The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   73

The Science of the X-Files

by Jeanne Cavelos

NY: Berkley Boulevard Books, 1998
I have fallen off the no-TV wagon this last year, like many people in a similar case reassuring myself that it's only a small and controlled exception --- namely, the X-Files once a week. I like to think that this regular dose of vicarious paranoia actually has a beneficial effect. (For one thing, coming on Sunday nights, it helps put me in the proper frame of mind for the work week.) There are other attractions: a nice visual style (which'd be spoiled, I admit, if Mulder and Scully ever learned to look around for light-switches), a tale whose unfolding has me hooked (I hook easily), and, hanging off of it like one of Scheharazade's one-nighters, some fine comic moments.

Gillian Anderson plays a role in all this too --- no, not in the way you think --- well, OK, in that way too --- but really I do mean her role, her character. Scully is supposed to be a scientist; one of the continuing themes of the show is the tension between Mulder's exuberant will to belief and her scientific restraint. Now, I have no idea where the show's writers get their ideas about how science is done and (what is not quite the same thing) how scientists think, but wherever it is, those ideas are thoroughly ridiculous. As my brother put it, when Scully says something like ``There's nothing in my science to handle this,'' she might as well say ``kung fu,'' like someone in a really bad martial arts movie. Of course, the Republic of Science is a big place, with lots of strange characters and even plenty of right drongos (one of its beauties that even these are, mostly, productive citizens), and it may have inhabitants who are similarly given to magical thinking. (It wouldn't surprise me at all if they were MDs.) But along with these really ridiculous ideas about science goes some really ridiculous science. The number of scientifically literate SF movies can be counted on the fingers of one hand; of TV shows, on the fingers of one fist. The sheer gibberish of the Star Trek shows has already become proverbial, and lately has even spawned a rash of books on the physics, biology, etc. of the series, ranging from the rather good to the merely pedestrian. Not one of them, so far as I know, has been a commercial failure, so clearly this is a fine niche to exploit, though it's in danger of saturation. (I eagerly await The Political Economy of the Federation, which cannot be long in coming.) Cavelos --- a recovering physicist --- has now given us an equivalent work for the X-Files, and threatens to follow up with one on Star Wars. Since The Science of the X-Files will probably bore and puzzle anyone who doesn't follow the show, I'll take familiarity with it for granted.

Cavelos, like the authors of other such books, is engaged in something not very far removed from (one kind of) scriptural exegesis. The procedure is to pick out some stumbling block in the Authorized Text --- human sex pheromones, Noah's flood, cockroaches swarming all over a town, the Trinity, or, to be really outlandish, AIs controlling orbital death-ray lasers --- and try to show that, in light of our current science, it's not really as absurd as it first looks. Success demands two qualities: A ready and abundant supply of facts, the more obscure and strange the better, and logical imagination, the ability to dream up hypotheses and interpretations which make things fit together. One advantage this sort of exegesis has over that of Scripture is that, since we don't really care about the truth of the Text, we're perfectly free to end up concluding that parts of it are bollocks, and still have our fun of learning curious things and contorting our minds.

Cavelos has concentrated on the supply of facts, and seems to have pestered scientists at a significant fraction of the world's universities for them. (Her quotes show that lots of them entered into the spirit of the game.) The emphasis on biology is very strong, though the material on contending approaches in artificial intelligence in ch. 7 is quite good, especially for such a popular book. (The discussion of mutations and genetic diseases in ch. 1 is also noteworthy.) Bearing in mind that my knowledge of many of these topics is essentially limited to what I read in the ``News and Views'' section of Nature each week, Cavelos (and the scientists she questioned) gets almost everything right. The only error I spotted was one of detail, and small in context: Moore's law is that the capacity, speed, etc. of microprocessors doubles every eighteen months, not, as stated on p. 238, every year. The logical imagination is also on fairly good display here, but it's not so striking. Given the premises of the show, we don't need to assume that things like the black oil make normal evolutionary sense, or even that they're products of biological engineering as clumsy as our own. (We'll return to the black oil.) Since the idea of nanotechnology will certainly have occurred to the aliens, there's not even much call to assume that, just because something looks organic, it's not actually composed of machinery, or even of vast, cool intelligences. Admittedly this brings us close to the regions where Clarke's Law begins to operate, and sufficiently advanced technologies become indistinguishable from magic, which rather defeats the purpose of the book.

There are two very noticeable omissions, given the plan of the work. First, there is nothing on the many plots which rely on psychic powers. We get an entertaining discussion of death by autoerotic asphyxiation, but nothing about the plausibility of precognition, which is how the point arose in the first place. I can sympathize with drawing a veil over such a dispiriting subject, since any chapter on it would've had to be short and dismissive: telepathy, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, clairvoyance, etc., etc., have even less plausibility than a William Gibson plot.

Second, there is nothing about interstellar travel, about how the aliens got here in the first place. The speed of light is an obvious barrier, but there's worse. If you travel close to the speed of light, everything in your path --- dust, gas, photons --- effectively hits you at close to light speed, with unfortunate results. (Photons in particular get blue-shifted towards X-rays and gamma-rays.) Perhaps the aliens travel extremely slowly --- in a generation-ship, or in some suspended form like the black oil --- and are now effectively stuck in this solar system, which explains why they're devoting so much effort to conquering the Earth. (I still don't see why they want to go about it in such a roundabout fashion, rather than just dropping an Dinosaur Killer-sized asteroid on us and waiting a few decades for the dust to settle; perhaps, as Cavelos suggests in a different context, they want a population of slaves.) But then, what were they doing here 30,000 years ago --- maybe even 3.5 billion years ago?

For they were; this is, I regret to say it, a point Cavelos missed. The movie even tells us that the black oil or virus is the original inhabitant of our planet. (That, plus the business in Antarctica, is an obvious theft from, or homage to, Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.) I'd conjecture that our developmental system --- the homeobox genes and the rest --- is amenable to control by the aliens because they made it. Admittedly, this means that they need to have been here before the Cambrian Explosion, even before the first metazoans, say 600 million years ago. Worse, since they evidently use, not just a very similar biochemistry, but the same genetic code as all life on Earth, they need to have been here since the beginning, 3.5 billion years ago. Perhaps --- since they have a fondness for spores --- they've been engaged in panspermia for a long time, thereby seeding Earth with genetically-compatible life, and only arrived themselves in the late Pre-Cambrian when life here was ready to be made into something more interesting. Furthermore (this is a suggestion of my brother's), most of our unexpressed junk DNA is probably really alien DNA. The alien virus then de-differentiates the cells of its host, and activates the alien DNA already inside us, which begins a new process of morphogenesis, using the host tissue as a substrate for a new alien, rather as the larval body gets re-worked during insect metamorphoses. Presumably this is a more self-organized process than most metazoan development is on Earth (is this why some of the locals think the Santa Fe Institute is actually a cover for the introduction of alien technology?), but nonetheless wouldn't work if the host's regulatory system and unexpressed DNA had drifted too far, or even if the host was too small. In any event, the host body can't eat while this is happening, and it must be metabolically intensive, so the poor thing emerges hungry...

I had fun reading this book; I don't think this had much to do with flying cross-country at the time. I doubt that anyone who entertains the belief that the X-Files have even a shred of scientific plausibility will not be enlightened by reading this book, but fans of the show who like esoterica, or mind games, should find it amusing and instructive.
xiv + 288 pp., recommended reading (short list but good items), index
Popular Science / Science Fiction
5 February / 9 March 1999
With abundant thanks to Aryaman Shalizi