“Abductive Reasoning” Annotations

Warning: contains spoilers

The first version of this story, “An Update from the Flying Hubcap Front,” was one of two stories I submitted to the New England Science Fiction Association Short Story Contest in late 1996. My stories were both rejected, but they were sent back with comments by the contest’s two judges. The comments were anonymous, but I know that one of the judges was the late John M. Ford, author of the classic Star Trek novel The Final Reflection. Each story got one comment that was very positive and complimentary, and one brief negative comment from a judge who didn’t seem to have bothered to read past the first page or two, since the criticisms were limited to elements from the first couple of pages (in this case, complaining about the “overabundance of technology descriptions and alien language”). I consider it likely that Ford was the former judge, since the latter judge’s terse criticisms were not very well-written themselves. Although I admit that’s a biased conclusion.

Unlike my more serious SF, I never attempted to design or draw Cjek’darrit’s species. I felt it was better to make it up as I went, make it as weird as I could, and leave the specifics to the imagination. The goal, of course, was to make her as unlike a standard UFO “Gray” alien as possible. Josh Meehan’s illustration (p. 138-9) certainly achieves that, though I was imagining something less insectoid with only six limbs and two short probosces, as well as six-fingered hands. Still, the more unknowable her appearance, the better, I think, since whatever we could imagine an alien to look like is probably far short of the reality.


p. 140

“Flying Hubcap” had Cjek as a biological alien traveling in a conventional warp-driven starship which was damaged by a “strange-matter singularity.” For this version, I went with the more modern concept of a downloaded consciousness in a relativistic “wafer-ship” because it represented a far greater departure from the assumptions of UFO believers like Roy, and is far more physically plausible. The concept of the wafer-ship was inspired in part by the microchip “Sprite” satellites developed at Cornell University, which can be read about on the Centauri Dreams blog at https://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=38201, and by the idea of interstellar microsail probes developed by the late Jordin Kare, which can also be read about on the blog and in the companion book of the same name. The advantage of such low-mass spacecraft is that they can be easily accelerated to relativistic speeds, requiring vastly less energy and time than it would take to do the same with a starship containing macroscopic life forms and their life-support systems.

Though vacuum energy is a real phenomenon arising from quantum physics, the idea of drawing on it as a usable energy source, essentially getting something for nothing, is more fanciful. But I needed some critical system that could be damaged and irreparable without help, and extracting vacuum energy would require such precise and difficult bending of physical law that it could plausibly require a mechanism too intricate to be easily mended.

A galactic rotation, aka galactic “year,” is about 225-250 million years, at least for stars at the Sun’s distance from the center. So a galactic microrotation would be about two to two and a half centuries, as stated later in the story. That means that Cjek’s reunions typically happen on the order of 50,000 or so years apart. Given that it would take more than 100,000 years just to cross the galaxy from end to end at relativistic speeds, this is consistent. But there would be a fair amount of time dilation at those speeds, plus a disembodied consciousness might spend much of the time in “sleep mode,” so it wouldn’t be quite as long subjectively.

Cjek’s missed opportunity to reconcile with her wing-sister is the thing that made this story work at long last. Not only does it give her a relatable personal stake in the debate with Roy, but it gives some heart to what would otherwise be a rather frivolous story, as well as giving it a unifying theme about solitude and the lack of connection.

UFO aliens (and nonhumanoid sci-fi aliens in general) are usually assumed to be naked for some reason. Giving Cjek a garment was another way to contrast the lore with the reality.

p. 141

The first meeting between Cjek and Roy, from “Realizing she’d frightened the poor thing” to “authorities ought to be notified!”, is the largest intact portion remaining from the original story, with only minor changes. Roy’s full name was originally Roy David Gillian, which was a pun on both the characters of Roy and Jillian from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson of The X-Files. For the rewrite, I went for a bit more subtlety. “Roy Vincent Duncan” is still homaging CE3K, but also Roy Thinnes, who played David Vincent in the 1967-8 UFO thriller series The Invaders. “Duncan” was the name of Robert Vaughn’s character in an obscure, shlocky 1977 flying-saucer movie called Starship Invasions.

p. 142

The human chin shape really is unique among Earth organisms, as far as I know; even our closest evolutionary relatives, the Neanderthals, didn’t have pointed chins like ours. So the fact that the “Grays” of UFO lore are depicted with sharply pointed chins is, to me, a dead giveaway that they’re a distorted image of ourselves. I think that would be just as obvious to a real nonhuman sophont.

I hope I didn’t cross a line of good taste with the bit about the nude photos. I did want to make Roy an unsavory character, but I might’ve gone a bit too far for the sake of the gag. If it helps, I never intended Roy to be guilty of anything worse than looking at pictures. Indeed, it’s possible that Roy never actually owned such pictures, but is shifty enough to automatically get defensive and weaselly about any perceived accusation.

p. 143

Every bit of the “evidence” Roy shows Cjek – even the shakycam video of a point of light being mistaken for a rapidly maneuvering UFO – is based on real materials I’ve seen presented as evidence of UFOs in books and TV specials over the decades. In my childhood, I was a believer myself, uncritically buying into every paranormal claim, so I know this lore well. I outgrew it as I learned more about physics and biology. Carl Sagan set me straight on a lot of things, both in the book and series Cosmos and in works like UFO’s – A Scientific Debate. (At least, I think that was it. I remember reading a library book by Sagan that brought me great clarity on the subject, but I’m not sure whether it was that or Intelligent Life in the Universe by I.S. Shklovskii & Sagan.) (EDIT 7/13/18: I’ve now found a copy of Intelligent Life and confirmed it does not contain the UFO discussion I remember.) PBS’s NOVA examined UFO beliefs in a couple of episodes, including the 1996 episode “Kidnapped by U.F.O.s?” whose full transcript can be read at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/transcripts/2306tufos.html.

Gravity-lens telescopes are another favorite subject of Centauri Dreams. The basic concept, as developed by astronomer Claudio Maccone, can be read about in the November 16, 2005 post “FOCAL: Using the Gravitational Lens.” The idea is that a star’s gravity well can be used as the lens of an enormous telescope, powerful enough to allow high-resolution optical imaging of planets in distant star systems.

p. 144

Much of the debate between Cjek and Roy was in “Flying Hubcap,” though the topics were covered in a different order. But the original story ended with a lame joke: Cjek discovers a hairpin in a drawer, reacts to it as an amazing technological breakthrough that will repair her drive, and runs off, planning to make a fortune marketing it as her own invention. Roy’s line “No one would ever believe me” was the punch line, in a very different context. When I started the new version of the story, I had no idea that the plot twist with the disguised alien AIs would happen. I don’t recall what I planned to do instead, but this idea just came to me as I wrote, and I ran with it. It proved a marvelous bit of serendipity.

The idea that UFO “close encounter” descriptions follow the lead of mass-media images of aliens is one I came across shortly after writing the original story, in an April 4, 1997 episode of ABC News’s 20/20 debunking the “Alien Autopsy” video that had been shown on FOX in 1995. A discussion of the phenomenon, and a reproduction of the graphic used in that episode to depict the pattern, can be found in Ch. 24 of the book Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal by Joe Nickell (University Press of Kentucky, Oct. 24, 2001). The illustration shows a wide variety of different descriptions from the ‘40s onward, with the “Gray” type making an early appearance in the 1964 hypnotic-regression accounts of Barney and Betty Hill’s alleged 1961 abduction, then returning in 1975 with the alleged Travis Walton abduction, which was probably an influence on the appearance of the aliens in the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But it looks like the 1987 publication of Whitley Streiber’s book Communion and the 1993 debut of The X-Files cemented the “Gray” image as the default alien form for UFO believers.

By the way, both the 20/20 episode and the Nickell book refer to a reconstruction of the “autopsy” hoax video by FX artist Steve Johnson, which is also featured in the November 19, 1997 Scientific American Frontiers episode “Beyond Science?”, the video and transcript of which are available at http://www.chedd-angier.com/frontiers/season8.html. While it contains nothing directly relevant to “Abductive Reasoning,” it’s worth watching, since it contains the most definitive debunking of the Roswell UFO myth I’ve ever seen.

I wrote this story with the belief that the “Gray alien” image in popular culture was based on a specific conjectural illustration of future human evolution published in the 1960s or earlier, as the inspiration for the Hills’ description. I haven’t been able to track down the specific image I believe I saw, but I’ve found that similar conjectures have been around for much longer, as far back as the 1890s, notably in H.G. Wells’s story “The Man of the Year One Million,” as discussed on the page “A Media History of Gray Aliens” at http://www.theironskeptic.com/articles/gray/gray_history.htm. There’s also this image found online showing a stock “walking evolution” sequence of hominids from ape to human, extended forward into a Gray-like form, and looking like an older book illustration; but its original source isn’t attributed. The article “Man—500,000 Years From Now” by H.L. Shapiro, published in Natural History Magazine in Nov-Dec 1933, conjectures that future humanity may be “taller than we, with a more capacious and rounder head, fronted by a more vertical and smoother brow. His face will be smaller and more recessive in profile. The teeth in his jaws will be reduced in number and will also be smaller in size…. Some representatives of this future race will walk on four-toed feet and many will in early adulthood have become bald. The body hair will be less abundant….” I’d say the standard “Gray” is about halfway between this and H.G. Wells’s million-year man. Rather than a single image, it seems this basic set of assumptions about humanity’s future evolution has been popular for more than a century. So naturally it would’ve gotten associated in the public imagination with advanced aliens, since it’s hard for us to imagine sapient aliens as anything except a variation on ourselves.

p. 145

The observers’ isolation experiment is similar to the “Cosmic Zoo hypothesis” sometimes proposed as an explanation for our lack of contact with aliens—the idea being that they’re protecting or curating us, deliberately shielding us from knowledge of their existence.

I couldn’t resist putting a hint of optimistic humanism into what’s otherwise a fairly cynical story by my standards. The observers’ argument about the benefits of isolated development echoes Star Trek’s Prime Directive.

It bugs me a bit that this story about debunking UFO lore includes a crop circle being genuinely created by an alien, even if it’s coincidental. I guess that’s why I had Roy falsify evidence to make it a more “proper” crop circle. I hope I succeeded in conveying the irony that Roy spread the ashes with the expectation that they would kill the corn, but they actually boosted its growth. After all, Cjek’s body was made from the biomass of that very cornfield, so its chemistry is fully compatible (though with some nanotechnological enhancements), though Roy didn’t know or understand that.

I’m pleased to see my story paired with a quotation from Arthur C. Clarke. The source of the quote is an online chat from November 1996, originally on Scifi.com and now preserved on the Internet Archive at http://web.archive.org/web/20021201214228/http://www.scifi.com/transcripts/aclarke.txt.

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