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Alien protocols

20 January 2017


Starman: BBC Radio 2’s Exploring Life on Mars featured a close reading of David Bowie’s iconic song

Starman: BBC Radio 2’s Exploring Life on Mars featured a close reading of David Bowie’s iconic song

WOULD you baptise an extra-terrestrial? It is not a question that I imagine the clergy concern themselves with, but somebody has to consider these daunting questions, and that person is Steven J. Dick, the American astro-biologist asked by NASA to devise protocols for engagement with alien life-forms: everything from quarantine procedures to care of the immortal soul.

When the baptism question came up at a conference he convened, the answer was supplied by a Jesuit from the Vatican Observatory: only if it asks to be baptised, thus representing a shift in policy from the colonial days of earth-bound alien encounters, when the Church rarely waited to be asked.

Such weird and wonderful insights came courtesy of The Inquiry: Is there anybody out there? (World Service, Tuesday of last week), in which Helena Merriman gave us a short history of extra-terrestrials, starting with the Roman author Lucian, who, in the second century, imagined travelling by whirlwind to the moon.

But it was with the invention of powerful telescopes, such as the one which, in 1877, discerned canals on Mars, that the question whether there was anybody out there really took hold. Today, we know of billions of planets which might be suitable for life to develop, and the study of our own planet has revealed how organisms can flourish in the most extreme habitats: look at Milton Keynes, for example. Time, perhaps, for the Synod to be following NASA’s lead and setting up a working-party.

Somebody who would scarcely have raised an eyebrow at the proposal is the late David Bowie, the Starman, whose lyrics so often sparkled with fascination for the celestial. Take the first draft of the song “Life on Mars”, which we heard read by a fellow singer, Marc Almond, on Exploring Life on Mars? (Radio 2, Monday of last week). If you think that the final version is surreal, then listen to this: a sci-fi phantasmagoria, with no theme exerting any discernible gravitational pull. Only the reference to Mars survives into the final version, and, as Dana Gillespie, a close friend of Bowie’s, admits, “God knows where the Mars bit came from.”

This is the sort of documentary that Radio 2 does exceedingly well: a mixture of celebration, history, and close reading of an iconic song, featuring good archive and interview material, which any Radio 3 producer dealing with a classical symphony would be proud of.

Bowie’s death last year initiated a doom-ridden 12 months during which many will have at least flirted with the thought that we were entering the End of Days. Radio 3’s Sunday Feature: Apocalypse How was therefore suitably timed, and provided a run-down of what the main religions have to say about it all in a suitably inclusive way. The only real difference between them is which horseman you favour – War, Pestilence, Famine or Trump – and these tend to shift depending on your circumstances.

Thus, as Naomi Alderman argued, death by zombie invasion was popular with the rise of Holocaust consciousness in the 1960s; while if you lived in the Cold War United States, every Soviet leader might carry the mark of the beast.

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