I wandered lonely as a cloud
It’s not often that one mentions Wordsworth and science fiction in the same sentence, yet his famous line kept coming to mind as I read this oddly moving and beautiful report from NPR which muses about what sorts of life may be wandering out in the Universe now that our base assumptions have forcibly been widened by our discovery of arsenic-based life forms.
Says the author, Krulwich:
Imagine a cloud of stellar dust several light years across quietly drifting through space. Powered by its own bursting stars feeding it oxygen, carbon, life-giving chemistries, could it not become a slightly lonely but vastly oversized life form? An enormous space traveler?
Accompanied by this sentiment is one of those beautiful, extravagant, lush space pictures that makes me thankful that the government wastes my tax dollars keeping NASA (barely) afloat.
The article goes on to remind readers that if there are extraterrestrial life forms they are, by definition that is easily forgotten, going to be extra-terrestrial and will have evolved on a planet not like Terra. As such we should be prepared for life that looks like intellgent slime mold, or beings that have latticed themselves into meteors, or gigantic Water Bears who have mastered tricks like enduring the vacuum of space in a self-induced stasis before returning to a life-friendly region and getting back to the usual things like eating and reproducing.
Thanks to Frank Herbert, the notion of intelligent gas-based creatures is no foreign idea to yours truly. Herbert’s work The Jesus Incident describes a generated, theocratic society that subsists on a distant, rocky planet where wandering (seemingly) indifferent gas-blimp creatures called “hylighters” tack and jibe though those stranger skies with the aid of the rocks and outcroppings befitting such a harsh surface. Ulitmately the diety of the society (an AI ship) watches the humans grow to understand that life as an ecosystem is stranger, more beautiful, and more important than their own short-sighted avaricious and political plans.
In one moment of rumination the ship remarks that the great void of space has the capacity to surprise even him. And perhaps that is the beauty of being the intelligent, wandering cloud fed by stars, that it could wander slowly across the cosmos beholding the folly and beauty that is the panoply of life and lives across the heavens.
Only Portishead will do for a conclusion…