Neal Stephenson’s “Seveneves”: Thoughts on an Impact Event

The International Space Station gets a snapshot of the Moon.
I’ve been deeply affected by Neal Stephenson’s latest novel Seveneves. While I am often a slow and somewhat lazy reader, I found myself taking every opportunity I could to dive back into it. While my favorite novel, Anathem, also by Stephenson, presented a world I wanted to explore more deeply and spend more time in, I found that the story of Seveneves was one that I wanted to tell everyone I spoke to. I didn’t of course because everyone would hate that.

But this is the kind of book we’re talking about, where each event, each decision, and each change of fortune filled with suspense and excitement for what came next, and an enthusiasm to share with others what novel and evocative things I was experiencing.

I’m left with so many thoughts and questions. I don’t necessarily consider the fact that these questions haven’t been sufficiently answered to be a problem or a mistake by Stephenson, but immediately after finishing the novel, they are swirling in my mind, demanding my attention.

Here are some of those thoughts and questions, in no particular order, a few of which are simple questions about “what happened” to certain characters or with certain events that simply aren’t told, and others are more nuanced regarding motivations, character, and connections.

An obvious warning: If you haven’t read the book, I’m going to spoil pretty much everything here. It’s like a nuclear-spoiler bomb. If you have no intention of reading the book, or don’t care about spoilers, there’s probably no reason for you to read this post anyway.

Quickly: In Seveneves, the moon blows up because of unknown “Agent,” which humanity learns will kill everyone on Earth within a couple of years due to pieces of the Moon raining down like fire, wiping out everything. So the people of Earth send a select few into orbit with the International Space Station to begin the “Cloud Ark” to live in space until such time, thousands of years later, that they might return to Earth. Lots of awful things happen which lead to there being eight people left, all women, seven of them able to have kids. Through genetic manipulation they propagate the species on an asteroid where they parked the space station. 5000 years later, we see what humanity has become, an orbital species of seven races, only now beginning to dip its toe into repairing and repopulating Earth. Got it?

* * *

The book handled well the curious and difficult balance between the enormous impact of the end of life on Earth and the relatively smaller crises and concerns of the Cloud Ark population. This is a book about those people, not those lost in the Hard Rain, but I would have loved (in another volume or book?) a deeper exploration of how humanity coped with knowledge of its inevitable demise in one fell swoop. My brain would often hang on questions about how governments, economies, and institutions could continue plodding of their own inertia over the two years of preparation. The book cites isolated incidents of violence and riots on Earth (not including the zero-hour standoff in Venezuela), but my mind reels at the idea of a planet full of people all processing their absolutely-assured deaths. Maybe no book could handle it.

* * *

One real triumph for Stephenson in this book is how he brings to bear his penchant for detailed description. In The Baroque Cycle, I was often entirely lost and confused by his meticulous and lengthy descriptions of each setting’s most micro and macroscopic details, or long events with several characters all doing a lot of things I couldn’t keep track of. Anathem occasionally left me a big agog in a similar fashion in terms of architectural descriptions. (Not so much with Reamde which was a non-sci-fi suspense thriller.) But the intricate descriptions of Seveneves almost always served a definitive purpose. Even if at times I felt the lengthy descriptions of minute orbital mechanics were less than thrilling, they almost always paid off, anchoring me in the physics and the challenges they posed, or allowing me to better grasp the enormity and complexity of things like the Great Chain.

* * *

Why did the descendants of the Seven Eves avoid interbreeding to such an extreme degree? While it is explained that Moira finds ways to mitigate the genetic problems of inbreeding, one would presume that as soon as there were sufficient numbers of humans that they would immediately start mixing with the other “families,” increasing the (incredibly small) population’s genetic diversity by traditional means. I understand that the Council of the Seven Eves left us with seven women who each had very strong and differing opinions about the kinds and character of humans they wished to spawn, but I don’t understand how such an ideological point of view (and we are led to understand that “Blue” is averse to ideologies) could have been followed so rigidly, except perhaps by the presumably indoctrinated descendants of Aiïda.

By the time people are sufficiently numerous and have divided themselves into orbital territories in the Grain Chain, it makes more sense that folks might tend to reproduce with others who are like them and in relative proximity – traveling from one part of the ring to another was doable, but not simple. It’s simply difficult for me to understand why such a strict adherence to seven distinct racial lines would or could have been maintained in the first few generations on Cleft.

* * *

What happened to the Mars expedition? I suppose we are meant to assume that whether they got to Mars or not, given the upheaval of the Break and the inability of the Mars mission to subsist for more than a year or so, that they were simply lost. Certainly, the people of A.5000 would have been able to find out whether a human mission to Mars had ever made it there, and it’s never mentioned.

* * *

What is the story of the Pingers’ Epic? How did they manage to change themselves so (relatively) quickly? How many of them are there? What kind of society do they have? Could they have communicated to the people of the Great Chain if they’d wanted to? It is all clearly a book unto itself, not that we should presume that such a thing will ever come into being. I suspect it’s one of those things that Stephenson is just going to leave there for us to wonder about. But given all we hear about how the Cloud Ark was more of a pacifying story for a doomed population than a genuine long-term plan, it does seem like the underwater gambit could perhaps have been not a Plan B, but a Plan A; the actual best hope for humanity that was better-designed and better-prepared.

* * *

President Julia Bliss Fletcher. It’s not entirely clear whether she was always cynical and conniving, but as I always say, one doesn’t become President of the United States without being at least partially sociopathic and messianic. Compound the unspeakable stress and pressure of leading a nation of humans that are all about to die, along with the loss of her own family, and the need to drop nuclear bombs on fellow humans, it’s easy to see how muted or dormant tendencies may have blossomed when the shit really hit the fan (or the Moon really hit the Earth).

That said, as the only successful unauthorized stowaway to Cloud Ark (I don’t count Sean Probst who had his own operation going and immediately sacrificed himself for the larger cause), I’m flummoxed by the leeway granted Julia by Izzy’s command structure. Certainly, bigger problems existed, and surely no one wanted to cause more grief and confusion by “jailing” the just-until-recently President of the Newly Pulverized United States. Still, it seems to me that her obviously violent and desperate route to the Cloud Ark should have led to far more scrutiny of her activities, and that she would face some form of justice for her (and call it what it is) crime. Perhaps none of that would have mattered, and she’d have caused the chaos that she did one way or the other. In a way, Julia was like a second Agent.

An Agent that allowed someone like Aiïda to really fuck things up. Of course with the population of all humanity reduced to eight, I can understand why she was allowed to remain free and alive, but I can’t help but think that considering all the horrible things she’d done, and her obvious hyper-aggressiveness and hostility toward the others, that she might have been considered too great a risk and too great a threat, and done away with before the regeneration of the species got going. Again, I get the need for genetic diversity, but it’s not as thought they really took advantage of that diversity, and who knew when she might snap and just kill everyone?

I also wonder why Moria couldn’t have found a way to carry on Luisa’s genetic lineage along with the others, perhaps with one of the other women acting as a surrogate. Seems a waste of perfectly good DNA.

* * *

And what the hell was the Agent, anyway? This is another one of those things that I’m comfortable not being told – it’s not a story about why the Moon blows up, but what happens next. But of course you can’t help but wonder if the answer will reveal itself throughout the entire book. It never does. Some poking around the web tells me that several folks theorize that the Agent is related to events in my favorite novel, Stephenson’s Anathem, which certainly could be the case. One of the mind-bending things about Anathem is how its multiverse setting could have tendrils into myriad stories. The way Julians are described in Seveneves remind me of the first “aliens” the people of Arbre encounter in Anathem, and if any race was going to make sure they got good seats on the multidimensional spaceship, it was going to be the Julians.

* * *

I was pleasantly surprised by how Stephenson made some of the characters so obviously analogous to known figures in real life. Doc Dubois was, to me anyway, clearly meant to mirror Neal deGrasse Tyson, and Camila was of course a take on Malala Yousafzai (though of weaker character than the real Malala, too easily overcome by charismatic personalities). The eminent scientist near the beginning to addresses the world at the Crater Lake event was probably meant to resemble a less-debilitated Stephen Hawking (and perhaps Dr. Hu Noah was as well?). And if Sean Probst wasn’t Elon Musk I’ll eat my hat.

I also think Stephenson often puts himself into his books (think Dodge in Reamde or Erasmus in Anathem), and it seemed to me that this time he was personified by Rufus. But that’s just a guess. I should say I don’t think Julia is meant to be an analog to Hillary Clinton at all: no one could accuse Clinton of being able to form a cult based on her charisma.

* * *

When Moirans “go epi” and experience changes in their phenotypes, to what extent are they really entirely different people? Kath Two is said to have “died” when the transformation to Kathree begins, but is that accurate or a kind of shorthand? They don’t eject all their memories, it seems, so perhaps it’s not dissimilar to the Trill on Star Trek, continuing on with new identities, anchored somehow with the memories of “another person” that you used to be.

* * *

Oh, there’s so much more. Will the Spacers, Diggers, and Pingers eventually interbreed? Who are the Owners? What is the full story of Sonar Taxlaw (perhaps the best-named character of all time), and what will her life be like now? Are there efforts underway to terraform Mars or other asteroids and moons? When do we get a Seveneves Sid Meier-style turn-based strategy game, and will it run on my current Mac?

And here’s a thing that strikes me about Stephenson more broadly. In all of the books of his I’ve read, as “out there” as his science fiction might get, one thing holds true: The aliens are always us. Be they from parallel universe, hiding in mines, adapting to the deep sea, existing in a virtual world, or simply an ocean apart in preindustrial times, we never need non-human extraterrestrials to “alienate” us. Humanity serves exceedingly well as its own threat, its own contrast, and its own focus of awe.

When emerging from the world of this book, I have a powerful sense of Earth’s fragility. Not just in the sense of what might slam into the planet, but of the permanence (or lack thereof) of the everyday objects around me. I have a sense of gravity as something not to be taken for granted, an ecosystem that is so battered and yet so resilient, and an entire universe that is such a relatively short distance “up.” The stark plausibility of this end-of-the-world scenario (like that of Station Eleven which I’ve also recently read) fills me with a kind of dread for how temporary our situation here on Earth inevitably is, and even if it doesn’t happen for millennia, how it really all could be taken away in one macro or microcosmic event. It made me want to hug my kids, not just for our shared precarious position in existence, but also for the incredible potential they possess to make things like orbital habitats for billions of people possible.

I didn’t want this book to end. I want much more of this story. To help alleviate that pain, I think I’ll dive back into Anathem.

Animals Declared “Sentient” in New Zealand: Hard Questions Sure to Follow

Now who's sentient?Photo credit: quinn.anya / Foter / CC BY-SA

New Zealand has passed an amendment to its animal welfare law stating that animals are “sentient beings,” and the amendment seems to strengthen some measures that define how or in what situation an animal can be used for various purposes, such as medical experimentation. That’s good!

Though it’s not clear from the bill itself (as far as I can tell) what it means by “sentient.” No language in the wording of the bill spells it out, nor does it specify which animals possess sentience. The little bit of bloggy news coverage I’ve seen (all of which might as well be copy-and-paste jobs of each other) suggests the simple definition of the ability to percieve things, having feelings, and the ability to suffer. That doesn’t help me, really. I don’t mean to presume that this hasn’t been flushed out by the relevant parties, I have no idea, but I sure as hell don’t think I could say for sure to what degree, say, a mouse feels or suffers versus, say, a chimpanzee.

Because there has to be degrees of sentience, right? If sentience were a binary thing, then we’d have a much bigger problem on our hands, with trillions of members of millions of species all now declared to have “feelings” and “perception” just “like humans.” So I have to assume that New Zealand is not now offering asylum to fruit flies or making illegal the squashing of ants. We can be mostly certain they don’t have “feelings” (like, I dunno, jealousy?), but don’t ask me whether or not they “suffer.”

I don’t mean to make light of this, truly. I do think this is a good thing, but it strikes me as vague and ill-defined. The group Animal Equality (equality? really? you sure?) calls it a “monumental step forward for animals,” and I think that’s overselling it. We’re not talking about personhood, but rather what sounds more like a general sense-of-the-government quasi-resolution kind of thing, saying that we all need to be way more mindful about how we treat the other animal species we share the planet with, particularly those we breed and harvest and manipulate for our benefit.

That stipulated, its very nebulousness may be its saving grace. By virtue of being vague and undefined, it may force some very difficult and very necessary conversations, questions, and debates. For if there’s a questionable practice that seems to inhabit a grey area, or something being done to an animal whose “sentience” is not terribly clear, this new law may spur some very crucial arguments. Regardless of how those arguments are resolved, the conversation about our fellow creatures is suddenly elevated, given more gravity. All parties, then, get the benefit of having thought harder and longer about something we’ve had the privilege to take for granted since we first started domesticating.

One small step further, if you’ll allow, because with this discussion I can’t help but be reminded of the hearing over Data’s personhood on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Picard tells the Judge Advocate General:

[T]he decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of a people we are, what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom, expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery?

The bill specifies animals, so this line of thought is probably moot for the news at hand, but think of artificial intelligence. At what point to we consider a machine or some software to be capable of “perceiving.” Don’t they already? When do we consider them to be “feeling”? When they tell us? When do we consider them to be “suffering”? Ever? As long as that’s never written into their programming?

One day, and maybe one day very soon, we’re going to need some law for that. And unlike animals, the artificial intelligence might ask us for it.

The Moore’s Law Express Hits the Great Ceiling: A Possible Hitch to Alien Contact

Amid the discussions of the potential for contact with extra-terrestrial civilizations, there’s one big buzzkill I don’t recall ever hearing posited as a possibility for why we haven’t made contact yet: Because it can’t be done.

We are used to the idea that technology advances exponentially, that we are all riding the Moore’s Law Express to the Singularity, and that as long as we don’t destroy ourselves via world war, climate catastrophe, or extermination by the artificial intelligences we’ve created, we will be capable of wonders that we can’t even image today, just as our nomadic ancestors of 100,000 years ago could never have imagined a steam engine, library, vaccine, or iPhone.

It follows that any other species on another world that has developed intelligence will get to hitch a ride on the same train. The details will differ, what they figure out first, what they emphasize, and what they’re physically capable of manufacturing will be different, but given a clear path, they too will achieve unimaginably advanced technologies that will, among many other things, allow them to voyage the galaxy and make themselves known to its other inhabitants.

There are lots of reasons to think this won’t happen, or if it does, that we won’t ever be aware of it. In an excellent piece by Tim Urban that I found via John Gruber, several reasons for our ongoing celestial loneliness are offered, all pretty sensible (except the one about the government cover-up, which he also thinks is silly). Some examples:

Super-intelligent life could very well have already visited Earth, but before we were here. In the scheme of things, sentient humans have only been around for about 50,000, a little blip of time—if contact happened before then, it might have made some ducks flip out and run into the water and that’s it.

Getting the sole experience of First Contact is so like the ducks, you know?

Another follows the metaphor of ants trying to comprehend a nearby highway (one presumes they cannot):

[I]t’s not that we can’t pick up the signals from Planet X using our technology, it’s that we can’t even comprehend what the beings from Planet X are or what they’re trying to do. It’s so beyond us that even if they really wanted to enlighten us, it would be like trying to teach ants about the internet.

That’s very much in line with the Moore’s Law Express, where it just so happens that the Planet X-ians are so much further down the track that we can’t even see them.

Urban also puts forth the idea of a “Great Filter,” a kind of universal civilizational buffer zone that extraordinarily few species ever cross. Maybe it’s because of planetary or astrological cataclysms killing off entire biospheres before they can evolve, or maybe it’s a near-inevitability of intelligent species destroying themselves, but either way, there may be some Rubicon that finishes off nearly all civilizations before they can become space-faring, let alone Type II or III.

(A side note about Type III civs, the kind that harvest an entire galaxy’s energy: Urban talks about how there might be a relatively small number of them that can inhabit any one galaxy, and I’m thinking, if they’re defined by their ability to eat up the energy of a whole galaxy, I have to imagine it’s a “there ain’t room for both of us in this one-horse town” kind of thing, where it’s not 1000 Types IIIs in a given galaxy, but one, ever. But I digress.)

And he posits many other possibilities, and you should read the whole piece, because it’s really good.

But my thinking, which again is a real bummer, is that we need to consider the possibility that we haven’t made contact with alien civilizations because it simply can’t be done. The Moore’s Law Express actually does have a final stop at which technological advancement more or less halts because of the limits of physics, or even just the limits of any intelligence (natural or artificial) tomanipulate physics.

It might just be that traversing light years in a span of time that allows for survival, proliferation, or communication is simply impossible. It may be that there is no way to send communications signals of any known kind across the vast stretches of nothing that would allow another intelligence to receive them, let alone understand them.

Maybe there can and will be no warp speed, no folding of space, no teleportation, no subspace communications, no navigation of wormholes, no uploading of consciousness to interstellar servers, no Dyson Spheres, and no Singularity. As opposed to a Great Filter that finishes off civilizations on the way up, there may instead by a Great Ceiling, a lid on reality that says we (meaning we on Earth and any other species in the Universe) can go this far, but no further.

Now look, I know that thinking this way sucks, and it’s no way to get kids excited about science and exploration, or to rally the public to support more investment in scientific research. It is in our interest as a species and a civilization to cheerfully ride the Moore’s Law Express as though it has no terminus. But if the conversation about why we haven’t made contact with aliens is going to be an honest one, I think it has to at least acknowledge this sad possibility: Not that “they” might not be out there, but that they are, and we simply can never know for sure, and nor can they.

Okay, now pretend you never read this.

By the way, one potential way to travel the stars is by way of a Bussard Collector, and I just happen to have written a song about one. See? I have hope.

You’re As Distracted As You Want To Be: Smartphones and “Connectedness”

Image by Shutterstock.
There’s a lot of hand-wringing that goes on over the idea that smartphones are making turning us all into heartless, distracted bastards. There’s no activity more popular on the Internet than finding things to feel morally superior about, so you get silly, haughty videos like this one or people shaking their heads in disgust at parents looking at their phone while at the playground with their kids. How awful. I’d never do that. Pfft.

We deal with it in our house, too. My wife hates it when she sees me staring at my phone when she and the kids are around, even for a moment, but then I turn around and get annoyed when there’s kid-crises going on and I catch her flicking through Facebook on her phone. We both need to just cut each other some slack.

Thing is, there’s just something about seeing a person gawking at a small rectangle in their hands that makes them look like a douche who’s checked out. I get it.

But obviously the range of things that one might be doing or looking at on a mobile device is enormous. Yes, that douchey-looking person might be absentmindedly browsing Upworthy posts, or they might be reading War and Peace on their Kindle app. They might be playing Angry Birds, or they might be making some art. There’s a lot that could be going on.

And, importantly, smartphone use does not necessarily mean someone has removed themselves from the real-world present.

There’s always some new research that exacerbates the worries people have about this kind of thing. By way of Melissa Dahl at New York Magazine, I came across this study on how the presense of a smartphone when two people are talking tends to reduce feelings of “interconnectedness” and “empathetic concern.”

This is not at all surprising. Of course it does. That is, it does if one or both of the participants allow it to. And actually, the effect is not a great as you might think by just reading the headline:

The difference in the quality of conversations in the presence versus absence of mobile devices was modest – average scores for connectedness and empathic concern were 5.05 and 5.51 (on a 7-point scale), respectively, with devices, versus 5.36 and 5.85 without devices. Also, what this study gains in realism by being a real-world observational study, it loses in experimental control. The causal role played by smart devices can’t be proven – perhaps less engaging conversational partners were more likely to reach for a smart phone or tablet.

That’s a pretty small effect. Less than even I, a smartphone partisan, would have suspected.

More to the point, the question raised in these reports is whether the smartphone is making us less empathetic or more distracted. But to me, the real question is whether the smartphone helps to reveal just how empathetic or distractable we are. Because as with anything regarding this kind of social technology, intention is key.

If you sit down to chat with a friend who has something important to talk about, and you decide to fiddle with your phone, it probably indicates more about your willingness to pay attention to your friend than it does about the Evil Plague of Zombie-Making Smartphones. You can decide to place your focus on your conversation partner solely, you can allow yourself to be utterly distracted by tweets and Facebook notifications, or you can be somewhere in between. Yes, it’s actually possible to be a good friend who listens, and give in once or twice to a glance at your screen. It’s really okay.

I wonder a lot, too, about whether there’s as much anxiety about people being too interested in their tablets or their laptops as opposed to their phones. Someone looking at their tablet, I suspect, looks more like they might be reading a book or perhaps even working, and so I think it appears less “distracted” to most folks. But that’s a guess. On the other hand, if someone is using a laptop, I would bet that it’s just assumed that this is person is working, or something like it, and so there’s no expectation that they be present. They’re acceptably busy.

Of course our phones are always with us, always on hand (at least mine is). Their omnipresense makes them more of a percieved threat to “connectedness,” whatever that means. Well, I may not be sufficiently “connecting” to someone in meatspace when I have my phone (and I do), but maybe that’s because I have a more sincere and meaningful connection to someone digitally, someone not anywhere near me, through my little rectangle.

What a douche!

Dreaming of Ice-Roofed Worlds

I have been moved. Lee Billings at Aeon writes about the decent chance for life on Europa, relative to Mars at least, and makes a strong case for making it a much bigger exploratory focus than our dead, red neighbor. But even more fascinating is his speculation about how the discovery of life on Europa could indicate the possibility for life on any other enclosed and water-rich world:

[I]f water and life could exist [on Europa], why not in the hearts of large comets, before the Sun’s planets and moons even finished forming? Our solar system might have brimmed with hidden life for nearly as long as the Sun has shined, and ice-roofed worlds might be the default abodes for biology in the Universe. Life within a roofed world could proceed swimmingly against any number of otherwise-fatal cosmic calamities, whether being slingshotted into the interstellar dark as a rogue planet, or being bathed in hard radiation from a nearby supernova or burping black hole. We could then guess why, like our solar system, the Universe at large looks so desolate to us. In this scenario, most life, even if it had eyes to see, would never glimpse sky, stars, light, or fire, and would have scant hope of ever reaching what lies above and beyond its icy shell.

Carl Sagan famously said that we sentient Earth-beings are “a way for the Universe to know itself,” and it’s a stirring thought. But’s at the same time stirring and even troubling to imagine the possibility of entire ecospheres, perhaps with intelligent species, encased on ice worlds and more or less totally unaware of what lies beyond their frozen ceilings. These beings are of course entirely hypothetical, completely made up, but as I think about even the possibility of eternally-roofed-in beings, I feel a sense of claustrophobia for their lot, and sadness that they might never get the glimpse of the wider Universe to which we land-dwellers have been privileged.

It’s silly, I know. And of course, if we’re just making things up, we can imagine that they evolve to the point of transcending their environment, and that somewhere in the Cosmos, on some comet, moon, or frozen planet, a brilliant, brave, and technologically-augmented creature is breaking through the ice, and for the first time in its species’ history, drinking in the stars.

Assuming they have eyes, of course. Which they probably don’t because there’d probably be no light source in their normal habitat to necessitate an eye’s evolution.

But you never know.

As it Turns Out, Things Are Pretty Far Apart

A beautiful piece of web art by Josh Worth, a kind of science lesson/meditation/poem in a browser window. 

Start with the idea that the Moon is represented by a single pixel, start scrolling to the right, and then gape at the vast, mind-defying nothingness that is our tiny corner of the galaxy.

And don’t give up. Keep scrolling, it’s so worth it.

Life. Don’t Talk to Me about Life.

Because it’s not really a thing. Here’s Ferris Jabr at Scientific American:

No one has ever managed to compile a set of physical properties that unites all living things and excludes everything we label inanimate. There are always exceptions. Most people do not consider crystals to be alive, for example, yet they are highly organized and they grow. Fire, too, consumes energy and gets bigger. In contrast, bacteria, tardigrades and even some crustaceans can enter long periods of dormancy during which they are not growing, metabolizing or changing at all, yet are not technically dead. How do we categorize a single leaf that has fallen from a tree? Most people would agree that, when attached to a tree, a leaf is alive: its many cells work tirelessly to turn sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into food, among other duties. When a leaf detaches from a tree, its cells do not instantly cease their activities. Does it die on the way to the ground; or when it hits the ground; or when all its individual cells finally expire? If you pluck a leaf from a plant and keep its cells nourished and happy inside a lab, is that life?

This can be a hard thing to accept, because I think that even we evil, heartless, scientism-promoting skepto-atheists for the most part still conceptualize life as a kind of force, a “thing” in the sense that it somehow powers these clumps of organic material and bags of meat that would otherwise lie inert. And when one conceptualizes it that way, it does become rather binary – either it’s there or it’s not. You can’t be “sort of alive” or as Miracle Max might have it, “mostly dead,” in this frame of thinking.

Let’s be honest. Thinking about life-as-a-thing, a manifest élan vital, rather than as a loose umbrella term for myriad biological functions, is to conceive of it kind of, well, spiritually. It’s essentially the soul, which is of course entirely fictional.

To let that go, to stop thinking of life as “stuff,” we (necessarily) complicate the search for it elsewhere. It’ll be one thing if one day we’re visited by extraterrestrials who have bodies and limbs and some means of reproduction. Yeah, those will be pretty clearly alive. But what if some future probe comes upon, say, a combination of minerals that seems to be behaving in a way that recalls cellular duplication? Or we build machines that reproduce themselves but with minor variations to improve (or detract from) their usefulness with each generation? And, you know, what about fire?

Seems to me that we’re best to take each example on its own terms, and accept that, in granular terms, the question as to whether something is “alive” is perhaps too subjective to be useful. That it reveals a bias for our own means of existence and animation, and betrays a tendency for even the most secular among us to fall back on concepts that make sense only in fairy tales and books of myth.