Exopolitics: Foreign affairs with alien races

Scifi artist and novelist Jonathon Keats' new book, Virtual Words, is an eloquent exploration of words and phrases that we're using to describe our future-science world. In this excerpt, he explains the word "exopolitics."

At the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, an archivist named Herb Pankratz specializes in queries about the thirty-fourth president's exopolitics. Pankratz assumed this responsibility because of his expertise in transportation. Since exopolitics involves diplomacy with visitors from other planets, his colleagues deemed him the best qualified person on staff to field questions, of which there are many, since Ike is alleged to be the first president to have negotiated directly with aliens.

Neither Pankratz nor anyone else at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library is able to confirm these historic events. They tell researchers that the president's presumed first meeting with extraterrestrials, on the evening of February 20, 1954, was in fact a dental appointment. They inform people that Eisenhower's emergency departure from the Smoking Tree Ranch, where he was vacationing, was on account of a chipped porcelain cap on his upper right incisor, broken when he bit down on a chicken bone, not a secret meeting at Edwards Air Force Base with aliens requesting that he end America's nuclear weapons program in order to protect the space-time continuum. The archivists have no record of the words with which Ike rebuffed his celestial guests without causing an intergalactic diplomatic rift, nor of the accord he allegedly reached with a different alien race later that year, allowing them to borrow cows and humans for purposes of medical examination, provided that they return the specimens unharmed.

The lack of documentation has not been taken as want of evidence by organizations such as the Exopolitics Institute. On the contrary the information gap has only further convinced them of a governmental cover-up, extending to the present day, a "truth embargo" involving not only Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but also the United Nations.

As a conspiracy theory exopolitics is barely worthy of a B movie. Even without asking how these extraterrestrial ambassadors have avoided public exposure for over half a century, one might legitimately wonder why the world's governments have so persistently hidden them, and why beings of allegedly superior intelligence have proven so complacent. The most popular explanation for this "cosmic Watergate" is that the aliens possess valuable technology, generally involving energy, which governments want to hoard for purposes of world domination. If so, one might legitimately ask, more than fifty years after Ike chipped his tooth on a chicken bone, what exactly his successors are waiting for.

Yet exopolitics has thrived as a nexus for conspiracy theories since the term was popularized in an e-book written by the "space activist" Alfred Webre in the year 2000. The Exopolitics Institute, a "501(c)(3) non-profit educational organization dedicated to studying the key actors, institutions and political processes associated with extraterrestrial life," publishes the online Exopolitics Journal, featuring articles such as "Deep Politics, End-Games and Agendas: How Exopolitics Can Offer Avenues to Resolve Population Reduction and Other Eco-Conundrums." The Exopolitics Institute also provides instruction for would-be exopoliticians. For $1,200 tuition one can learn "the conceptual skills and diplomatic training" needed to practice "citizen diplomacy in extraterrestrial affairs," earning a Galactic Diplomacy Certificate. A few real politicians, such as former Canadian defense minister Paul Hellyer, have even been enlisted to lend credibility to exopolitical conventions, catching the attention of mainstream periodicals, including the Washington Post. But the best explanation for the persistence of exopolitics may be the name itself.

The term exopolitics, an extension of geopolitics, is built on the same linguistic pattern as exoplanet and exobiology. Even casual readers of science will be familiar with the former since planets orbiting distant stars have been detected by space telescope, making headline news. Some of these exoplanets are rocky like Earth, giving momentum to exobiology, the study of nonterrestrial life or, more precisely, what forms such life might hypothetically take. At least superficially, particularly in our search engine culture, exopolitics looks like just another of these exotic areas of research. For instance, Yahoo! Search Assist suggests exopolitics just a few items below exoplanets when one enters their shared initial letters.

Of course no scientist will be convinced by the linguistic camouflage, and most laymen will also be skeptical after brief perusal of the supposed truth embargo on diplomatic relations with aliens. The trouble for science is that the association also runs in the other direction: just as the perfectly plausible idea that there might be life elsewhere in the universe has been made ridiculous by the popular image of little green men, exopolitics makes exobiology seem precariously fringy.

In fact exobiology is about as fringy (or exotic) as a dental appointment. Much of it involves the examination of extremophile bacteria found in places such as the Arctic and Death Valley or in nuclear waste dumps in order to map out the full gamut of life on Earth and the environments that can sustain it. Such information may help to narrow down where we might productively look for extraterrestrial life, and equally important, how we might detect it with a space probe or inside a meteorite.

However, there is another side to exobiology, more philosophical. Recognizing extraterrestrial microbes may depend on a broader notion of life than comes naturally to us, even as we extend our realm of study to the farthest reaches of Earth. Independently evolved, extraterrestrial life might not be based on DNA or amino acids or even carbon. Embedded in mundane diagnostics for testing Martian rock is a profound question: What is life?

For all its fringiness exopolitics is equally, similarly provocative. We don't know whether there are intelligent beings elsewhere or whether we'll ever communicate with them, let alone need to establish intergalactic diplomatic ties. But simply to inquire-without the conspiracy theories-what relationship we might have with independently evolved minds is a basis for asking a question as profound as the foundational question of exobiology: What is humanity?

You can get your copy of Virtual Words via Oxford University Press or the bookstore of your choice.