed, lashed out as one at the nearest Patrol super heavy, the Boise. Under the vicious power of that beautifully-timed thrust that warship's first, second, and third screens, her very wall-shield, flared through the spectrum and into the black."
          -- from E. E. "Doc" Smith, First Lensman406

"Jason, for the first time I regret never having studied weapons."
"You're a puppeteer. Why should you..."
"No sentient mind should turn away from knowledge. Especially no puppeteer. We are not known for our refusal to look at unpleasant truths."
          -- from Larry Niven, "The Soft Weapon"607

"There is as much art to destruction as construction!"
          -- Morely Safer, 60 Minutes221

"I am the spirit that always denies! A good thing, too, for all that exists deserves to be destroyed. It would be much better if nothing were ever created."
          -- Mephistopheles, in Goethe’s Faust (1808)



War and weapon-making have been an integral part of the millenia of human history on this planet. And yet, it is generally conceded that most of us have strong innate inhibitions against taking the lives of our fellow men. How can these conflicting tendencies be reconciled? If man hates to kill, why does he?

Dr. Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, an Austrian-born ethologist at the Max Planck Institute at Munich, has suggested that it is the improved technology of weapons themselves that have made it possible for men to ignore their natural revulsion toward murder. A weapon, he points out, makes it possible to take life easily and quickly; the weaponeer is spared the psychological contradictions of his acts by seeing his target as a mere object.

In close combat, using primitive weaponry such as spears and knives, the participants are acutely aware of the corporality of their opponents. But weapons technology -- mass destruction and death-at-a-distance -- has made it possible for combatants to lose that bare thread of empathy that energizes their inhibitions. Weapons technology makes dealing in death an increasingly impersonal affair. As Dr. Eibl-Eibesfeldt observes: "If one asked a bomber pilot to kill his victims one by one, he would be out raged at the suggestion."452

In view of the above, can we be absolutely certain that technologically superior aliens may not also wield superior weapons? As science fiction authors are fond of pointing out, advanced ETs may have many motivations -- conquest among them. It is not enough to say that superior technology necessarily breeds benevolence, since superior technology here on Earth has often made it easier for humans to kill. But even if it turns out that most alien civilizations are benevolent, is it correct thinking to ignore the quite disturbing possibility that there may be a few warlike intelligences loose in the universe?

The worth of a study of alien weapons may be questioned on other grounds. For instance, it may be asked how we can hope to comprehend weapons which are by definition far superior to our own, technologically. But this sort of question ignores entirely the cornerstone of our entire analysis of xenology -- the Hypothesis of Mediocrity. There may indeed exist forces and powers wholly beyond present science. If so, we can say nothing about them. All we can do is make the assumption that our science has a grasp of certain basics and proceed accordingly.

We must work with what we have. Turning our backs on the possibility of malevolent aliens will not make the problem go away. In dealing with extraterrestrial intelligences, we must be prepared for both the best and the worst.

There are many kinds of weapons that aliens might employ against us. Lasers, "nukes," biological agents, energy absorber fields and disintegrators are the stock in trade of science fictioneers. Authors have suggested psychological warfare, by which the nations of Earth are induced to fight among themselves. In Isaac Asimov’s story "The Weapon Too Dreadful to Use," the aliens in question perfect a means of severing the link between senses and brain, thus placing victims in a state of permanent sensory deprivation.674 Larry Niven’s "The Soft Weapon" illustrates what might happen if we were to discover an intelligent alien weapon.607 But most weapons fall into one of several categories, as discussed below. Surprisingly, there are fairly adequate defenses for many of them. However, for reasons that will become clear in the last section, there appears to be at least one weapon for which there is no defense!


Last updated on 6 December 2008