Panspermia is the idea that life could travel between stars seeding habitable planets as it passed, a bit like a galactic infection.
In previous posts I looked at the traditional bacterial view of panspermia, then some more extreme views, such as aliens deliberately seeding the Earth with life, and I looked at a recent claim from a NASA scientist that he had found evidence for panspermia, in the form of fossilized bacteria in three meteorites.
In the final post of this series I’ll take a more light-hearted approach, and look at some of the best panspermia ideas in films, TV and books.
The traditional view of panspermia:
OK, I’ve never actually seen or read a story about bacterial alien life colonizing an uninhabited planet, as per the traditional view of panspermia. If anyone is reading this and they have, then please let me know.
Simple alien life invading the Earth:
There’s been some great examples in fiction of simple alien life invading the Earth. Its panspermia in the sense that simple life travels through space without complex technology, and then thrives when it lands on Earth.
One of the best is the Andromeda Strain, a book by Michael Crichton that was made into a pretty good film in 1971 and an awful TV miniseries in 2008. A strange microorganism from space is brought to Earth where it infects and quickly kills any living organism, threatening to exterminate all life on Earth as scientists race against time to find a cure. I watched the 1971 film again recently on YouTube, and I’ll post a link to the first part below, although I don’t know how long it’ll last before YouTube delete it. It’s my perfect kind of film though, it takes place almost entirely in a laboratory and is focused solely on scientists trying to solve problems. The scientists are portrayed as hard-working heroes and the politicians as self-interested idiots, which sounds realistic.
Hopefully this link will still be working for a while
Another example is an old Doctor Who serial staring Tom Baker called The Seeds of Doom, in which a team of British scientists find two mysterious spores in the Antarctic. One spore opens, revealing a plant that can infect other organisms and mutate them into walking killing plants. Like a lot of Doctor Who, it starts slowly and engagingly, but then ends up getting a bit camp and ridiculous but its one of my favourites. It’s a great example of the panspermia by spore idea.
Hopefully this link will work too
The best simple-infectious-alien-life story must be The Thing though, the 1982 film directed by John Carpenter. Again in the Antarctic, a team of scientists are attacked by an alien life-form that was unearthed from the ice by a Norwegian research team. The alien is a parasite that infects and takes control of other life forms, mostly dogs and humans in the film, imitating the victim until threatened, at which point all kinds of tentacles and horrible bits n’ bobs emerge. The alien is truly like nothing seen on Earth (apart from maybe that fungus that infects and takes control of ants). If you’ve not seen it watch it, it’s a wonderful, if tense and terrifying, film and shows how good Kurt Russell can be if given decent material.
The best example I can think of is the film Species, in which aliens send a signal to Earth with instructions on how to synthesise alien DNA and how to splice it into human DNA to create an alien-human hybrid. The idea of transmitting DNA sequences across space to construct hybrid life-forms is superb, unfortunately the film isn’t and it quickly becomes a bit of a boring chase film with some cheesy nudity (whatever happened to the proper nudity of the 1970’s?)
Still it’s a great idea. Why bother travelling to a distant planet, when you can digitally send your DNA instead and invade without having to leave your couch? It’s the essence of the idea of directed panspermia.
I guess Alien could fit this category. As the alien life-form is accidentally delivered to the colony planet LV421 (I knew its name without looking it up, sad) by the big alien, usually called the Space Jockey, piloting the mysterious spacecraft.
The fact that the Space Jockey died from an alien chest-burst makes me think he’d collected the alien eggs without knowing what he was doing, accidentally got infected, then crash-landed on LV421 where the alien could infect new life forms, like humans, like Kane. The original idea was that Alien 3 would be set on an Earth that had become infected by the aliens, but they f*cked it up we got the mess of a film set on the prison planet instead. The alien’s life cycle also sounds like it was adapted for accidental panspermia, being transported between planets either in the egg form, or gestating inside a living host.
Alien is one of my favourite films and I think the writers and H. R. Giger created one of the best alien creatures in film history, it’s totally inhuman, has no technology, but is extremely successful and looks like nothing found on Earth. A proper alien.
This is the idea I mentioned in the second post that aliens could have come to Earth in our history and given humanity knowledge and technology, and maybe even shaped our evolution at a more basic level. This is the basic idea behind Stargate, that an ancient advanced alien race once occupied Earth and directed the development of human civilization. I quite liked the film but I can’t stand the TV spin-offs so I don’t know anything else about the ideas behind Stargate, I know it involves the ancient Egyptians and Atlantis and stuff, but not much else.
Another example is the black monolith from 2001 A Space Odyssey, which shapes the evolution of early hominids to create the human race. I’m not actually a big fan of this film, I think it’s a bit empty and massively over-rated, and all the best ideas are in the first 20 minutes or so.
My favourite example though is from a book of short stories by Will Self called Liver. In one of the stories it’s revealed that an alien race has created humanity, and for one purpose only. The aliens love fois gras, liver that has turned to fat. And the best fois gras in the galaxy is produced by alcoholic humans, so the alien race has created us purely to get drunk and deliver a steady supply of cirrhotic livers. I love it because we tend to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution, we revel in our greatness, in our art and music and literature, and we ignore all of our awful exploitation of other species. But Self turns all this on its head by saying that all our achievements are a side-effect of the desire for aliens to eat foie humain. We’re basically cattle, but we don’t even realise it.
War of the worlds isn’t really about panspermia, but it shows some of the complications of travelling to alien biospheres, that not only could the visitors bring their own bacteria (accidental panspermia) but that the visitors could also become contaminated by the bacteria on the planet they were visiting, a bit like astronauts catching a cold from going to Mars.
In the books and the films Earth is invaded by Martians. They quickly overwhelm our defences and it looks as though there’s no hope for the human race, until the Martians become infected by Earth bacteria and quickly die off. It’s a bit like accidental panspermia in reverse. I liked the Hollywood film from 2005, unlike most people, and the 1953 film is also good, but the original book by H.G. Wells is mind-blowing. It was published in 1898 and its astounding to think that Wells was able to dream-up alien spacecraft and laser weapons (he called them heat rays) before the car had been invented and humanity was still getting around mostly by horse power.
Anyway, these are the sci-fi examples of panspermia I could think of; let me know if you have any others?