John Ayliff’s BELT THREE published this week, and today he’s guest blogging for us on mechanical menaces in space…
I love it when alien robots from space destroy the human race. When it happens in books, I mean! My own novel, Belt Three, is set in the ruins of the solar system after alien machines have destroyed the planets, so I thought I would share my personal top ten mechanised menaces from outer space. In chronological order:
1. G. Wells’ Martians (1897)
These are the original alien invaders, from The War of the Worlds, faceless inside their machines. What I love about Wells’ Martians is that they’re much more powerful than humanity, but not absolutely unstoppable. A book in which nothing humans did could even scratch a Martian fighting machine would have felt quite different from one in which we can slow them down a little, but not nearly enough.
2. Fred Saberhagen’s Berserkers (1963)
Fred Saberhagen’s Berserkers (from numerous novels and short stories) are space-faring machines bent on the destruction of all organic life. They proved enduring enough to give their name to the overall SF trope of life-destroying machines, and several of the entries below can be considered their literary descendants (as can my own novel’s Worldbreakers). The name is also used for a possible resolution of the Fermi Paradox, which asks why, in a universe this large, haven’t we detected other civilisations yet? What if the reason is that Berserker machines are killing them off?
3. Doctor Who‘s Daleks (1963)
Following in the tradition of Wells’ Martians, the Daleks are squishy creatures inside weaponised life-support machines. They are driven by a xenophobic urge to destroy other forms of life, although only after shouting ‘Exterminate!’ and giving said life forms a chance to run away. Like the Martians, they are frightening because they are faceless, and manage to remain frightening even while simultaneously being kind of ridiculous.
4. Star Trek‘s Doomsday Machine (1967)
Enough of the small fry that merely conquer planets: to really be taken seriously you must blast them to bits! This is what the eponymous machine of the Star Trek episode ‘The Doomsday Machine’ does–and this is all it does. It is simple, predictable, and unintelligent: not an invading enemy, but a runaway weapon.
5. Battlestar Galactica‘s Cylons (1978/2003)
The Cylons lose some points for not destroying the human race in their first attempt, but they gain points back for being single-minded enough to pursue the survivors across space. The interesting thing about Battlestar Galactica is seeing how the remnant of the human race copes in the aftermath of the destruction, living on a fleet of space ships which were mostly not designed for long-term occupation and which must keep moving to stay ahead of Cylon pursuit.
6. Greg Bear’s Forge of God aliens (1987)
The ‘Killers’ from Greg Bear’s novel The Forge of God are probably the most enigmatic of the aliens in my list. They never really appear on-screen, and their communications with the human race are deceptive. They’re so much more powerful than humanity that we can’t meaningfully fight them: this is a disaster story rather than a war story. The novel focuses on the technical details of the aliens’ technique for destroying the Earth, culminating in pellets of neutronium and antineutronium being fired into the planet’s core.
7. Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee (1987)
The eponymous aliens of Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee sequence arguably don’t belong on this list, since they’re portrayed not as machines but something so advanced that the distinction between organic and machine has lost meaning, but I love them too much to leave them out. Their technology is about as advanced as possible while still reading as technology rather than magic. Despite this, the human race manages to hold its ground against them for millennia, with human civilisation transforming into a war machine.
8. Star Trek‘s Borg (1989)
I can’t mention Star Trek‘s Doomsday Machine without also mentioning the show’s more enduring mechanised villain: the Borg. The Borg turn the normal relationship of organic life and technology inside-out: they’re not people who use machinery, but a giant machine that uses people as its components. In a show in which most aliens have basically human faces and basically human minds, the Borg are terrifying because behind their faces is something entirely inhuman . . . and they are what you will become if you let them win.
9. Alastair Reynolds’ Inhibitors (2000)
Like Saberhagen’s Berserkers, the Inhibitors (from Revelation Space and its sequels) have a specific mission of destroying spacefaring civilisations. They have the interesting property of being normally non-sapient but able to become sapient when the task requires it, as one of a wide range of tools. They are also different from classic Berserkers in that they don’t want to annihilate life, but selectively inhibit it for the sake of a long-term plan.
10. Mass Effect‘s Reapers (2007)
The Reapers, from the Mass Effect videogames, lurk outside the galaxy and return every fifty thousand years to destroy all spacefaring civilisations. To aid with this regular cull, they’ve planted artefacts in the galaxy to ensure that civilisations develop along the same lines, time and time again – a rare example of Berserker-type machines making the leap from hunting to agriculture!
It’s worth noting that you never fight a full-sized Reaper in normal gameplay. However potent you are against their agents and avatars, when a Reaper itself appears on-screen you’re powerless to affect whatever it’s going to do.
As you can see, there’s a long tradition of alien robots destroying the human race, and the cunning machines are always finding new ways to do it. And as a resolution to the Fermi Paradox they are quite compelling: could it really be that we haven’t detected aliens because something has been killing them off? So I invite you to look up at the stars tonight, and imagine the implacable alien machines that could even now be bearing down on defenceless planet Earth…