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Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Theme.

Term coined outside the sf genre, standing for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence – carried out by passive observation, typically using radio telescopes in hope of detecting Alien transmissions or Communications. A notable real-world effort was the 1960 observational Project Ozma founded by Frank Drake (1930-2022), sited at the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory (Green Bank, West Virginia) and discussed by Martin Gardner in The Ambidextrous Universe (1964; rev vt The New Ambidextrous Universe 1990). The project name references L Frank Baum's Princess Ozma of Oz. Drake's formulation of a protocol to guess at the number of civilizations that might exist in the galaxy, prepared for a meeting at Green Bank observatory in 1961, became known as the Drake Equation; though written as a formula, it was almost certainly intended relatively loosely, and is best understood in words. The number of civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy with which communication might be possible equals the product when the following seven factors are multiplied together:

  • the rate at which stars are born
  • the fraction of stars that host planets
  • the average number of habitable planets per planetary system
  • the fraction of habitable planets that actually develop life
  • the fraction of such life that evolves intelligence
  • the fraction of intelligent life that develops communicative technologies and broadcasts detectable signals into space
  • the average length of time over which such civilizations release detectable signals

Other such experiments range from Ozma II (1973-1976) to the distributed SETI@home project (1999-2020) – which used idle time on hundreds of thousands of Internet-connected computers to analyse radio-telescope observations – and beyond. That no indisputable positive results have ever been obtained is an aspect of the Fermi Paradox.

Pre-twentieth-century treatments of attempted Communication with residents of other planets tend to the frivolous, a well-known example being "Qu'est-ce qu'ils peuvent bien nous dire?" ["What do you want to say to us?"] (20 October 1894 Le Figaro) by Tristan Bernard (1866-1947), where humans detect signals from Mars, but are told they have been eavesdropping on a conversation between Mars and Saturn. Half a century later, science-fictional treatments of SETI, often successful and forming a preliminary to First Contact (which see) became very numerous. The prospect was discussed in Lorne MacLaughlan's article "Noise from Outside" (April 1947 Astounding). Pre-Ozma fictional examples include Gerald Kersh's "The Copper Dahlia" (October 1949 Argosy UK), Bernard Glemser's Hero's Walk (1954) as by Robert Crane, and Frank Crisp's The Ape of London (1959).

More or less enigmatic messages from space feature in: J G Ballard's "The Voices of Time" (October 1960 New Worlds), where characteristically the signals are a count-down recording the resistless progress of Entropy; John Brunner's Listen! The Stars! (1963 dos; rev vt The Stardroppers 1972), where, once comprehended, they impart the dangerous secret of Teleportation; Stanisław Lem's Glos pana (1968; trans as His Master's Voice 1983), where (again characteristically) the content remains maddeningly ambiguous even when "understood" and implemented; Colin Kapp's The Patterns of Chaos (February-May/June 1972 If; 1972), featuring inadvertent eavesdropping on unintelligible alien communications; and Piers Anthony's Macroscope (1969; cut 1972), whose transmission is a Basilisk that destroys any mind able to comprehend it.

Further sf works centred on or interestingly featuring SETI include: A for Andromeda (1961) – setting the pattern for Trojan Horse transmissions that persuade the recipients to do or construct something undesirable; Chloe Zerwick's and Harrison Brown's The Cassiopeia Affair (1968), whose world-transforming message may be bogus; Robert Silverberg's Tower of Glass (1970); Richard and Nancy Carrigan's The Siren Stars (March-May 1970 Analog; 1971); James Gunn's The Listeners (fixup 1972) – perhaps sf's most thoughtful study of SETI as a scientific and human endeavour; Ben Bova's Voyagers (1981); Jeffrey A Carver's The Infinity Link (1984); Michael P Kube-McDowell's Emprise (1985); Carl Sagan's Contact (1985); Jack McDevitt's The Hercules Text (1986); Fred Fichman's SETI (1990); Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow (1996); Robert J Sawyer's Factoring Humanity (1998); and Ray Hammond's The Cloud (2006).

More active forms of SETI – excluding Starship exploration, covered in various other entries – range from the involuntary spread of human broadcasting beyond the immediate vicinity of Earth (visiting Aliens who announce "We learned Earth's languages from your radio/television transmissions" have become a well-established Cliché), via the inclusion of recordings and message plaques on space probes (Carl Sagan was involved with two such efforts), to deliberate speculative broadcasting as in Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud (1957) and Liu Cixin's Santi (May-December 2006 Kehuan Shijie; 2007; trans Ken Liu as The Three-Body Problem 2014); in the latter, an old Chinese SETI project known as Red Coast makes a highly dangerous contact with the Alpha Centauri system. A particularly extravagant example of calling attention to ourselves is the detonation of Stars as interstellar message beacons in Jack McDevitt's Infinity Beach (2000; vt Slow Lightning 2000).

A more melancholy sense that SETI is a doomed endeavour pervades such works as Lee Killough's "The Lying Ear" (in Alien Encounters, anth 1982, ed Jan Howard Finder) and Ian R MacLeod's "New Light on the Drake Equation" (May 2001 Sci Fiction). Sardonic treatments of the theme include David Langford's and John Grant's Earthdoom! (1987), whose alien transmission helpfully concludes "We come to annihilate you painfully and rape your planet"; and Charles Stross's "Maxo Signals" (25 August 2005 Nature), whose titular signals translate as "419" spam messages. Despite such occasional cynicism, the hope that intelligible signals may one day be detected remains persistent both within and outside sf. The Suicide of the protagonist's Scientist father in the film Ad Astra (2019), directed by James Gray, follows upon his failure to find an intelligible signal after decades of work. As a real-world project, SETI has been criticized on such grounds as impracticality, for example by A K Dewdney in Yes, We Have No Neutrons: An Eye-Opening Tour through the Twists and Turns of Bad Science (1997). [DRL/BS]

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