Genre: Science Fiction, Anthology
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Publication Date: November 1, 2011
Editor Website: Marty Halpern
I like short fiction. The mode of it allows writers to expand and explore in a way that the novel or even novella really cannot match. These thought experiments prod your mind to think outside of the box. And being a young(ish) fan of short fiction, I also appreciate publishers willing to create reprint anthologies. Without them, finding some of my now favorite stories would not have happened. So it was with pleasure that I devoured Alien Contact from editor Marty Halpern.
Published by Nightshade Books, this anthology collects twenty-six stories of humanity’s contact with aliens (or in few inverted perspectives, vice versa), many of them by noted and award-winning SF authors. These various stories have appeared in a numerous venues, but it is pleasant and useful to have the crème de la crème collected together in one volume.
After Halpern’s introduction (be sure to check out his blog for the “DVD extras” of the book), the first story is “Thought War” by Paul McAuley. At first glance this story seems to be in the wrong anthology. McAuley uses the term “zombies” to refer to the aliens of the story. Constructed in a first person perspective, an observer looks back on events that happened years ago. Through the narrator, the reader is introduced to the zombie-like invaders that mankind never understands or even defeats. McAuley’s aliens exist as a way to explore the old conundrum: What effect does observation have on the observed? In what way does seeing a thing change its very nature, even to the point where we cannot remember there was a difference? Through scientific extrapolation of the theories of Boltzmann brains and quantum entanglement, McAuley reflects on humanity’s consciousness and its direct effects on what it sees.
“How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman is a story I’ve read before. In it, a couple of teenage boys stumble into the wrong London party. Pleased at the number of coeds there, they decide to stay, only to find that these beauties are not quite your run-of-the-mill college girls. The story is really a vignette of an encounter with the unknown, and while it has the Gaiman name attached to it, I have never felt it to be one of Gaiman’s best. It is an enigmatic and incomplete encounter by teenage boys with the ineffable that leaves the reader with too many unsatisfied questions, particularly about Vic’s odd reaction to Stella.
Karen Joy Fowler’s “Face Value” is a tragic story of a man and wife team sent to an alien planet to make contact with the moth-like intelligence found there. Taki is the xenobiologist and Hesper, his wife, a poet. Taki thrives, but Hesper becomes more and more depressed until even her poet’s soul is lost. Fowler’s sad story is about transcendence and the place where beauty comes from. It’s about relationship too. Taki and Hesper’s inability to understand one another has its echo in Taki’s inability to communicate with the natives. There is a haunting beauty to Fowler’s story that will leave you pondering long after you read it.
“The Road Not Taken” borrows the idea of life’s divergence from Robert Frost and broadens it to apply to cultures and technology. Humanity encounters its first extraterrestrial intelligence but not quite in the way you would expect. Harry Turtledove’s story is one of the more surprising in the anthology and to describe it in too much detail would give away its cleverness, but suffice it to say that this story exemplifies just why Turtledove is considered a master of alternate history narratives.
You will laugh uproariously at George Alec Effinger’s “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything.” Did you ever know someone who had an opinion on everything? A person whose opinion most often did not jive with culture at large or generally accepted standards of excellence? I know I did, and man, was that person annoying. Now imagine an entire alien race composed of such individuals and you’ll grasp the hilarious conceit of Effinger’s story. I haven’t laughed this hard in some time. I just love this story.
After Effinger’s hilariousness and Turtledoves’ cleverness, Stephen King’s “I Am the Doorway” becomes all the scarier. Though its technological references are anachronistic (it is set in the period before the space shuttle program) it is still a horrifying tale of a former astronaut to Venus. Now retired to a Florida Key, the narrator is slowly finding his body being taken over by a series of eyes, which force him to commit horrific acts. No one believes the narrator when he tells them of course. King’s story is an archetypal example of humanities’ primal fear of losing control of the body, but it loses none of its scariness for that. I felt the chills running down my back the entire time I was reading it.
In any anthology about aliens, one has to expect that one of the authors will write a story about schizophrenia, a mental disorder that so often presents with beliefs about extraterrestrials. “Recycling Strategies for the Inner City” by Pat Murphy exploits reader’s expectations about such a story to create a science fiction narrative. Throughout this short tale, the reader is left wondering if the events are the fictions of a damaged mind or real and actual. And Murphy’s choice of ending continues to leave us in doubt, a perfect conclusion to this type of tale.
“The 43 Antarean Dynasties” by Mike Resnick mocks humanity’s inability to appreciate the scope of history and leave behind deep-seated cultural superiority. Told from an Antarean’s perspective, we observe as the tour guide takes a family of unappreciative humans around the amazing artifacts of the Antarean’s millennia of existence. Yet, naive imperialists that they are, these humans fail to appreciate the beauty around them. It is a thought-provoking story for readers on either side of cultural and societal divides.
“The Gold Bug” by Orson Scott Card is set in the universe of Ender’s Game, and relates the story of Sel Menach after he gives up the governorship of his colony to Ender Wiggin. The soldier turned xenobiologist heads towards the southern pole of his colony world only to discover along that way that not all of the wiped out Formic’s creations are dead. Though it is possible to read this story without knowing anything about Ender (Card gives a through a lengthy sketch of the Ender story through Sel’s memories of the Formic War) knowledge of the quintet of Ender novels fleshes out the story. I understand the story’s inclusion in this anthology, but felt that one by Card less tied to his Enderverse would have been more appropriate. There is too much text wasted on story background so that the primary plot of the tale comes all in a rush.
Bruce McAllister’s “Kin” is another of those stories that weigh on your mind for some time after you’ve read it. A boy attempts to hire an alien assassin to kill a government functionary that has ordered a family member killed. McAllister’s tale sets a very real issue – population explosion and methods to deal with it – into a science fiction backdrop. With that as color, the reader find that McAllister also explores the kinship (hence the title) between the boy and the alien assassin he hires. McAllister’s story works on several levels and is incredible powerful for its complexity housed in a seemingly straightforward narrative. “Kin” is probably my favorite story of the anthology.
I have to admit that I don’t really get “Guerrilla Mural of Siren’s Song” by Ernest Hogan. The story appears to be about a street artist who encounters sirens deep in the winds of Jupiter. It’s also a love paean to a dead woman. Art and experience combine in an experiential tale of whirling emotions and unreliable narration. It’s likely to be the favorite story in the anthology of people with a less analytical and more artistic bent than myself, but for me it was rather confusing.
Pat Cadigan shocks with a tale of a hermaphrodite and alien reproduction in “Angel.” This is another of those “moment” stories, in which the reader encounters a character at a key turning point in their life. The alien, dubbed “Angel” by our narrator, is exiled to Earth for committing a unspoken crime. But Angel is also a wish-giver to those it likes. It is able to control humans through something it exudes and make them perform its bidding on behalf of its companions. Our narrator takes up with Angel as a way to survive mean streets, but a confluence of events leads to Angel doing the very thing s/he was exiled for the first place.
“The First Contact with the Gorgonids” by Ursula K. Le Guin shares much in common with Resnick’s contribution. Again we have human tourists, though this time in Australia, that encounter a race of aliens they mistake for aborigines. Le Guin’s story is not funny, nor intended to be, but is rather about a woman in a bad marriage finding relief from it by a chance encounter with extraterrestrials. Her husband is everything Americans are often accused of being – loud, brash, rude, and myopic – when on vacation. He gets his comeuppance, and the female narrator ends up the heroine in a story rife with semi-tragic irony.
“Sunday Night Yams at Minne and Earl’s” by Adam Troy-Castro leaves the Earth and heads to the moon for a bit of magic realism. A former astronaut, a man who had served many years of hard labor to try and make the moon habitable is now an old man soon to die, who wants to recapture a memory of those days. So he returns to a moon now teaming with life all unaware of the old astronaut’s sacrifices. The story is not an obvious alien encounter tale, but it does identify that should humankind ever make the leap for the stars, it can and must take along something of home when it goes.
Humanity has left for other planets in Michael Swanwick’s “A Midwinter’s Tale.” Combining elements of the fairy tale and science fiction, Swanwick’s story both celebrates the relationship between man and beast, and wonders what would happen if man could gift his beast with intelligence. This is an intimate story of mutual cooperation on a planet hostile to humans and the sacrifice of one woman for the benefit of her race.
Mark W. Tiedmann wonders at the “how” of first contact in “Texture of Other Ways.” The narrator is part of a genetically bred human collective that thinks in communion with each other. It is believed that this group will be able to use a mind-to-mind contact to communicate with and discover the language of a race of spacefarers that mankind has discovered among the stars. But it all goes horribly wrong. Tiedmann concludes that if we were to find aliens out there, the language barriers would be near insurmountable, a true enigma.
Cory Doctorow’s excellent parody of Star Trek, “To Go Boldly” uses satire to highlight the resource heavy difficulties of space travel. To those familiar with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Doctorow’s story will remind them of the problem of Q. What if spacefaring technology is inherently wasteful? Is there a better way? Doctorow’s close parody of the popular show is quite funny, and the ironic ending is pitch-perfect.
“If Nudity Offends You” by Elizabeth Moon is another story I have read before. In this one, a court secretary, living in a trailer park, finds that her neighbors have been illegally tapping into her electricity. Most of the story is about her confrontation these odd foreigners who wear no clothes in their trailer, talk funny, and seem slightly off. The whole story builds up a surprise ending that makes you wonder if these foreigners were not just from a distant land, but from a different planet entirely. It’s a close encounter that is discovered only after the fact.
I love dogs. If you love dogs too, than “Laws of Survival” is going to hurt. Nancy Kress postulates an Earth first ravaged by human war and then seeded by aliens who hide away in domes but never depart them. Through coincidence, the heroine of the story is dragged into one of these domes to become a dog-trainer. The machines that represent the aliens want Jill to train dogs to “love” the machines. Jill doesn’t know why, but since the alternative is death, she makes the attempt, even though she has never owned a dog before. Kress’s story is about the loyal companionship a dog can provide even in a hostile situation, though the reasons for the aliens need are left unresolved by the end. Dog-lovers should be wary, as there are some very sad tearjerker events involving their favorite animal, but Kress does highlight the healing power of humanity’s best friend. I thought this story was amazing, and would love to see how Jill’s story pans out in a sequel.
“What You Are About To See” by Jack Skillingstead tells of Brian, former mercenary turned government contractor (a.k.a interrogator). Its difficult to describe this story without giving its content away, but suffice it to say that the story is about the choices we make, loyalty to kith and kin, and a broken man whose happy ending may end everyone else’s for good and all. It’s an enigmatic, complex, and thought-provoking tale.
Robert Silverberg creates one scary teenager in “Amanda and the Alien.” Amanda, a California teenager, easily identifies an escaped alien standing on a street corner even though it wears the body of a teenage girl. Taking the alien home instead of reporting it, Amanda uses the creature’s unique capabilities to service her own needs. The end of the tale leaves the reader left wondering who the alien really is, the being from outer space, or the self-involved creature who calls herself Amanda.
I’ve read “Exo-Skeleton Town” by Jeffrey Ford before but never with a eye on it as a an alien contact story. And at first glance it seems out of place in this anthology. In this story, humans and the bug-like aliens of the planet on which the story is set have already had a long relationship. But the aliens of this story are not beings from two different planets, but rather the other of humanity. By that I mean, who is behind the social façade of other people? We never presents ourselves as who we truly are, and Ford literalizes this by having the human characters of the story be forced to wear exo-skeleton’s designed to look like famous twentieth-century film stars. In a style reminiscent of the early days of film (a key plot element of the story also) Ford finds the alien not in other species, but our inmost beings.
Molly Gloss combines the skill of sheep farming with alien contact in “Lambing Season.” A sheep farmer, a woman, who lives the lonely but peaceful life of a modern herder, narrates the story. A chance glance at the night sky lets her see as green steak of light, which she follows to its landing site. There she encounters an alien, who subsequently leaves again. “Lambing Season” is a really a celebration of the stars and a simple life than having much to do with alien contact. It’s a nice story.
“Swarm” by Bruce Sterling is probably my second favorite of the anthology. Sterling takes the long view about nature of civilizations. A genetically engineered human scientist heads to The Swarm, a spacefaring hivemind that seems to lack any actual intelligence. Captain-Doctor Simon Afriel wants to harness the power of the worker drones for humanity’s use, but in surprising and well-written inversion, the tables are turned on humanity. The whole story played out unexpectedly for me, and also fulfilled my need for an alien contact story that read like a Poul Anderson space opera.
“MAXO Signals” by Charles Stross is a very short story, filled with scientific jargon that cleverly hides a, as its subtitle states, “A New and Unfortunate Solution to the Fermi Paradox.” It’s a funny and original story.
Stephen Baxter closes the anthology with the aptly titled, “Last Contact.” Humanity encounters no aliens physically in this end-of-the-world tale, but we do receive their signals. Just what those signals say we will never know as the universe pulls itself apart. Though sad, the tale ends on a hopeful note and is a perfect conclusion to the anthology.
Alien Contact is a title that might be slightly misleading. This is not an anthology of first contacts but rather a collection of encounters with the other, what we chose to call the alien, the ineffable, the different and unknowable. Halpern’s anthology is an excellent collection of tales that share a theme in common, but that manage postulate widely different scenarios. I enjoyed this anthology immensely and would definitely recommend to anyone who has ever wondered just who (or what) might be out there in the dark beyond.