Robert Freitas was still in college when he started his now-legendary handbook to alien life. Published in 1979, Xenology offered some of the first — and still among the only — serious academic discussion of potential extraterrestrial biology, culture, and more, including, yes, ray guns and orgasms.
It wasn’t just errant musings. Freitas, who would later make his name as an emerging tech researcher, winning the 2009 Feynman Prize for his work in nanotechnology, included more than 4,000 scientific references and laid the groundwork for a quietly expanding field.
Xenology is “the most comprehensive and systematic study of extraterrestrial life, intelligence, and civilization I am aware of,” philosopher Clement Vidal wrote in The Beginning and the End: The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological Perspective. “I consider it a rare scientific masterpiece.”
In an email with Inverse, Freitas took credit for laying out the first coherent discussions on various topics.
“For example, my discussion of possible alien blood chemistries was entirely novel, and I was the first to describe the possibility of coboglobin-based blood. I did the first technical discussion of thalassogens, though Asimov had coined the term a few years earlier. I invented the Sentience Quotient, a scale of brain power large enough to encompass intelligences 40 orders of magnitude superior to humans. I offered the first coherent discussions of alien weapons technologies, possible planetary sky colors, alien skeletons, alien locomotion, alien sex, the number of legs or fingers an alien might possess, possibilities for alien psychology, alien political systems, alien music, and many other specific topics. Lots of ‘firsts’ in this book!”
In case you’re wondering about alien orgasms, Freitas says it’s hard to know. Although orgasms may be seen as an evolved mechanism for promoting mating, they are absent in many organisms, including some mammals. “For this reason, xenologists remain extremely cautious in extending this extraordinarily satisfying response to all bisexual aliens,” Freitas writes in Xenology.
We reached out to the researcher to get a better understanding of this singular work. How did such a foundational text come from a college student? And what does its creator think the future holds for the field(s) he helped to define?
How did you first come to this field and get educated in it?
I can clearly recall the first time I was exposed to the idea of alien life. I think I was in 7th grade, wandering around in the school library and randomly picked out an interesting-looking book that turned out to be my first exposure to science fiction. It was about some colonists on the planet Mercury who encountered an alien intelligence that was in the shape of ball lightning. I’d long forgotten the title, but with the advent of the Internet, a few years ago I tracked it down online (Battle on Mercury by Erik Van Lhin), purchased a copy, and re-read it with great fondness. As they say, you never forget your “first time”.
At college in the early 1970s, I read a lot of Larry Niven’s work, including his short stories and most memorably his Ringworld classic. As a physics major, I recall trying to work out the physics of ringworld-like structures around stars, the gravitational fields to be expected around hypothetical toroidal planets, and the physics of transcendental tachyons (which travel at infinite speed at zero energy) and rotating black holes. I also became a long-time subscriber to Analog Science Fiction magazine.
The Ph.D. track in physics looked unappealing for various reasons, so I entered law school at the University of Santa Clara. My first two published articles, in 1977, concerned the legal rights of extraterrestrials if they landed on Earth. Obviously, I was not interested in the usual topics that captivate most law students like contracts, torts, and corporate law! I did take patent law, and international law, and also did a special research project on “Survival Homicide in Space.” I knew by then that I didn’t fit the usual mold and didn’t want to practice law, but I’ve never been a quitter. So I finished my Juris Doctor degree, even though I never took the bar exam.
By late 1974, I’d already begun working on what would become my first “magnum opus” type book, to be called Xenology. It was my first book project, and it exemplifies what has become a hallmark of all my books: an encyclopedic collection of information that effectively defines a new field by creating a framework that describes all of the component elements of the new field, then describes each of the components in sufficient detail to create a convincing, comprehensive, and heavily referenced conceptual foundation that can easily be built upon by others to extend the field.
Existing knowledge and ideas are used when such exist, and where they don’t, I fill the gaps with new ideas of my own or new approaches that are often inspired by information in related or analogous fields. At the time, the only book that remotely approached what I was trying to accomplish with Xenology was Shklovskii and Sagan’s masterful 509-page tome Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966), but even that one was missing most xenological topics of interest.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I basically read every book and every paper I could find on the subject of extraterrestrial life, intelligence, technology, and communication — literally four or five thousands of items including popular articles, technical papers, books, NASA documents, Russian translations, etc. I took copious notes and slowly began organizing the information into a coherent whole.
How did the book itself come about?
The writing of the book was a labor of love.
It was done part-time over about five years, during and after my time in law school. As noted in the Preface of the book itself, the research was done pre-Internet, so all the references had to be located in hardcover printed versions in book-sized volumes on dusty library shelves, then carried to the xerox machine and photocopied for a nickel a page. If you stacked it up, I’d probably have 30 linear feet of material shoved in filing cabinets from this time period. Also, there were no computers with word processors, so everything had to be typed on an electric IBM Selectric typewriter (a relic I still possess, BTW), on sheets of paper, with illustrations literally pasted onto the typed pages. Copies of chapters for review had to be printed off at the copy shop, then mailed to the recipient in a large envelope via snail-mail.
It was another two decades before the entire work could be scanned into electronic form by a generous colleague, and then it was a few years after that before I could find the time to edit and clean up the electronic version sufficiently to make me comfortable with putting it online for general public access.
What was the reaction at the time?
Most of my scientific reviewers were supportive, perhaps because most of them were sent only one or two chapters related to their known areas of interest or knowledge. Some were skeptical — especially a few of the radio SETI people like the late Barney Oliver — but these were offset by others like the late Ronald Bracewell, who strongly approved of my conclusions regarding probe SETI and with whom I had several discussions during my telescopic searches for ET probes.
I also got a signed postcard from the late SF writer Robert Heinlein, saying that he approved of my use of the word “xenology”.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, the book was not widely circulated, so its impact at that time was very low. The text has only been generally available for the last 10-15 years in electronic form. During that time, its influence appears to be growing via mimetic diffusion, but relatively slowly because I’ve not been promoting the book since my nanotechnology work fully occupies my time.
What has been the book’s legacy as time has gone on?
While I didn’t coin the term “xenology,” I was certainly one of the first to recommend its general usage to describe the field, in a very brief item published in Nature in 1983. Up until then, people were calling the field “exobiology” or the even more etymologically defective “astrobiology”, and in some contexts even “SETI”, “extraterrestrial communication”, “life in the universe”, and other phrases that were sometimes used to discuss broader aspects of the field.
To some extent this confusion still exists today, though the term “astrobiology” seems to have caught on to refer to the subfields described in Chapters 4-8 of my book. But xenology as a comprehensive term for the entire field of “alien studies” has not yet caught on in the mainstream scientific community, perhaps in part because I didn’t attend conferences and pursue high visibility in the 1970s and 1980s, and perhaps in part because so much of the material in my book is commonly deemed too “speculative” for serious scientific discourse. (After the book was written, Titan was discovered to have open oceans, after which my discussion of thalassogens may have seemed a little less “speculative”.) The widest usage at present of the word “xenology” in the manner I use it may be in the science fiction community.
I’ve been out of the field for a long time, so I haven’t read the recent literature and thus may be a poor judge of the book’s legacy. However, I’ve been noticing the work getting cited more and more often as time goes on. Every month or two, someone contacts me by email about the book, out of the blue. A while back, one fellow put up a mirror with my permission, and another fellow laboriously converted the entire book into a different format that he likes better, on his own time.
With exo-planetology ramping up in recent years, what future do you see for this area of thinking and research?
With a thousand extrasolar planets now known, several of them Earth-sized, theoretical planetology is experiencing a huge rebirth. This could lead to a corresponding rebirth in the entire field of xenology.
However, I would caution that the full import of the emerging technologies of AI and nanotechnology have not been sufficiently factored into everyone’s assessment of the possibilities. Given the speed at which these two “exponential” technologies are emerging in human civilization, one must assume that other intelligent species on other worlds would have experienced similar exponential technological growth. This has major implications both for what we might find out there, and for what we might not find out there.