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Book Review: Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern

Is Anybody Out ThereGenre: Anthology/Collection
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: DAW
Publication Date: June 1, 2010
ISBN-10: 0756406196
ISBN-13: 978-0756406196
Editor Websites: Nick Gevers, Marty Halpern

Is Anybody Out There is a new collection of short fiction by co-editors Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern which attempt to answer the question of the Fermi Paradox. Fermi’s Paradox can be defined as, “The apparent size and age of the universe suggest that many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations ought to exist. However, this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it.” First postulated by physicist Enrico Fermi over a luncheon with other Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists with his famous statement “Where are they?” the debate has raged over this apparent paradox since the 1950s. In Gevers and Halpern’s collection of fifteen original stories, this paradox gets the fictional treatment, explored and examined as only speculators can do.

The anthology opens with an introduction by Paul McAuley, a widely acclaimed hard SF writer, who explains the Fermi paradox’s origins and speculative solutions.

The first story of the collection is a contribution by Alex Irvine entitled “The Word He Was Looking For Was Hello”. In it, Irvine explores all the various solutions to Fermi’s paradox with a story of a lonely man intertwined with various theories that attempt to answer Fermi’s question. As an introduction to the anthology, this story was a good choice, as it fictionalizes the most of the solutions to the paradox and also ties them into a very personal, almost heart-wrenching personal story.

Michael Arsenault’s “Residue” is a protracted conversation between two lovers as they lie in the grass, look at the stars, and discuss the possibility of alien life. As a dialectic, philosophical discussion it reminds this reviewer of talks with college friends, when learning, discussion, and debate are often most paramount in life. And just as with those nights of laughter and talking, “Residue” rises to heights of fancy, but ends comfortably, amiably the two characters just being with each other, staring at the stars.

No DAW anthology is truly complete without a story by a writer about a writer, and Yves Meynard’s “Good News from Antares” is such a one. A down-and-out SF writer, whose once famous stories even got turned into a TV show, has an out of body experience in which he meets his most famous character, an alien from Antares, and is offered the knowledge of what is out there. In essence Meynard’s story looks into the idea that “the truth is out there” but that mankind just might not be able to cope with what that truth means.

Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn provide the only humorous tale of the bunch in “Report from the Field” in which a field agent for an alien civilization watches humanity over the course of a few of his days (time being different for him) in which mankind evolves into the present day. Resnick and Robyn use the alien perspective to look from the outside in at the oddities of the human race, and explain just why we might be considered for and prevented from joining any galactic civilization. There are lots of funny moments in this story.

In “Permanent Fatal Errors” author Jay Lake’s protagonist is part of a genetically modified crew of immortal spacers. But unlike the rest of his crew, he actually believes in the job he has been sent to accomplish, namely surveying a brown dwarf. Lake explores the “hiding in plain sight” solution to the Fermi paradox in this story, and also shines a green light on humanity’s own obsession with finding the answers to every puzzle. An interesting piece of fiction and one of only two in the collection that is not of a near future or present day variety.

Lake’s far future story is immediately followed by Paul Di Filippo’s “Galaxy of Mirrors”. In this story, humanity has spread to the stars and found nothing other than mostly empty worlds. Humanity seems to be the only sentient species in a vast cosmos. Fayard Avouris is a member of the increasingly apathetic humanity, and while on vacation on a space liner he is surprised when suddenly the world that he is circling suddenly has intelligent life, where none had been before. Di Filippo intertwines alternate universes, a God figure, and mankind’s need to not be alone into an inventive and unusual story, and is the only other far future tale of the anthology.

“Where Two or Three” by Sheila Finch is the story of a teenager, forced to volunteer at a hospice, who meets a former astronaut who seems to be completely crazy, believing in aliens. But they strike up a friendship and the astronaut convinces Maddie to take him out into the desert to attempt contact with the aliens he thought he met while in space. The story is about our collective and individual hope in alien life, about the dreams which brought about the SETI project, and that feeling which keeps humanity watching the skies.

David Langford’s “Graffiti in the Library of Babel” is a look at a possible method which alien life might use to contact us. It is interesting in its use of modern technology and the appearance of “graffiti” on a library of literature, which is used as a communication tool. A celebration of language while at the same time pointing out just how hard it would be to communicate with alien life, this story is quite clever in content.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s story of a paranormal investigator on the Spanish Steps in Rome is both romance and X-File-like narrative. “The Dark Man” follows a female journalist name Condi, hired to explore strange phenomena, who does her absolute best to disprove everything she investigates. But the dark man who appears only once a decade on the Spanish Steps is not so easily disproven, and just who is the strange Roman who watches Condi so very closely? There is lots of mystery with a paranormal twist in this lengthy but compelling story.

“One Big Monkey” by Ray Vukcevich uses an unreliable narrator, one nearly half mad, to relate a tale of a mission to Mars. It is unclear just what this story has to do with the theme of the anthology, being more of a cabin fever style suspense story, which leaves you wondering if the narrator is ever going to go completely off the rails.

The previous unreliable narrator is quickly followed by another one in “The Taste of Night” by Pat Cadigan. This one looks at the common belief held by many of the mentally ill in alien life. Mixing synesthesia, mental illness, and the story as told from inside the head of a person with both, Cadigan wonders if perhaps the only reason we haven’t heard from alien life is that we just might lack the right sense.

In “Timmy, Come Home” Matthew Hughes’ protagonist is hearing voices, but is not schizophrenic. The tension builds and builds until the final solution, in which the character finds his real self hidden under a mask of humanity. Hughes story becomes and exploration of self, and a look at humanity itself as the alien and the “other”. Nicely constructed, with a clear-cut use of the concrete and mundane to cement the character in our world even as another intrudes on his mind’s eye.

Ian Watson’s “Waterfall of Lights” spends some time fictionalizing a discussion of Fermi’s Paradox, after which one of the characters, an ophthalmologist, takes his theories about aliens and the human eye and puts them to the test. The ending of the story is left quite open, leaving us just what is going to happen to humanity next. Watson’s skill is in mixing known science and esoteric art to tell his story of the life out there. Though some might find the initial discussion to be dull (unless talk of the various solutions to Fermi’s theories does not bore you), this reviewer found this to be his favorite story of the collection, save one.

“Rare Earth” by Felicity Shoulders and Leslie What is the only story in which aliens actually come to Earth for a visit, but in the author’s estimation this is not a good thing, and Seattle is very nearly destroyed by their visitation. Amidst the chaos the story of a boy and his family is juxtaposed against the very same thing in the unusual aliens. It seems that What and Shoulders, while acknowledging the “otherness” of any alien life, also think that there may be some very base emotions in common, no matter how varied or different our needs.

The anthology closes with “The Vampires of Paradox” by James Morrow, easily the best story of the collection, and this reviewer’s favorite. In it, a group of monastics turns to a New York University professor of paradoxes for help. It seems that their small order of brothers and sisters, founded on the teaching of Tertullian, use paradoxes to feed the needs of vampiric beings from somewhere else, in order to prevent that somewhere else from swallowing the Earth. As well as being an excellent primer in the types of paradoxes, Morrow’s story has sort of intellectual suspense to it, the plot being hinged in the ability of the professor to create a paradox that will feed the vampires until all danger has passed of Earth’s devouring.

The stories in Is Anybody Out There? are all quite clever in their answer to the question postulated. The editors did a disservice to the unreliable narrator stories and the far future science stories by placing them next to each other, as each overshadowed the other such that they became hard to distinguish. It would have been better if those four stories had been spread throughout the rest of the near future and paranormal stories that make up the rest of the anthology.

Overall though, the anthology is an enjoyable read, one that is fairly entertaining with flashes of storytelling flair. Recommended if you have ever asked yourself the very question which provides the title.