Imagining Inorganic Life: Crystalline Aliens in Science and Fiction
Since the development of the cell was described in analogy to crystallization in the nineteenth century, biologists blurred the boundaries between the living and the non-living by pointing out the resemblance of certain crystalline structures to the structures of living cells. Scientists and writers including F.E. Reynolds, H.G. Wells and M. Benedikt advanced the idea of inorganic, crystalline life forms, which could even sustain the extreme demands of the sun’s environment. Speculations about crystalline life on other planets were a continuation of the biologists’ experiments into the realm of the imagination. This chapter examines how some of the contributions to this discussion redefined the intricate relationship between the organic and the non-organic, and the living and the non-living.
The alien as we know it first appeared at the end of the nineteenth century in the literary works of H.G. Wells (1866–1946) and Kurd Lasswitz (1848–1910). Before then, inhabitants of other planets, like the Saturnians of Voltaire’s Micromégas , were part of a satirical tradition that used skewed reflections of humans as a means to comment on social, moral or political issues. 1 With Lasswitz and Wells, however, aliens were not so much a reflection of a certain status quo as projections of possible future developments of life. The rarefied humanoids of Lasswitz’s Auf zwei Planeten (On Two Planets) show the potential of ethical progress, while the tentacled creatures of Wells’s War of the Worlds exhibit all characteristics of a degenerated species dependent on technology. 2 Both authors were eager to convey a plausible image of their extraterrestrials by fleshing out the physiological details: the big eyes, delicately chiseled features and lean limbs of Lasswitz’s Martians are incorporations of a universal ideal of beauty and virtue, while the reduced anatomy of Wells’s invaders, containing only the brain and nerves leading to the tentacles, are expressions of a cruel, instrumental efficiency in the struggle for survival. These aliens were certainly inspired by evolutionary biology. Wells, especially, a former student of Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–95), applied principles and motives like ‘the struggle for existence’ to the design of his extraterrestrial creatures as well as to his plotline. 3
However, these aliens can also be seen as literary instances of the concept of the plasticity of living matter. This idea was most prominently voiced by the biologist Jacques Loeb (1859–1924), whose search for purely mechanical causes for animal development led him to probe the limits of manipulability of living tissue. In a letter to Ernst Mach he voiced his conviction that ‘man himself can act as a creator, even in living nature, forming it eventually according to his will.’ 4 Experiments in hybridization led Loeb to believe that ‘the number of species existing today is only an infinitely small fraction of those which can originate and possibly occasionally do originate, but which escape our notice because they cannot live and reproduce.’ 5 The notion of a fundamental malleability of living matter was taken up by Wells in his 1895 essay The Limits of Individual Plasticity, where he argued that transplant surgery and other medical technologies show that living matter could be molded and modified at will. 6 Dr. Moreau, the protagonist of another of his novels, was an embodiment of the power to stretch and reshape the matter of life – a power that, one could argue, was even more radically wielded by the author himself when he designed his alien invaders of The War of the Worlds. The Martians were a species that, like the experimentally grafted heteromorphic Antennularia of Loeb, could be created by man, albeit not in the laboratory but in the text of Wells and the imagination of the reader. 7
The aliens of Lasswitz and Wells were literary experiments in morphology: instances of an imagination that twisted the flesh and altered the form so as to produce species hitherto unseen. While Lasswitz’s Martians show features quite similar to human ones, Wells’s Martians were ‘the most unearthly creatures it is possible to conceive.’ 8 However, they still showed a physiology that could be recognized by human researchers: a brain, nerves, eyes, ears and tentacles, as well as lungs, a mouth and a heart. Even though the author altered their form, he left the basic structure as well as the basic stuff of life intact. The Martians were but beings made of flesh; or, to be more precise, beings made of protoplasm, which was held to be the basic substance of life. 9
There was, however, another, more radical possibility. This chapter traces the idea of life forms made up of minerals as articulated in science and fiction from around 1900 to the end of the twentieth century. Crystalline aliens are a rare species in literature; however, they nevertheless address fundamental questions pertaining to our conception of extraterrestrial life.
Necessarily, speculations about extraterrestrial life as yet are fictitious. Therefore, there is no clear border between fiction and science. Imagination becomes the main tool of scientists and literary writers alike. By constructing alien life forms, literary texts can pose scientific questions and scientific texts can indulge in flights of fancy. Of course, imaginary alien creatures are always dependent on the historical context. Therefore, they offer us an opportunity to investigate the presuppositions as well as the limits of the biological thought of an epoch. As Stefan Helmreich has shown, the project of astrobiology is traversed by the search for a definition of life itself, as researchers in the field are themselves aware that our search for alien life presupposes categories based on our own domestic forms of life. 10 However, I want to argue that crystalline aliens offer even more than just an insight into the historicity of conceptions and definitions of life: they also allow us to see in which way the question of life itself was posed at different moments in history. ‘What is life?’ is not a universal question. There is always a reason why it emerges at a certain moment in history, and the way it is articulated depends on the context and the specific aims. I want to argue that throughout the history of biology and science fiction, imaginations of inorganic crystalline life offered a place for self-reflection. By discussing the possibilities of such life forms, writers reflected on the framework of contemporary definitions of life and pondered the ways in which the question of life itself could be posed and answered. Crystalline aliens therefore not only allow us to better grasp the perspective-dependency of definitions of life, they also show us how this perspective-dependency itself was theorized at certain historical moments.
My investigation will concentrate on crystalline (or silicon-based) life forms as they appear in scientific as well as fictitious texts. I do not want to suggest that there is no difference between science and fiction; however, in the case of extraterrestrial life, both necessarily share a highly speculative approach. I will, however, show how in science, speculation increasingly becomes linked to experimental work. This in turn affects not only the literary renderings of crystalline aliens, but also the questions they raise. How could we investigate beings that are fundamentally different from ourselves? What would it mean for our definitions of life? Which methodologies and practices would be apt to recognize and analyze alien life, and in which way would these shape the way we pose the question ‘What is life?’
I will start with two short stories by the French writer J.H. Rosny. In the first story especially, the encounter with crystalline aliens leads the protagonist to formulate something like a proto-exobiological project: the conviction that even the strangest creatures could be grasped by experiment and reason. The second section will deal mainly with early scientific theories about silicon-based life. As these never left the speculative level, they offered scientists and literary writers alike an opportunity to dwell on imaginative renderings of such creatures. In the third section, I want to show how, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the experimental approach of synthetic biology probed the lines of demarcation between the living and the inanimate and led to a fundamental unsettling of definitions of life. This perspective was taken up by science-fiction writers like Stanley Weinbaum, who used crystalline aliens as an opportunity for a self-reflective stance that drew attention to the limits of his contemporaries’ knowledge. As the fourth section will elaborate, after the Second World War cybernetics claimed to offer an exit out of this impasse and to formulate a new, universal definition of life. On the basis of these theories, crystalline aliens in science fiction from the 1960s up to the 1980s lost their otherness and became partners for communication. However, as I will demonstrate in the sixth and final section, this did not dispose of the provocative potential of silicon-based life forms. Exobiology proper and the planning for unmanned probes to explore Mars led to a new perspective on the probability of life: technical constraints necessitated a pragmatic stance, which acknowledged the blind spots of every seemingly universal definition. As the example of Jacques Monod shows, this led to a self-reflexive turn in which crystals were no more alien than humans themselves.
4.1 Crystalline aliens enter the scene
In 1888, the prolific French author Joseph Henri Böex (1856–1940) published the short story Les Xipéhuz (The Xipéhuz) under his pen-name J.H. Rosny. The tale was set in prehistoric Babylon at the dawn of mankind, in which a tribe of nomads encounters an assembly of strange forms: cones, cylinders and bark-like layers. 11 These immediately attack the humans, causing many casualties by what seems to be some kind of telepathic force. From the beginning on, Rosny leaves no doubt that the strange geometrical forms are intelligent creatures: they are described as showing a change of colors when they first perceive the tribe, and their attack is depicted as ordered and planned. When later on the main protagonist, Bakhoûn, conducts an ethnological field study to find a way to destroy the Xipéhuz, he recognizes communication among them, different traits of character, expression of feelings and other unmistakable signs of intelligence. However, it is also clear from the beginning that these beings constitute an absolute enemy, an adversary that has to be fought to the death. Rosny stages the encounter between man and alien as a turning point in the history of the planet: would it belong to the forms, or to mankind? In his story, there is no possibility of means of understanding or cohabitation between such completely different life forms, and he makes the future of mankind dependent on whether the humans manage to extinguish all the Xipéhuz. In his later story La Mort de la terre (The Death of the Earth), published in 1910, Rosny once more returned to this topic. This time, we witness the demise of mankind in the far future, when the last human enclaves run out of water and are destroyed by violent earthquakes. But already, a new form of life is spreading, the ‘ferromagnétaux’ – mineral beings whose complex crystal-like structures stretch out over the deserted plains: ‘For human eyes, the Earth was horribly dead. Yet the other life already prospered there, for this was its time of genesis.’ 12 Like the Xipéhuz, the ferromagnetics are natural enemies of humans, killing them by deprivation of red blood cells. Again, Rosny shows us a turning point of the history of earth; but this time, it is mankind that is doomed to perish.
Before the last man sacrifices himself to the ferromagnetics at the end of the novel, he has a dream in which he watches the whole process of evolution: from the moment of life’s beginning in the oceans to the conquest of land by reptiles and insects and finally to the development of mammals, a grand narrative unfolds before his inner eye and which culminates in the rise of mankind as the dominating species. In this short paragraph, Rosny depicts evolution as a continuous chain of beings, a process whose coherence is guaranteed by heredity transmission. And this process ends with the last man, while a completely different process starts: ‘la Vie Nouvelle,’ the new life of beings based on mineral and metals instead of carbon composites. This final scene of the story works for Rosny as his key argument: life is not to be reduced to the historical process of evolution. Rather, evolution as we know it is only one possible manifestation of life, while the Xipéhuz and the ferromagnetics together represent altogether different manifestations.
This amounts to a radical diminution of the place of man in the universe. While many nineteenth-century recipients of Darwin still considered man to be the apex of evolution, Rosny offers the possibility of an evolution without an end, where man is no more than an episode in the ongoing drama of life. Mineral life forms present him with the opportunity to imagine life beyond the constraints of a linear process of development, be it refinement or degeneration, as described by Lasswitz, Wells and others. Life is not restricted by the limits of plasticity in organic, carbon-based matter; it is something mystical, a force pervading the universe, capable of animating even minerals. However, life also means strife, and the rise of one form means the fall of another. Rosny uses the Xipéhuz and ferromagnetics to show that life as we know it may come to an end, but that life itself will always persist. This mystical vision points to a concept of life that is defined by its transcendental nature: life is a unifying power pervading the universe and tangible only in the sometimes fantastic and bizarre forms it creates. 13
The creatures described in the two stories by Rosny represent the first appearances of crystalline aliens. Their coming into being is clearly situated in the context of the scientific romance, a form of imagination explicitly controlled by contemporary scientific theories. Rosny draws on Darwinism for the framework that drives the narrative: the struggle for survival between two different species. 14 Furthermore, he uses the hero of Les Xipéhuz to convey a particular perspective on nature. Bakhoûn embodies the values of the age of positivism: by relying on observations and field studies instead of traditional lore and superstition, he is able to develop a strategy against the mineral entities. Even the greatest mysteries of life can be analyzed by scientific reason and experiment. By inventing the crystalline alien, Rosny at the same time invents the concept of exobiology as the science of alien life forms. His story contains not only a description of such creatures but also a methodology for research on them. Other authors of the time did not bother to include a depiction of the process of gathering knowledge on aliens: while Lasswitz’s Martians are similar enough to explain themselves, the spiritual entities of Camille Flammarion are beyond the limited reasoning of human beings, and the vastly superior invaders of H.G. Wells cause nothing but shock and awe, leaving the protagonists of the novel no opportunity for research. By contrast, Rosny explicitly integrates a self-reflexive level, which enables him to reconcile science and imagination: nothing the imagination can conjure is beyond the grasp of scientific reason, not even mineral-based life. This, in turn, opens a discursive field where scientific speculations about ‘weird life,’ and especially crystalline life, can take place. 15
4.2 Speculating about another basis for life
In his stories, Rosny showed no interest in speculations about the actual chemical structures that would make mineral life possible. Scientists, however, had been discussing that question since the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the first one to ponder the possibility of life based on mineral compounds was the physiologist William T. Preyer (1841–97). The immediate context of his contribution was the debate about spontaneous generation: Can living beings originate from matter, or is there an unbridgeable gap between life and matter? At that time, the discussion was shaped by the protoplasmic theory of life. This theory argued that the content of cells, a substance called protoplasm, forms ‘the physical basis of life,’ as Thomas Huxley had stated. 16 It was this concept that, as I want to show, presents us with the origin and driving force of the scientific discussions about mineral life.
In his 1877 text on spontaneous generation, Preyer questioned established thinking about the origin of life by stating that life could only be generated by life itself: ‘omne vivum e vivo.’ With this phrase, he alluded to the famous statement by Rudolf Virchow, ‘omnis cellula e cellula’ (every cell from a cell). For Virchow, the cell constituted the smallest living entity; life was no further reducible than to this level. 17 This made life a phenomenon that was intrinsically tied to a specific substance: protoplasm.
Since the 1860s protoplasm had become a testing ground for the mechanist interpretation of life. 18 In the mid-nineteenth century, it had been identified as the substance common to the cells of both plants and animals, and usually it was held to be the substratum of all vital activities. In a famous talk in 1868, Thomas Huxley emphasized this view, but gave it a radical twist as he maintained that protoplasm was composed of purely chemical elements and that the so-called vital forces were nothing more than ‘molecular forces.’ 19 This was meant as a rebuttal of the vitalistic position, which claimed that the phenomenon of life was brought about by some ‘vital force’ not reducible to chemical or physical forces and independent from the matter through which it acted. For Huxley, life was nothing immaterial, but the effect of a certain chemical compound consisting, as could be shown by analysis, of the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. The presence of protoplasm, a material substance, had become the defining criterion of life.
Preyer elaborated on this view and expanded it. According to him, experiments on spontaneous generation had always presupposed that life as we know it – and therefore protoplasm as we know it – was the only possible form living entities could take. But what if, in the history of earth, there had been precursors to that substance, other substances that were chemically different but which also exhibited vital activities? One candidate for such a substance was silicon: ‘Who knows if after substituting a part of the carbon in the protoplasm, for example by silicon, and a part of the hydrogen by metals, one might not obtain another protoplasm, another which had existed and lived?’ 20
By assuming that other compounds might also be able to sustain life, Preyer detached the phenomenon of life from the narrow material basis Huxley had given it while, at the same time, trying to avoid the notions of a downright vitalism. No one singular compound should be taken to be the material basis of life, but life, understood as a ‘complex of certain phenomena of motion which are highly dependent on temperature,’ could appear as a result of different configurations of matter. 21 In this context, the word ‘protoplasm’ had acquired a new meaning: it no longer referred to a substance that could be identified by its chemical composition, but to any matter that sustained vital processes. Life was capable of materializing in different kinds of protoplasm – like one made up of silicon and metals. Preyer concluded that everything lives or has lived; inorganic substances are only the dead remains of once living processes. Life does not at all times adhere only to animals and plants, there might have existed other material carriers before. 22
For some researchers, crystals were promising candidates for life. A German doctor residing in Naples, Otto von Schroen (1837–1907) made such a claim at the turn of the century after carefully examining their growth, arguing that crystals are organized beings subject to a continuous development like plants and animals, and that they have their own distinct biology and pathology. Like Preyer, Schroen also departed from Huxley’s understanding of protoplasm, inventing the name ‘bioplasm’ to refer to any ‘matter that constitutes living beings.’ 23 Schroen distinguished between different kinds of bioplasms, each of which sustains a different form of life: phitoplasm for plants, zooplasm for animals, anthropoplasm for humans and petroplasm for minerals. Minerals are attributed with different properties of living beings, like movement, reproduction or struggle for survival, even reaction to external stimuli. Schroen, in contrast to Preyer, invoked the actions of a ‘vital force’ to account for the vivification of matter, thereby showing that speculations about mineral life could be adopted to support any philosophical position: vitalism, hylozoism and mechanism.
In 1893, the chemist James Emerson Reynolds (1844–1920) addressed the British Association for the Advancement of Science with a lecture on silicon. By comparing the activities of this element with carbon, he recognized ‘remarkably close analogies.’ 24 Both elements easily form compounds, and some of the compounds show structural similarities. Of course, silicon can perform these tasks only at very high temperatures; however, Reynolds argued, it may be possible that in the early stages of earth’s history, silicon was the dominant element, constituting ‘Nature’s earliest efforts in building compounds similar to those suited for the purpose of organic development.’ 25 It was H.G. Wells who pursued this scientific idea by means of fiction. In 1894, he published an essay entitled ‘Another Basis for Life,’ where, after explaining the findings of Reynolds, he let his imagination run freely: ‘One is startled towards phantastic imaginings by such a suggestion: visions of silicon-aluminum organisms – why not silicon-aluminum men at once? – wandering through an atmosphere of gaseous sulphur, let us say, by the shores of a sea of liquid iron some thousand degrees or so above the temperature of a blast furnace.’ 26 Even though he mentioned an implication of Reynolds hypothesis, namely the possibility of extraterrestrial silicon life, Wells never elaborated on this idea in his later writings, and it is interesting to note that even his silicon organisms bear resemblance to men.
As another example shows, biological speculation could employ similar, if not more daring, imaginative strategies. In a book that summarized evidence for an analogy between the process of crystallization and the formation of basic organisms, the Austrian neurologist Moriz Benedikt (1835–1920) advanced some thoughts on the possibilities of life on other celestial bodies. 27 On the sun, he reasoned, organisms could exist in a searing-hot and liquid state. Their brain cells could consist of quartz crystals able to receive thoughts by Hertzian waves. This idea was, of course, inspired by contemporary radio receivers that used crystals like iron disulfide as detectors to pick up radio transmission. However, the idea of crystalline aliens is also connected to a far older analogy between crystals and living beings. This analogy dates back at least to the seventeenth century, but, as I will show in the next section, it was at the end of the nineteenth century that it acquired a new meaning in biology. In this context, the question for mineral life ceased to be solely a field for speculation and began to be approached experimentally. Crystalline life was no longer limited to theoretical deliberation and literary fiction: it was actually brought to life in the laboratory.
4.3 Living crystals
This wording had a twofold effect: Firstly, by applying the notions customary for the description of vital activities to the processes observed in inorganic substances, it rendered inorganic structures similar to organisms and blurred the borders between them. Secondly, it redefined the notions themselves, depleting them of their established meaning. 32 As exponents of synthetic biology were eager to show that no absolute dividing line between the realms of the living and the unenlivened (inanimate) could be drawn, the zone of indeterminateness opened up by such descriptions was thoroughly intended. Synthetic biology undermined traditional definitions of life. Adversaries and skeptics who were not convinced that crystals and similar structures could justly be called living were forced to bring forward new definitions, thereby exhibiting their own perspective-dependency and putting presuppositions up for discussion. 33 The question ‘What is life?’ was no longer an abstract one. Instead, it had to be answered in face of the new entities produced in the laboratory.
Science fiction was ready to take up the challenge and incorporate the self-reflective stance of synthetic biology into its repertoire. 34 One example is a novel by the German author Annie Francé-Harrar (1886–1971). Der gläserne Regen (The Glassy Rain) begins with the solitary experiments of Frank Neal, who breeds plant-like silicon structures in his laboratory in the Australian desert. Judging from the description the author gives of these Silicinen , they bear a remarkable similarity to the osmotic growths achieved by Stéphane Leduc in the 1910s, and Francé-Harrar’s book is full of allusions to liquid crystals, colloids and other favorite subjects of researchers in this area. 35 However, in contrast to Leduc’s exemplars, the ones described in the novel begin to show signs of life when exposed to the light of the moon: they move, glow and emit sound. However, these creatures, which are classified by another protagonist as ‘in-between organic and inorganic life,’ 36 soon lose their mystery as Neal is contacted by entities living on the moon. It becomes clear that a higher form of crystal life exists there and that the Silicinen are only a preliminary stage.
During the first 250 pages or so of the rather lengthy book, the discourse of Francé-Harrar follows the scientific discussion about an alternative basis of life. Her hero Frank Neal, who is generally depicted as a rational-minded researcher, elaborates on analogies between silicon and carbon, like their abilities to create diverse compounds. However, matters take a new course when, around the world, silicon starts to grow abnormally, and Frank Neal establishes contact with lunar crystalline aliens. These inform him that earth is to be terraformed (or lunaformed) as their own planet is no longer capable of sustaining their lives. In the end, Neal is able to save the earth from such a fate by providing the crystals with an alternative source of energy.
In the course of the novel, Francé-Harrar leaves the scientific discourse behind, and her story becomes increasingly hackneyed and soaked with awkward ideological undertones. 37 The confrontation between Frank Neal and the inhabitants of the moon is depicted as a battle between the cold, rational and emotionless way of the crystals and the feeling nature of human beings: ‘the Lunarians […] are nothing other than the perfect, no, the highest in its self-perfected matter. Matter without spirit and without soul […].’ 38 The crystal aliens are reduced to symbols for perfect, yet limited forms of life, organized in a society grounded solely on functional principles.
While Francé-Harrar misses the chance to employ literary means to probe the limits of discussions about a definition of life, another author was more successful in this direction. In 1934 the American science-fiction writer Stanley Weinbaum (1902–35) published the short story A Martian Odyssey, which is still heralded as a landmark for its imaginative rendering of a strange world and its even stranger inhabitants. 39 Presented as the tale of a crash-landed astronaut making his way back to the base, the narrative not only features a friendly, yet inapprehensible bird-like creature called ‘Tweel,’ but also an even stranger entity that pushed the topic of mineral life onto a new stage. While crossing the Martian desert, the protagonist and his companion Tweel encounter a long row of pyramid-shaped structures made up of silica bricks and continuously increasing in size. By the amount of weathering of the bricks, it is evident that the smallest of these structures are about half a million years old. Understandably, the explorers are quite surprised when they watch ‘a nondescript creature’ crawling out of the last pyramid: ‘body like a big gray cask, arm and a sort of mouth-hole at one end; stiff, pointed tail at the other – and that’s all. No other limbs, no eyes, ears, nose – nothing!’ 40 The lack of any (recognizable) sensory organ already indicates that they are confronted with a very primitive organism. But what is it? The answer comes fast when the protagonists watch as the creature takes bricks from its mouth-hole, putting them onto the ground: ‘The beast was made of silica! There must have been pure silicon in the sand, and it lived on that.’ 41 Weinbaum’s heroes encounter a mineral entity, a being composed of silicon instead of carbon. But in contrast to Rosny, Weinbaum was not just describing this entity as an altogether different form of life. Instead, he followed the approach of synthetic biology and addressed the conditions for posing the question of life itself: ‘there the thing was, alive and yet not alive.’ 42 This is especially clear in his short story The Red Peri, where the protagonists encounter ‘crystal crawlers’ on Pluto, entities that are assigned a status on the ‘borderline’ between the living and the non-living. 43 Weinbaum’s depiction of silicon aliens was not so much concerned with ascribing life to such strange beings and thereby just expanding the realm of life to include any kind of matter. Rather, he entered an epistemological discussion about what life is and how we can approach this question at all.
Weinbaum had a background in science as he had graduated in chemical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, and the arguments his protagonists bring forward resemble the arguments that were raised by scientists working in the field of synthetic biology. When discussing the status of the ‘crystal crawlers,’ the old professor in The Red Peri states: ‘Alive? I don’t know. Crystals are as close as inorganic matter comes to life. They feed; they grow.’ 44 And he goes on to lecture on the criteria of life, enumerating the different arguments and proving that each of them is ultimately inconsistent. Movement, growth, reproduction are disqualified, as they are also properties of fire and crystals. 45 He acknowledges that irritability and adaptation may be unique to life, thereby identifying the crystal crawlers as living, as they show both of these properties. This, however, does not settle the issue. Later in the story the space pirate known as the Red Peri, who knows these creatures having lived on the planet since childhood, suggests that they are ‘[n]ot exactly alive. They’re – well – on the borderline. They’re chemical-crystalline growths, and their movement is purely mechanical.’ 46 But this is nothing more than a phenomenological description and does not provide a basis on which one could start to classify these entities.
Weinbaum used his crystal aliens to mix up the established order of nature. They provide him with an opportunity to enter into a self-reflexive discussion about the possibility of an unequivocal definition of life. However, his conclusion is discouraging. There is no way to arrive at such a definition, as one can always find one example that contradicts it. The crystal aliens serve a negative function: they are neither machine nor animal, but they also do not constitute anything above this classification, some unifying principle that would allow subsuming both kinds of beings. They are, as it were, epistemological hurdles, warning us lest we should have final, all-too ready answers about the nature of life.
4.4 The cybernetic view on silicon life
One way out of this impasse concerning the definition of life was offered by the self-proclaimed universal science of cybernetics. 47 Norbert Wiener (1894–1964), one of the main proponents of a cybernetic world view, propagated a view of life focusing on the notion of information. He wanted to do away with the quarrels between vitalism and mechanism: the whole controversy should be relegated to the ‘limbo of badly posed questions.’ 48 As the title of his 1948 manifesto, Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, already indicates, concepts like ‘feedback mechanism’ served to undermine the differences between organisms and machines.
In this context, crystals acquired a special status because they had the property of self-reproduction, a phenomenon that became central to the cybernetic approach to biology. Since the 1960s, artificial self-reproducing automata undermined the distinction between the organic and the inorganic as well as between the living and the non-living in a new way: by desisting from ontological quarrels and concentrating solely on functional issues. 49 In this context, crystal analogies were widely employed. The pioneer of computing, John von Neumann, developed his cellular model of self-reproducing automata after the mathematician Stanisław Ulam (1909–1984) drew his attention to the structural features of crystal lattices. 50 Lionel Penrose (1898–1972), an English geneticist who experimented with mechanical self-reproducing devices, referred to them as ‘crystals,’ and in the 1964 novel by Stanisław Lem (1921–2006), Niezwyciężony (The Invincible), the insect-like self-reproducing machines threatening the crew of a spaceship are described as having a crystalline structure. 51
It is interesting to note that the idea of crystalline aliens based on cybernetics seemed to be more fascinating for science-fiction writers from communist countries. Not only the Pole Lem, but also the Russian Aleksandr Meyerov featured them in a novel. 52 Cybernetics had won ground in Soviet science since the late 1950s, and during the 1960s, the classics of the field became available in Russian translations. 53 Soviet scientists seem to have been particularly fascinated by the idea of artificial organisms and proposed the building of automata that would display no essential difference to living creatures. As the mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov (1903–87) said in a public lecture in April 1961: ‘If such qualities of a material system as “being alive” or “capable of thinking” are defined in a purely functional way […], then one would have to admit that in principle living and thinking beings can be created artificially .’ 54 Researchers in this field were confident that life could be analyzed in its entirety with methods employing information theory and the theory of feedback mechanisms. Life, therefore, was no longer a property of a special kind of substance or chemical compound. Rather, whether something could be considered to be alive or not depended on the organization and function of its elements.
In 1968 the Soviet chemist and writer Aleksandr Meyerov developed a consistent cybernetic view on crystalline aliens in his novel Sirenevyj kristall (The Lilac Crystal). 55 The book starts with an archaeological mystery: at the South Seas archipelago Pautoo, an expedition finds the remains of a civilization that seems to have controlled a force enabling it to turn different materials into stone. This, they learn, was due to the priests’ ability to control silicon plasma extracted from the remains of a crashed meteorite. The scientists, with help from the Soviet Academy of Sciences and despite problems caused by the rival efforts of an unscrupulous capitalist, succeed in activating the plasma, which pours out as an amorphous mass of mineral substance turning everything it touches into stone. But this substance is only the first step in the evolution of mineral life they are about to witness. The second step consists of mineral seeds which, when activated, develop into gigantic tortoises (called ‘Rodbarids’ after their discoverer). After a while, these activate ‘Jusgorids,’ flying cucumber-shaped creatures that display several traits of higher intelligence. Both of these strange mineral creatures are significantly different from the ones we have encountered so far: neither are they so alien as to be the ultimate enemy of humankind, as Rosny’s Xipéhuz, nor do they inhabit a zone in-between the living and the inanimate, as the crystal crawlers of Weinbaum.
Instead, in The Lilac Crystal, silicon life forms have acquired a new function. The scientists do not ask ontological questions. Their prime issue is not what these organisms actually are; rather, they want to know what they do and what their purpose is. After the establishment of a sort of natural preserve and an observation post, the scientists watch the Rodbarids rooting up the ground to mine minerals. They use their booty to nourish one special individual that finally brings forth the Jusgorids. When discussing these activities, the researchers identify the tortoise-like creatures as workers ‘blindly obeying a higher order, or perhaps some stored program or an old instinct.’ Later on they specify this judgment by referring to them as ‘alien cybernetic entities.’ 56 The mineral aliens have become materializations of a cybernetic view of life. They constitute a class of beings exhibiting the properties common to men, animals and machines: the functional logics of communication and control. After some initial perplexity, their way of thinking becomes intelligible: Under the guidance of the lilac crystal, which turns out to be a program storage unit, they first build a dish antenna to communicate with their home planet and then a spaceship in which they leave earth, inviting the humans to follow in another rocket.
Meyerov’s novel evades the self-reflexive stance of Weinbaum. His depiction of the exobiological research on the silicon life forms is firmly grounded in a confidence in the cybernetic world view. His protagonists are not interested in what it means to ascribe life to these entities. Refraining from any ontological question, they are only concerned if the aliens exhibit purposeful behavior, which is enough to establish a relation with them. Crystalline aliens are no longer just objects that confront us with fundamental questions about the nature of life. Now they have become subjects and possible partners for interaction. For Meyerov, the silicon life forms serve to convey a message: even if they appear to be very different from what we encounter on earth, the aliens have acquired a peaceful, well-organized society capable of carrying out technological feats still out of reach for humans. But the foundations these achievements rest upon are comprehensible for any intelligent being, as they consist of the universal rules of logic worked out by cybernetics; therefore, humans can take them as models to improve their own society. 57
One final example from science-fiction literature may further stress this point. In 1984 Alan Dean Foster (1946–) published the novel Sentenced to Prism . The storyline revolves around the technician Evan Orgell, who is ordered to inspect a research outpost on the mysterious planet Prism. He discovers a world full of silicon beings, making friends with an intelligent species living in a functionally differentiated and highly specialized society. Foster takes some time describing the environment of Prism, making every effort to conjure up the vision of a very strange world. For a short moment, his protagonist even poses the, by now familiar, question about the status of its inhabitants: ‘You couldn’t even say that such an automaton was alive, in the normal sense of the term.’ 58 However, as soon as one of the creatures establishes communication via a sort of telepathic link, Azure, as the caterpillar-like being is called, turns out to be quite a chatty fellow. The author shows the disintegration of prejudices in the face of the alien, who is no longer an absolutely foreign being but shares fundamental characteristics with his human companion; foremost, in good cybernetic tradition, the ability to communicate. Foster’s novel shows, despite its rhetoric of otherness, how silicon beings have become an unproblematic inventory for conventional science-fiction storytelling. Everything gets explained: the ecology of Prism as well as the abilities of its intelligent inhabitants and their society. 59 The latter topic even allows Foster to insert a political allegory: when on his search for a lost member of the research outpost, the hero encounters a rare organic being that shows intelligence, but immediately attacks Orgell and engulfs him in its structure. By telepathy it informs the startled hero that it is the ‘Integrator’ whose aim is to incorporate as many living beings as possible. The debate that follows is clearly political. Orgell, being reminded of ‘a common cry to many would-be tyrants and dictators stretching far back into the depths of human history,’ accuses the Integrator of being unorganized and muzzling all individual freedom. 60 The answer Foster puts in the creature’s mouth reminds one of totalitarian governments: ‘There can be no individuality within a true Associative.’ 61 In contrast to Francé-Harrar, who depicted the crystal society as a rational, emotionless and static order, Foster represents the very antithesis. Under the paradigm of cybernetics, the functionally structured society of the silicates is the equivalent of an efficient but free society, while the organic ‘Integrator’ is an allegory of totalitarianism.
The examples from Meyerov and Foster, as well as from TV shows like Star Trek, show that in the age of cybernetics, crystalline aliens were no longer epistemological hurdles. Associated with topics like self-reproduction, universal communication and the efficient organization of society, they were no longer the absolute other but potential actors in a social relationship that included all kinds of strange creatures.
4.5 Recognizing life
This does not mean that they had altogether lost their affiliation to fundamental biological questions. But this time, it was biology itself, which used scenarios from science fiction to give these questions a new form and a hitherto unknown radicalism. Up to the last quarter of the twentieth century even such weird aliens as mineral entities were defined in relation to man, and their strangeness was a function of their distance from our own nature. With the planning of actual missions to search for life on other planets and the birth of exobiology as a distinct science with its own research program, it became increasingly unclear who, in fact, the alien was. 62 This change of perspective entered mainstream biology in a book by the French molecular biologist and Nobel Prize laureate Jacques Monod (1910–76). Monod challenged his readers to imagine a probe launched by a civilization on Mars to look for life on earth. How can such a device be programmed to discern artificial objects from natural ones and living beings from inanimate structures? 63 The criteria that first come to mind, like regularity and repetition, are not sufficient to identify life. If the probe also takes into account the way the examined objects were produced, it will separate artificially produced structures as well as structures made by chance, like rocks, from living beings, as the first are brought forward by the action of external forces, while organisms develop by inner morphogenetic forces. Apart from animals and plants there is, however, another class of objects the probe would also classify as living: crystals.
In Monod’s scenario, two distinct discourses come together to form a new perspective on the question of life. One is molecular biology, where crystals have played an important part since the 1940s, when Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961) associated the material basis of heredity with ‘aperiodic crystals’: aggregates that are not based on repetition, like normal crystals, but in which every atom plays an individual role. 64 Monod explicitly refers to that term to show that the secret of life rests in the molecular structure of DNA and proteins, and that this structure is sufficient to explain the function of organisms. From this perspective, there is no qualitative difference between crystals and organisms – they only differ in the quantity of information transmitted in the process of reproduction. 65
While molecular biology provides the content of the scenario and thereby determines the special meaning of crystals, another discourse provides the form of the question: exobiology. Monod’s rendering of an automated probe visiting a foreign planet and looking for life was directly derived from the discussions surrounding the missions to other planets planned by NASA since 1960, when the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena was commissioned to conduct a study on a spacecraft designed to land on Mars. 66 In the context of space exploration, the question of life had taken on a pragmatic and technical meaning. The decisive issue was to get a machine to identify what was called ‘signs of life.’ From the 1950s on, several devices were developed to achieve this feat. 67 Their design was accompanied by discussions about reliable criteria for the detection of life. Although NASA did promote theoretical biology, many scientists were aware of the fact that no formal and universally valid definition of life was available. As the microbiologist Joshua Lederberg (1925–2008), who coined the term ‘exobiology,’ stated already in 1960: ‘Our only consensus so far is that such a definition must be arbitrary.’ 68 In view of the planned launches of probes to Mars, scientists started to favor pragmatic definitions over abstract ones. That is to say, they looked for criteria that could be implemented in an automated probe. The question ‘What is life?’ would now have to be solved experimentally. However, an experiment can only answer the question it is designed to answer, and even then its result is seldom unequivocal. Furthermore, in the case of spaceflight, technical and economic considerations have to be taken into account: a probe can only carry a very limited array of instruments and it is operated from afar. Therefore, researchers had to acknowledge that not every theoretically conceivable possibility could be tested, as ‘it would seem pointless and very uneconomic to send a space probe to detect a speculative life-form.’ 69
By getting involved in the technicalities of planning for space missions, biologists were confronted with practical constraints that made them conscious of their blind spots. The development of methods for recognizing alien life forced them to lay bare their own presumptions. Therefore, the concepts developed for defining life carried indices, which denoted the specific context of use and the perspective of the generalization in question.
This voyage along the strange paths of crystalline aliens through science and fiction has shown how imaginations about inorganic life forms led to fundamental questions concerning criteria for defining and recognizing life, as well as to an insight into the irreducible perspective-dependency of such questions. Furthermore, two more general conclusions can be drawn. The first concerns the role of the imagination. Imagination has always played an important part in science, and during the nineteenth and twentieth century numerous scientists and philosophers have argued for the importance of speculative reasoning and thought experiments. The invention of scientific romance and science fiction as a literary genre has provided a cultural place for appropriating and probing the limits of scientific theories, a place that was often also used by scientists. 71 Cases such as the concept of extraterrestrial life show that science and fiction sometimes blended, exchanging knowledge and techniques to create hypothetical forms of alien life. In the course of the twentieth century, such imaginings of the alien have had a profound impact on the imagination of the public and thereby shaped the stance toward the endeavor of space exploration. 72 A historical and epistemological investigation of crystalline aliens therefore contributes to an archaeology of the relationship between science and fiction .
A second general point to be made is the influence of the material culture of science upon the processes of imagination. The experimental stance of synthetic biology at the beginning as well as the technicalities of space travel at the second half of the century have determined the way speculations about life were approached. The experiments of Lehmann, Leduc and others forced scientists to acknowledge the impossibility of a clear demarcating line between living and inanimate matter. The designs of devices to be carried on automated probes have led to a modest and pragmatic approach towards the scope of definitions of life. Scientists had to choose between many different possible tests for the detection of life, leaving out those that were impracticable or too expensive and thereby admit to their own perspective-dependency. Although the question ‘What is life?’ seems to be an ahistorical one, and answers advanced often claim to be universally valid, the history of imaginary alien life shows that they, in fact, are determined by technological possibilities as well as by constraints imposed by the cultural context. The case of crystalline aliens shows how the confrontation of imaginations with experiments and technologies can lead to a self-reflexive stance, making visible blind spots of our own presuppositions and taking into account the irreducible perspective-dependency of our definitions of life .
Steven J. Dick, The Biological Universe: The Twentieth-Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 223–38; Voltaire, Le Micromégas: Avec une histoire des croisades et un nouveau plan de l’histoire de l’esprit humain, Berlin 1753.
Kurd Lasswitz, Auf zwei Planeten, Weimar: Treber, 1897; H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, Leipzig: Tauchnitz, 1898.
Dick, Biological Universe, 233.
Quoted in Philip J. Pauly, Controlling Life: Jacques Loeb and the Engineering Ideal in Biology, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, 4.
Jacques Loeb, The Mechanistic Conception of Life, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964, 27.
See Hannah Landecker, Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007, 9.
Loeb experimented with the substitution of one organ for another (heteromorphosis) in the hydroid species Antennularia; see Loeb, Mechanistic Conception, 80.
Wells, War of the Worlds, 199.
See Gerald L. Geison, ‘The Protoplasmic Theory of Life and the Vitalist-Mechanist Debate,’ Isis 60.3 (Fall 1969), 273–92.
Stefan Helmreich, ‘The Signature of Life: Designing the Astrobiological Imagination,’ Grey Room 23 (Spring 2006), 66–95.
J.H. Rosny Aîné, ‘Les Xipéhuz,’ in La Mort de la terre, Paris: Denoel, 1958, 11–60, here 16.
Ibid., 164. Unless otherwise stated, all translations are mine.
See Jean-Pierre Vernier, ‘The SF of J.-H. Rosny the Elder,’ Science Fiction Studies 2.2 (July 1975), 156–63.
See Jean-Marc Gouanvic, La Science-fiction française au XXe siècle (1900–1968): Essai de socio-poétique d’un genre en émergence, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994, 49–51.
For the concept of ‘weird life,’ see Debbora Battaglia’s contribution, Chapter 11 in this volume.
Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘On the Physical Basis of Life,’ Fortnightly Review 11 (February 1869), 129–45.
William T. Preyer, ‘Kritisches über die Urzeugung,’ Kosmos 1 (1877), 377–87, here 382. For Preyer and the debate on spontaneous generation, see John Farley, The Spontaneous Generation Controversy from Descartes to Oparin, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977, 152; for Virchow, see William Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century: Problems of Form, Function, and Transformation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977, 32–3.
Geison, ‘Protoplasmic Theory.’
Huxley, ‘On the Physical Basis of Life,’ 140.
Preyer, ‘Kritisches,’ 386.
I am drawing on an article published in 1904 by Brazza and Pirenne; however, Schroen had been working on this theory for quite some time. F. di Brazza and P. Pirenne, ‘La vie dans les cristaux,’ Revue scientifique 1 (23 April 1904), 518–23, here 518.
James Emerson Reynolds, ‘Opening Address,’ Nature 48 (1893), 477–81, here 479.
H.G. Wells, ‘Another Basis for Life,’ in Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975, 144–7, here 146.
Moriz Benedikt, Krystallisation und Morphogenesis: Biomechanische Studie, Vienna: Perles, 1904, 65.
For the claims and discussions surrounding synthetic biology, see Evelyn Fox Keller, Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors and Machines, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003, 15–49. This approach was continued during the 1950s and 1960s in origin of life studies; see Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick, The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005, 71–2.
See J. Lorch, ‘The Charisma of Crystals in Biology,’ in Yehuda Elkana, ed., The Interaction Between Science and Philosophy, Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1974, 445–61; Donna Haraway, Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors of Organicism in Twentieth-Century Developmental Biology, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.
Hans Przibram, ‘Kristall-Analogien zur Entwicklungsmechanik der Organismen,’ Archiv für Entwicklungsmechanik der Organismen 22.1 (1906), 207–87; Stéphane Leduc, La Biologie synthétique, étude de biophysique, Paris: A. Poinat, 1912; Otto Lehmann, Flüssige Kristalle und die Theorien des Lebens, Leipzig: Barth, 1906.
For this example, ibid., 12–13.
An especially avid user of this strategy was Ernst Haeckel; see his book Kristallseelen: Studien über das anorganische Leben, Leipzig: Kröner, 1917.
See, for example, Wilhelm Roux, ‘Die angebliche künstliche Erzeugung lebender Wesen,’ Die Umschau 10 (1906), 141–5.
At least once, synthetic biology also turns up in ‘serious’ literature. The 1947 novel Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann features a short discussion about laboratory-made structures that are clearly drawn from the works of Ludwig Rhumbler and Stéphane Leduc. See Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2003, 27–9.
Annie Francé-Harrar, Der gläserne Regen, Hamburg: Toth Verlag, 1948, 27 (Silicinen), 28 (liquid crystal), 176 (colloids).
For example, the lunar crystal society is organized hierarchically by some kind of racial difference, the white crystals being the leaders and the black ones forming the lowest kind. Ibid., 378.
Stanley G. Weinbaum, ‘A Martian Odyssey,’ in idem, ed., Interplanetary Odysseys, London: Leonaur, 2006, 7–31.
Weinbaum, ‘Martian Odyssey,’ 20.
Stanley G. Weinbaum, ‘The Red Peri,’ in idem, Interplanetary Odysseys, 164–213, here 190.
Fire had been used as an analogy to life up to the nineteenth century.
Weinbaum, ‘Red Peri,’ 190.
For an overview on cybernetics and its claims, see Claus Pias, ‘Zeit der Kybernetik – Eine Einstimmung,’ in idem, ed., Cybernetics: The Macy-Conferences 1946–1953, vol. 2: Essays und Dokumente, Zurich: Diaphanes, 2004, 9–41.
Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994, 44 (first English edition 1948, first Russian edition 1958).
See Andrew Pickering, ‘A Gallery of Monsters: Cybernetics and Self-organisation, 1940–1970,’ in Stefano Franchi and Güven Güzeldere, eds, Mechanical Bodies, Computational Minds: Artificial Intelligence from Automata to Cyborgs, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005, 229–45.
Stanisław Ulam, Adventures of a Mathematician, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991, 241.
Lily E. Kay, Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000, 112; Stanisław Lem, The Invincible, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.
One reason for the literary interest in crystal life may have been a genuine literary tradition. For example, the novella ‘The Ethereal Trail’ by Andrey Platonov elaborates on the theory that electrons are actual living beings, and that minerals can be grown in the earth. While it was written already in 1927, it was published only in 1968. See Andrey Platonov, ‘Efirnyi trakt,’ in Fantastika 1927: Vypusk i-yi, Moscow: Molodaya gvardyia, 1968, 247–302.
Slava Gerovitch, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002, 199.
As I do not read Russian and as there is no English translation, I will refer to the German edition: Alexander Mejerow, ‘Der fliederfarbene Kristall,’ in Vetorecht/Der fliederfarbene Kristall: Zwei phantastische Romane, Berlin: Volk und Welt, 1979, 5–250.
Ibid., 211 and 215.
The improvement of society had been an aim of Soviet cybernetics since the early 1960s, see Gerovitch, From Newspeak to Cyberspeak, 253–92.
Alan Dean Foster, Sentenced to Prism, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, 98.
The episode Home Soil (1988) of Star Trek: The Next Generation also uses crystalline aliens to discuss prejudices and environmental issues.
Foster, Sentenced to Prism, 212.
For the history of exobiology, see Dick and Strick, Living Universe, 30–5, 57.
Jacques Monod, Le Hasard et la nécessité: Essai sur la philosophie naturelle de la biologie moderne, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1970, 19–25.
Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948, 61.
Monod, Le Hasard et la nécessité, 25.
Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neuman Ezell, On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet 1958–1978, Washington, DC: NASA, 1984, 51–80; also available at http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4212/on-mars.html (accessed 1 October 2017).
Dick and Strick, Living Universe, 30–5, 57.
Joshua Lederberg, ‘Exobiology: Approaches to Life Beyond the Earth,’ Science 132 (12 August 1960), 393–400, here 394.
James E. Lovelock, ‘A Physical Basis for Life Detection Experiments,’ Science 207 (7 August 1965), 568–70, here 568.
Carol E. Cleland, ‘Epistemological Issues in the Study of Microbial Life: Alternative Terran Biospheres?,’ Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 38.4 (December 2007), 847–61, here 851.
See Thomas Macho and Annette Wunschel, eds, Science & Fiction: Über Gedankenexperimente in Wissenschaft, Philosophie und Literatur, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 2004. Scientists who wrote science-fiction include the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1964), the mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894–1964) and the astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915–2001); furthermore, many professional science fiction writers have a background in science, like the above-mentioned Stanley Weinbaum (1902–35).
See Debbora Battaglia, ed., E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces, Durham: Duke University Press, 2005; and Dick, Biological Universe.