Pioneer 10 will be recovered in my lifetime, by an alien race that calls itself the Listeners in a language they did not invent. It will be recovered because they are specifically searching for incoming communications, with the same diligence and sense of grave importance with which we are searching for incoming asteroids. Their interpretation of it, while incorrect, will be closer to the mark than most other aliens’ would be. Most other aliens don’t call themselves the Listeners.
For example, consider an ancient and distant race that evolved on a Mercury-sized planet with an erratic orbit around its sun. When it became linguistically necessary to have a name for themselves as a whole, they simply appropriated the collective noun already used to describe large groups of them. Like most isolated Earth cultures, their name best translates to People. Humanity will never come into direct contact with these beings, and as result they will adopt the Listener name for them, which translates to Recorded-Speakers. The Speakers evolved in a state of constant, unpredictable climactic upheaval. Their planet skipped from gravity well to gravity well, rarely completing a classic elliptical orbit around a star or gas giant. Even their planet’s rotational period and effective gravity varied from century to century. Rapid adaptation was therefore essential, which for a time meant that only single-celled organisms, able to create a responsive genetic hive-mind through frequent conjugation, were able to persist. Eventually, the first viable multicellular organisms developed: organisms that could share genetic material with almost as much abandon as their ancestors, while still reaping the benefits of cell differentiation. When a somatic/germline cell differentiation eventually developed, much later relative to the first appearance of nucleic acids than it did on Earth, it was because their massive chromosome-analogs had become as wise as the genetic hive-mind was smart: they had different genes for each possible climactic condition, and the ability to selectively express the appropriate ones during embryonic development, rather than on-the-fly. This evolutionary process had a significant legacy. While their somatic cells follow a central dogma analogous to ours, their germline genetic information is subject to extreme flux: Speaker sex always involves conjugation of all germline cells. After two Speakers have had sex, they are subsequently almost as related, in the sense of heredity, as two siblings. This means that over a lifetime, a Speaker’s heritable genotype evolves, while its phenotype remains constant. Speaker relationships are necessarily “one-night-stands” for the same reason Earth animals avoid incest. So imagine the predicament of a selfish gene, trying to maximize its own reproductive success. Once a Speaker has had multiple partners, it is less related to itself than others may be, so self-preservation becomes less important than a sense of differential altruism. The evolutionary psychology result is that a Speaker’s level of affection for another Speaker is based on an extremely complicated, time-dependent calculation. It sounds almost plausible that an Earth raptor could calculate exactly how related someone was to her, and act accordingly. But a Speaker is only able to intuit this based on close observation and interaction.
Speakers are more empathic, in more dimensions, than humanity will ever be. Their lives and perceptions are based almost entirely on complex social interactions. There is no way a non-Speaker could predict whether two Speakers, left in a room alone for five minutes, would end up grooming each other, brawling, or engaging in communication that is in its emotional import as intense as either. Social, intelligent beings have two modes of analysis. One is used to navigate society, the other to navigate the universe. Mysticism is the result of trying to use social tools to analyze apparently non-social phenomena such as cosmology. Speakers have more sophisticated social tools than most intelligent races, and so their mysticism is quite deeply felt, elaborate, and prevalent. So even though I am omniscient, I can’t explain why the Speakers launched their own Pioneer probe, millions of years before ours. Not because I don’t know, but because as a non-Speaker, your mind is simply not configured for the knowledge. It was for mystical reasons, and their mysticism is as out of our reach as art using n-dimensional color would be. I can explain, though, why their Pioneer probe was programmed with simulated emotions, or at least I can provide a satisfying reductionistic fable.
The Speakers, like all intelligent races, have a Frankenstein myth. Any intelligent race progresses from zero-technology to having a civilization defined by technology, and somewhere in between realizes that by logical extension, technology could eventually bear social-mode analysis. They attempt to grapple with this in social-mode, creating art expressing both fear and hope. Almost all species place more emphasis on fear-art than on hope-art, however. This is again due to evolutionary psychology: if there are a snake and an apple lying in the grass, it’s better to overlook the apple than the snake (barring a few truly bizarre species). So the defining story about technology tends to be one of fear of it becoming sentient. A race’s technological development is largely predicted by the precise nature of this story. The Speaker Frankenstein’s Monster looked just like a normal Speaker, and was almost as intelligent in many ways, but had no emotions. This meant that its behavior could not be predicted or controlled by conventional means. It was a confused bag of pointless stimulus-response mechanisms, many of which, due to the bitterness of its creator, involved violence. The literary aim of the original story was to argue that exposure to such a being was necessarily dehumanizing: the protagonists were forced to try to anticipate its actions in “rational mode,” which meant suppressing their empathic instincts. Most adaptations and retellings of the story were done much more simply, conserving only the sense that an emotionless being would be very dangerous and horrifying. So all Speaker attempts at cybernetics were met with public outcry, which in Speaker society always dooms a project—the individual members quit or go mad under the emotional pressure—until a way was found to produce intelligent behavior from processes modeled on Speaker emotion, rather than verbal logic.
From that point on, all complex machinery in this distant star system could feel pain and joy; or at least behaved consistently as if it did, which due to the nature of their Frankenstein myth was enough for most Speakers. When the Speakers decided to launch their version of a Pioneer probe, they had no choice but to make it intelligent; the task of navigating their chaotic star system could not be managed in advance or with a telecom time-lag. So they made it very smart indeed, hoping that it would be able to teach their language to the race that recovered it and on its own accomplish their indescribable intent. This necessitated making it equally sophisticated psychologically, and it became something of a celebrity during the decades it took to complete. As it left the star system, the Speaker Pioneer kept in contact with its fans, and with personal friends it had made. It kept up communications, to the extent the speed of light made it possible, for centuries afterward. As the time lag increased, however, it became impossible to form personal bonds with individual Speakers, and so communication with its home world became less and less satisfying. Eventually, the Speaker Pioneer simulated becoming unbearably lonely in empty space.
It was all but immortal. Unlike our own, it required a constant supply of energy even when not navigating, but it was able to recharge its fuel cells using starlight. As long as it kept within the galactic plane and husbanded its energy for the rare times it would need to avoid obstacles, it would remain functional. Immortals rarely take risks, but Speaker psychology is abnormal, and less biased toward self-preservation than other evolutionarily viable psychologies. The Speaker Pioneer decided to take a one-way dive into the gravity well of a star system that reminded it of its home. It had no gas giant, so achieving escape velocity while maintaining sentience would be impossible, so this was likely suicide, but what if…
It was delighted, or would have seemed to a Speaker to be delighted, to sense life forms on one of the five rocky planets orbiting the star it was now permanently tethered to. No communications issued from the planet, but without the energy to try its luck elsewhere the Pioneer optimistically approached it. Scans confirmed both that there was complex life on the planet and that it was not at present capable of conversation. The Pioneer, however, was resourceful. On the Listener home planet, at this time, there was a genus of creatures, mammaloid, predatory, that in time would have evolved to be much like us. They were social, which created selection pressure toward the development of verbal ability, which would have created the capacity for intelligence. This selection pressure had been in effect for thousands of years, but it was small compared to the many other forces shaping the creatures’ development, and progress had been slow. This changed dramatically when the Speaker Pioneer dropped its various translator modules all over these creatures’ land mass. They had required very little adaptation. Each one contained various pedagogical routines for the Speaker language and a means of dispensing Speaker artifacts as prizes: the universal language for “Correct!” Many of these artifacts could be used as tools, weapons, or ornaments. They were useful enough, in other words, that selection pressure for linguistic ability became the overriding force in natural selection. The Speaker Pioneer stayed in touch with the modules, ensuring that they dispensed their artifacts at the proper rate and monitoring the creatures' progress. Every few millennia, it upped the complexity of the tests. It behaved as though it were confident it would soon have proper company again. After a million years, though, it realized there was a problem it could not have anticipated.
The extreme selection pressure toward linguistic ability had warped the creatures’ mindset. Evolution had taken a shortcut in crafting the verbal parts of these creatures’ brains. They could parse a communication, but in doing so they automatically incorporated it into their belief system. Any imperative was obeyed without hesitation or reflection, and any statement, no matter how ludicrous, was accepted until either countermanded or directly disproven. On Earth, this mutation also arose once, and creatures with this mindset were briefly the most sophisticated creatures on the planet. They were the Neanderthals, and they thrived until they encountered Cro-Magnons, who while less cognitively advanced still had enough verbal ability to enslave their suggestible superiors. Modern humans can be tricked into this mindset temporarily by hypnotists and marketers, but otherwise they possess the ability to comprehend while disbelieving or disobeying. These creatures, however, were given enough power by the artifacts given to them to more than offset the occasional bit of mind control. Their Neanderthal-analogues prospered, the other species in their genus went extinct or were marginalized, and the Listeners emerged as the dominant species on the planet. The translation modules then ceased, for a time, to be of use. They were not designed to explain scientific or philosophical concepts, as the Speaker Pioneer had been expected to be recovered by a space-faring race already familiar with them. Dismantling them was impossible, as the modules had instructed the Listeners not to do so. The Speaker Pioneer had realized that Speaker-style conversation, necessarily an interaction of equals, would never be possible with these creatures, so it had shut itself down in final despair. Its last act was to broadcast its mind back to the Speaker homeworld. It will not arrive there for some time, but when it does the shockwave it sends through Speaker society will destabilize and ultimately destroy it.
So the modules were not updated, and the Listeners had to crawl along, eventually bootstrapping themselves to a high-technology civilization. They had, inevitably, become unified in a “linear-hierarchical” society, in which the oldest Listener still able to govern was the Autocrat, the second-oldest ruler over all but him, and so on. Their society was and is rigidly totalitarian—the entire civilization might be said to have one mind. Intellectual freedom can be created by the government by isolating groups of people working in the same discipline from each other, temporarily preventing them from reaching consensuses. When consensus is needed or desired, the groups are carefully merged in such a way that the best ideas often win out—a difficult task involving series of buffer Listeners dealing with buffer levels of abstraction to avoid simply brainwashing either group with the other’s ideas. Since children are infallibly indoctrinated into this system, it has endured for 500 years and will endure for far longer. The only conceivable threat to the Listener hierarchy is outside communication. They know, by analysis of the Speaker technological remnants, that it might arrive from any direction, from incalculably alien beings. Alien linguistic content is as menacing to them as Cherniak’s Riddle: even contemplating the possibility of it is risky and best avoided. For this reason the primary aim of the Listener space program has been to send out tiny probes in all directions that scan incoming signals and projectiles for meaning, and intercept them for analysis. One might expect the probes to be programmed either to destroy alien messages outright, or to analyze it themselves and render it into a non-destructive form—repeatedly inserting “some aliens believe, but you don’t, that” into the text, for example. The reason they don’t, let me say with my naïve reductionist hat on, is their own Frankenstein myth.
The concept of a device able to parse linguistic content without believing or obeying it—an entity like an Earthling—is naturally deeply horrifying to them. Evolution selected for those proto-Listeners who abominated their Cro-Magnon-analogs: avoiding them when possible, and when forced to interact killing them before they could speak. Early in modern Listener history, before they were unified, the leader of a significant number crafted a useful fiction to solidify his control that tapped into this fear, and twisted it into a general fear of destroying messages unread, in this way ensuring that his commands would always be listened to. Listeners are capable of constructing lies, but they are technically incapable of lying, as they always believe what they say. So the leader forgot that his myth was a myth, and eventually the story and its morals became ingrained in Listener culture. So when an automated probe captures our Pioneer, and suspects the plaque of trying to communicate, it will take Pioneer back to the Listener world, broadcasting a warning. The Speaker Pioneer, incidentally, will be accidentally reactivated by this signal.
The Listeners will have prepared an island full of First Contact Specialists, and a system of monitoring them such that they hope they will be able to deduce the general nature of the message from the specialists’ behavior after deciphering it, without having any Listeners outside the island learning the exact contents of it. The Listener specialists will correctly interpret the guide to the location of Earth. They will interpret the drawings of organisms and spacecraft as what they are. However, they will make several vital mistakes. Predictably, they will assume the plaque must be normative, rather than descriptive. Compounding this will be the fact that an arrow to them suggests the prize-delivery-mechanism of the translator modules, and therefore they will read it as pointing in the opposite direction. So they will ultimately decide the plaque means this: “Here is a map to a planet. Get multiple organisms and have them pilot a spacecraft to that planet.” With great ingenuity, the Specialists will then manage to break through the buffers surrounding them and infect the rest of the population with the meme. Within my grandchildren’s lifetime, an armada of alien spaceships will descend upon Earth. They will declare themselves our overlords as they arrive, but they will carry no weapons, a fact which we will be slow to realize. Eventually, the Speaker Pioneer will arrive, having hitchhiked in the armada’s gravitational wake. It will explain the situation. Being ignorant of its engineered origins, humanity will assume that the Pioneer’s air of embarrassment is genuine.