All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2017:

What is a Supercivilisation? (Aug.)

Quantifying the Assumptions Behind the METI Debate (July)

Five Principles of a Sustainable Manned Mars Programme (June)

Pale Red Dot: Mars comes to Oxford (May)


Back to 2016:

Elon Musk and Mars: Looking for a Snowball Effect (Oct.)

New in 2015:

Short story The Marchioness


AE posts:

2017: Mars…

2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…

2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…

2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…

2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…

2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…

2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…

2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…

Chronological index

Subject index


General essays:

Index to essaysincluding:

Talk presented to students at the International Space University, May 2016

Basic concepts of Astronautical Evolution

Options for Growth and Sustainability

Mars on the Interstellar Roadmap (2015)

The Great Sociology Debate (2011)

Building Selenopolis (2008)


“The Cetaceans” – an original film synopsis

Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK

28 February 2010


When human explorers first discover an earthlike planet inhabited by intelligent aliens, they are firmly resolved not to interfere in the aliens’ lives, and not to claim any of the planet’s living space or natural resources for themselves.

But when they discover that their alien friends are being oppressed by cruel gods, their moral sense forces them to act to help the aliens. And when the gods turn out to be real, and respond by attacking the humans’ starship, our explorers are faced with the threat of total destruction.

A warrior of the Ku-u-a tribe, planet Sylvania

Arriving in the planetary system of the sunlike star Tau Ceti for the first time, travelling in the 30th-century starship Cetacean, scientist Dr Ralph Shipwright is determined to preserve the life of its earthlike planet Sylvania free from human interference.

As they enter orbit around Sylvania, Ralph quarrels with his girlfriend Rosalyn. She suspects him of infidelity, and has decided to leave him and move in with a mutual friend. Ralph urges her to join him once again in the psychoscope, in which their two minds will meld into one and they will enjoy perfect mutual understanding. “Recreational use of an expensive scientific instrument is forbidden!”, she snaps, covering up her sense of guilt at preferring someone else, and walks out on him.

Ralph plunges himself into exploring the planet. This he does by controlling a robotic lander from the starship, which remains in orbit. Through this telepresence he comes into contact with an intelligent alien called Zhu-zhi, a young member of the Ki-u-a tribe. The Ki-u-a are not humanoid, but based on the body plan of a small dinosaur from Earth’s remote past – think of an ostrich with added arms and hands, a large brain and intelligent expression, and with a graceful long neck and a long balancing tail behind. Eyes on flexible horns, a breathing system disconnected from the mouth and gut, and the ability to play either the male or the female role in mating and egg-laying provide reminders that we are dealing with a creature which has evolved completely independently of Earth.

By robotically attaching a receiver to Zhu-zhi’s head, Ralph is able to channel his consciousness from the psychoscope via the lander into Zhu-zhi’s brain, and experience life on Sylvania at first hand. This intimate form of contact allows him to partially understand the aliens’ language. Ralph enters into a mental dialogue (represented in voiceovers in English) with Zhu-zhi, and cannot help thinking how much more satisfactory a friend Zhu-zhi is compared with the treacherous Rosalyn. He can experience Zhu-zhi’s thoughts and feelings, but not act to move the alien’s body or limbs unless Zhu-zhi voluntarily cedes control, like a spirit medium.

The Ki-u-a tribe resembles the Na’vi in the film Avatar, with a hunter-gatherer, warrior-led existence in a beautiful forest environment. Thanks to their belief in spirits, Zhu-zhi does not find Ralph’s presence in his mind to be particularly surprising, though at first the two have considerable difficulties understanding one another, and comic moments of misunderstanding ensue. When they meet Zhu-zhi’s mate, Ralph shares Zhu-zhi’s feelings of alien love, and wistfully tells Zhu-zhi about his problems with Rosalyn. But Zhu-zhi’s suggestions, based on his alien culture, are not at all helpful.

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing on the starship Cetacean. Engineer Adella Zenubi has been highly critical of expedition leader Simon Rawlings throughout the long journey from Earth’s solar system. She claims that his way of organising the maintenance of the ship while in transit has been sloppy and put them in jeopardy. “We had a total power cut for an hour out there!”, she shouts. “A power cut in the depths of space is no joking matter! If we hadn’t got that reactor back online ... The only thing that’s keeping Rawlings in power is the Martian Mafia – this ship is riddled with the corruption of the Martian Mafia!”

Now with the opportunity to jump ship, Adella leads an outright rebellion. She will take a hundred or so people down to Sylvania’s surface in their two winged shuttles, and they will build a colony on the planet while the main expedition continues with its plan of fabricating a human colony in space.

Back in the Sylvanian stone age, Ralph is learning more about how the Ki-u-a live. They are not warriors for nothing. They are threatened by a larger neighbouring tribe, and must attack before they are themselves overwhelmed.

The Ki-u-a hold a religious ceremony to consult their gods, and through a priest dressed in a white robe receive a blessing on their military mission, with an order to attack and to show no mercy. Zhu-zhi is afraid of the coming battle, and asks Ralph to stay with him; Ralph promises he will be back very soon.

Coming out of the mind-meld connection briefly for refreshment, Ralph hears of Adella’s plan, and emphatically forbids it. The planet must be preserved from any possibility of biological contamination that might result from a human presence. Only sterilised robotic landers can be allowed to reach the surface. Adella angrily storms out of their meeting. But Ralph is too involved in his own work to pursue her and physically prevent her from leaving. He leaves that task to a subordinate and turns to study a scan of the area of the planet where the Ki-u-a live, before sitting back in the psychoscope and lowering its brainwave pickup over his head…

He rejoins Zhu-zhi as the Ki-u-a are going into battle. Their enemies occupy a village, and Ralph is surprised to see for the first time wooden buildings, tame livestock and fields. The Ki-u-a destroy the village and kill all its inhabitants, and the violence of the battle sickens Ralph. He finds that when Zhu-zhi is injured, Ralph too feels the pain. He directs Zhu-zhi to look around, and discovers heiroglyphic writing and metal implements. As Zhu-zhi does not understand what some of these are, Ralph finds himself explaining them to Zhu-zhi.

The realisation that there are buildings and fields on Sylvania allows Ralph to interpret the images from orbit, which previously he had thought were merely puzzling natural formations. He realises there must be a small city not far away, and suggests to Zhu-zhi and his people that they ought to investigate. If necessary, he says, he will offer his services to communicate with the city-dwellers and help negotiate peace.

Coming back out of the mind-meld, he learns that Adella’s advance party is about to leave on the first winged shuttle. He rushes to the shuttle’s docking port and insists that they must not disturb or interfere with life on Sylvania in any way. Adella offers him a vague promise to land on the opposite side of Sylvania from Ralph’s exploration site. He orders them to wear biological isolation garments at all times when they are outside the spacecraft (the atmosphere being breathable for humans). The hatch closes and they are gone.

Ralph returns to his mind-meld with Zhu-zhi. Another battle is about to begin. But this time the Ki-u-a are on the defensive. Looking at the invaders through Zhu-zhi’s eyes, Ralph sees that the city-dwellers are highly organised. They carry metal weapons, wear uniforms and march in step. Ralph tries to arrange a truce, working all the time through Zhu-zhi, but this fails, and in the ensuing battle some of the Ki-u-a are killed, the others – including Zhu-zhi – captured and marched back to the city.

The captives are marched into the city’s central square, surrounded by stone temples, and lined up. Ralph observes with horror that they are being ceremonially executed one by one, in front of a large crowd. Zhu-zhi begs his invisible friend to help before it is his own turn to die.

Ralph breaks the connection and, back in the starship laboratory, calls up Adella. Is she still in space? – yes, in a low orbit, but preparing to land on the opposite side of the planet. Ralph has an urgent request for her: to retarget to his exploration area and make a low-altitude pass over the city as quickly as possible. She cunningly responds: does that mean we’re allowed out onto the surface now? Ralph hurriedly suppresses his scientific fastidiousness and agrees that she may do so.

He rejoins Zhu-zhi just as his alien friend is being led up to the scaffold, terrified of the cruel death that awaits him there. Speaking through him, Ralph addresses the city dwellers and tells them that they must stop the killings: the Ki-u-a tribe is under the special protection of the gods. As a sign of this a god will shortly fly over the city.

He spins out this speech for as long as he can while the executioners grow restless, and then in the nick of time Adella’s shuttle appears and makes an impressive flyover, its jet engines roaring. The city-dwellers cower in fear.

But as the shuttle thunders into the distance, another alien dressed in a priestly robe stands up and declares that the gods are not satisfied, and are about to destroy the city in just one hour’s time.

Ralph contradicts him: no! the gods are friendly, they only want the aliens to live in peace! But in language of biblical severity the priest calls down damnation upon the city, and the crowd panicks and begins an exodus.

Zhu-zhi and the other remaining Ki-u-a captives are taken along, and from hills a few miles away they watch as a fireball falls from the sky and demolishes the city.

The alien priest reappears and addresses Zhu-zhi and Ralph: see, I was right, so you must be a false prophet. You don’t belong here, and soon it will be your turn for destruction too!

Back on the Cetacean, Ralph consults with his colleagues. Yes, they had observed a small asteroid coming out of space and entering the atmosphere just above the coordinates Ralph gave them. It would have been just the right size to cause the localised damage Ralph witnessed on the ground.

The Tau Ceti system still has a lot of asteroidal rubble in orbit, and planetary impacts would be much more common than in the Solar System. Look – there’s another space rock coming in, large enough to obliterate a city. Looks like it’ll impact on Sylvania just… here.

Ralph checks their satellite imagery, and sees that the asteroid is again targeted squarely on an alien city.

Acting quickly, Ralph sends out a robotic service vehicle which grabs the rock and fires its propulsion system again to redirect it onto a course that just misses the planet. “I’m not interfering in the aliens’ affairs”, he tells the others. “Just saving lives and letting them find their own destiny free from natural disasters.”

“Bit of a coincidence that two random asteroids were so perfectly aimed at two alien cities”, someone comments, but the others just shrug.

Ralph returns to the mind-meld with Zhu-zhi. The surviving city-dwellers are prostrating themselves as the priest relays their gods’ anger and instructs them how they must live in future. Ralph finds this all a bit too repressive, and, speaking through Zhu-zhi, gets into another argument with the priest.

The priest counters: the city of such-and-such was condemned to destruction for its wickedness, but you interfered with the gods’ judgement and saved the city of sin. Now it is your turn to die, false prophet!

Ralph guesses that the priest must have contact with some alien in space, otherwise he couldn’t possibly have known of the threats to the cities, or of how the second threat was averted. He tells Zhu-zhi that he has to return to the starship and warn his companions. But when he redirects his thoughts to his body on the ship, his conscious mind remains united with Zhu-zhi.

A cutaway to the ship shows alarms flashing, lights going out, fires burning, and people running around in panic with torches and fire extinguishers. Ralph’s body lies motionless in his couch as the lights on the psychoscope flicker and go out. His assistant shakes his comatose body, but receives no response.

Now Ralph realises that he’s stuck on Sylvania in the mind of Zhu-zhi. The priest understands: he, too, has been relaying an alien mind from space just as Zhu-zhi is host to Ralph.

In fear and anger, Ralph gains control of Zhu-zhi’s voluntary nervous system. He seizes a weapon and threatens to kill the priest unless he explains what’s going on.

The priest begs him to stop: the god has departed from his mind, and without the divine possession he can only tell Ralph that the gods exist in a spiritual dimension, lay down laws for them to follow, and punish them if they disobey. Ralph retorts that the punishments appear to be not in the least spiritual, but very real, but the priest can tell him no more.

A group of worshippers surrounds them, rescues the priest, and now threatens to kill Zhu-zhi for his disrespect to the priest, which will surely bring more divine anger down on them. But Zhu-zhi and Ralph are rescued in the nick of time by another group of city-dwellers.

Their leader, Ha-kwi, explains that he is a rebel ex-priest who has been trying to undermine the power of the gods. He senses that Ralph is a potential ally. If Ralph can transfer to his own mind, he will be able to explain everything fully, and enlist Ralph’s support for his cause. Ralph tells them how to switch the psychoscope receiver from Zhu-zhi’s head to Ha-kwi’s, and tells them to be very careful with it.

Once he is in contact with Ha-kwi’s mind, Ha-kwi tells Ralph their history. Ages ago, the aliens developed high-tech civilisation, spurred on by recurring asteroid impact disasters. They went out into space and built a system to protect their planet. But at the same time they were experiencing the same problems of environmental degradation on Sylvania so familiar to 21st-century Earth.

Their civilisation split into two. Those in space lived in high-tech space colonies, those on the ground returned, some to a pre-industrial lifestyle, others to an even more ancient stone-age lifestyle. The aliens in space protected Sylvania from further accidental impacts, but also decided that those on the ground must never industrialise again, and therefore used deliberately engineered asteroid impacts to warn or punish, especially whenever city organisation became too independent-minded and too oriented towards science and technology, rationalism and freedom. Instead they enforced a social focus on slavish following of religious rituals and strict moral codes with harsh punishments for transgressors.

Ralph now understands the danger his own people are in. He persuades Ha-kwi to hurry off on a desperate search for the shuttle containing Adella’s advance party, which must have landed nearby. After leading Ha-kwi on a terrifying hike across vertiginous clifftops and torrential rivers, accompanied by some of Ha-kwi’s people, he catches up with Adella’s party.

Adella is waiting for the second shuttle to follow her, carrying the main body of her colonists. She is puzzled by the fact that contact with the starship has been broken, but shrugs it off as more incompetence from expedition leader Rawlings.

When Ralph and Ha-kwi arrive, Ralph has difficulty communicating with Adella. Ha-kwi’s vocal system does not allow him to form most of the sounds of English, and Adella has no idea that Ralph is concealed inside the alien. But eventually Ralph gets a message through by controlling Ha-kwi’s hand and writing a few words.

Adella now understands that the starship is in danger, and probably her colonists are unable to leave it. She must return as quickly as possible. She asks the aliens to give her the psychoscope receiver with Ralph’s consciousness in it, but they refuse. This is their big chance to fight back against their repressive gods, and they want to come into space too. Adella is horrified at the thought of these creatures on board the shuttle, and she refuses.

Ralph begs Ha-kwi to hand over the receiver, as the batteries on the device are running low and if it dies, he dies too. Adella is faced with a dilemma: can she sacrifice Ralph for the sake of lending what support she can to the starship on which they all depend? It emerges that she and Ralph were lovers in the past.

But Ha-kwi and his supporters resolve the dilemma. They are armed, and now four of them force their way onto the shuttle despite Adella’s protests. The shuttle returns to orbit with Ralph and the aliens aboard.

They find that the starship Cetacean is under siege, with humans battling aliens for control. The corridors of the ship are torn by street-fighting between rival parties of humans and aliens, both armed with machine-guns and grenades. But the unexpected return of the shuttle and Adella’s strong leadership tip the balance in the humans’ favour. The aliens are repulsed, power is restored to the psychoscope and Ralph gets his human body back.

With Adella now in charge of the expedition, the humans retreat in their starship to the asteroid belt, still accompanied by the four alien rebels. They will have to be vigilant against further attacks from the alien gods, but so long as they see the aliens coming they will be able to defend themselves: the star-hot exhaust from their main engine will vaporise any solid object that it touches within 10 million kilometres.

They can bide their time, building new vehicles and supplies from resources mined out of the asteroids and replenishing their power reserves from abundant solar energy.

They promise Ha-kwi that, with him acting as translator, they will try to achieve a peaceful resolution of his species’ problems through dialogue with the alien gods.

The Starship Cetacean

Personnel:1000 people
Engine:Hydrogen-antihydrogen annihilation engine, using antihydrogen fuel manufactured in orbiting solar power stations from sustainable solar energy
Energy consumption of main engine:8.68 x 1022 Joules = 2,750 TW-year (equivalent to total global energy production in year 2010 maintained for 180 years)
Mass:20,000 tonnes (vehicle; = 50 times greater than International Space Station) plus 78,000 tonnes (fuel) = 98,000 tonnes at Solar System departure
Interstellar cruising speed:12.5% of light speed = 37,500 km/s
Approximate journey time:2.5 years (acceleration at 0.05 g) plus 93 years (cruise) plus 2.5 years (deceleration at 0.05 g) = 98 years total (equivalent to about a third of individual life expectancy in 2910)
Travel dates:Solar System departure 14 Febuary 2910; Tau Ceti arrival 19 December 3007
Builder:Martianic Aerospace Heavy Industries Interplanetary Inc.
Sister ships:Centaurian (to Alpha Centauri), Sirian (to Sirius), Eridanian (to Epsilon Eridani), Procyonian (to Procyon)
Cost of vehicle and fuel (2010 US dollars):$750,000,000,000,000,000,000
Ticket price per explorer:Prices on application. Please have your credit card ready, and please ensure your personal credit limit is set to at least $1,000,000,000.

Tau Ceti data

Type:Sunlike yellow dwarf (spectral type G8)
Visual magnitude:+3.49
Distance from Earth:11.90 light-years (+/- 0.04) = 112,700,000,000,000 (112.7 trillion) km
Luminosity:0.46 or 0.59 (different sources) that of our Sun
Mass:0.82 that of our Sun
Diameter:0.8 that of our Sun
Age:Estimated to be 10 billion years
Habitable zone:0.6 to 0.9 AU (Earth-Sun distances), centered at 0.7 AU (where orbital period would be 228 Earth days)
Special note:Jane Greaves et al., 2004: there appears to be ten times more asteroidal material than in our Solar System, implying an increased impact rate on terrestrial bodies. The main debris disk lies from 10 to 55 AU.