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review: Alien Contact

by Rob Friesel

'Alien Contact' by Marty HalpernWith Alien Contact, Marty Halpern presents us with an anthology of science fiction short stories predicated on (what else?) first contact with alien species. I was looking for exactly such an anthology, and in my desperation to find such a thing, I decided to start a rumor that John Joseph Adams1 was going to publish one:

Fortunately, JJA replied that Halpern had already assembled and published exactly the anthology I was seeking. So I immediately rushed out and bought it.

Overall? I liked Alien Contact very much; many stories I loved, and a few I could do without. That said, the composite rating for all the collected short stories was an even 3.5.

Individual story reviews:

“The Thought War” by Paul McAuley : Doesn’t align well with my idea of what a “first contact” story is, but it fits with a modified view of that trope within the genre. It has a few moments, and the style works pretty well. ★★★½☆

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman : Another one that doesn’t align with my idea of a “first contact” story, but is a great story just the same. Though Gaiman gives us what is more like an extended metaphor for our relationships with the opposite sex2 than with an alternate species. Quaint and sentimental and not overly cloying. ★★★★☆

“Face Value” by Karen Joy Fowler : This is more like what I was looking for in a first contact story, albeit another one that uses inter-sex and/or romantic friction as the anvil for the theme’s hammer blows. That said: this is a wonderfully crafted tale. ★★★★★

“The Road Not Taken” by Harry Turtledove : A quirky take on the first contact theme; I enjoyed some of the inversions, not to mention the way he explored the non-linear nature of technological development (as alluded to in the title).3 Turtledove’s style isn’t my favorite though, even if I otherwise enjoyed the story. ★★★☆☆

“The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything” by George Alec Effinger : Feels like another inversion of what I think of as a first contact story–like the preceding short story, only more from the human point of view, and without an alien race that’s into conquering.4 Good sense of humor in there, but always with the “one generation to interstellarism”… ★★★☆☆

“I Am the Doorway” by Stephen King : No surprise — this one is more of a horror story in scifi clothing. There are some elements to work with here but mostly you’ve got the entertaining fright factor. Typical King. ★★★½☆

“Recycling Strategies for the Inner City” by Pat Murphy : Really enjoyed this, all the way through. Neat take on the subject, especially the bit about comparing cars to horses. ★★★★☆

“The 43 Antarean Dynasties” by Mike Resnick : Equal parts humorous and sad. Though not (strictly speaking) a first contact story, it does have some elements that fulfill (or at least stand in for) that role. Quaint little allegory about conquest and racial tension. ★★★★☆

“The Gold Bug” by Orson Scott Card : Effectively an “Ender” story. (Of course?) Not one that I particularly enjoyed; tedious and too wrapped up in its own mythology. By the time any introspection happens around being but one of multiple species in the universe… well: that gets lost in the noise. ★☆☆☆☆

“Kin” by Bruce McAllister : First read this in Dozois’ 24th. I find this one so difficult to relate to; it feels forces. It also doesn’t really seem internally consistent with respect to the ethics in its own little morality play. It has some interesting ideas, but doesn’t hold up beyond some surface-level speculation. ★★☆☆☆

“Guerrilla Mural of a Siren’s Song” by Ernest Hogan : Quirky and a bit enigmatic, but that’s what you need when you’re talking about art–and esp. when you’re talking about art as the only viable lens through which to view an alien mind. Hogan strikes the right notes here for what is (and isn’t) said, for how it’s said, and for giving us such a frustratingly perfect narrator. ★★★★★

“Angel” by Pat Cadigan : I first encountered this story… oh, about ten years ago, and it was over ten years old at the time. It doesn’t focus on the “first contact” aspect, but the themes are there: the focus on the alienness of the alien, and the alienness of ourselves. When McAllister wrote “Kin”, I imagined that he had something like this in mind as inspiration. But this one is pitch-perfect. ★★★★★

“The First Contact with the Gorgonids” by Ursula K. Le Guin : Le Guin is amazing, and there is something special (and comic) about the first contact story embedded here. You’ll feel like it’s the send-up for some baffling sci-fi slapstick comedy, but there’s something more going on in there with the gender politics. ★★★★☆

“Sunday Night Yams at Minnie and Earl’s” by Adam-Troy Castro : In my mind, I went between a two- and a four-star rating several times. Where are the aliens? Where is the first contact bit? Why does it feel so rambling? But there’s also this:

Occasionally I glanced at the big blue cradle of civilization hanging in the sky, remembered for the fiftieth or sixtieth or one hundredth time that none of this had any right to be happening, and reminded myself for the fiftieth or sixtieth or one hundredth time that the only sane response was to continue carrying the tune.

And that made it worth it, for sure. ★★★☆☆

“A Midwinter’s Tale” by Michael Swanwick : Like the story that precedes it in the collection, there is an element of stylistic fancy here. Foreign, second-hand narration embedded in and interrupted by other, unreliable (and possibly fabricated) narration. Aspects of it remind me of China Míeville’s Embassytown,5 but stronger notes of cannibalism. ★★★★☆

“Texture of Other Ways” by Mark W. Tiedemann : That there is a first contact situation, and that we have no basis for establishing communication with the alien species: this I understand. That we hastily engineer not-quite telepaths to bridge that communication gap: this I understand. That our species does this because (the story suggests) our species is impatient: this I understand. That those alien species also seem impatient enough to permit that to happen that way? I do not understand. (Also: parts of the story, especially the end, seem unnecessarily oblique?) ★★½☆☆

“To Go Boldly” by Cory Doctorow : Back and forth on this story, back and forth. That a species or civilization might be so advanced that it doesn’t even recognize what you’re doing as anything but a game? Clever; cute, even. And there was something endearing about the hammy lampooning style here. But also something sort of… smug?6 ★★½☆☆

“If Nudity Offends You” by Elizabeth Moon : The approach was good, the narrator was just about pitch-perfect; but I couldn’t help but wonder about their motivation, and given the colloquial narrative style, I couldn’t help but wonder: if she forgot about it all together, why tell the story like she’s telling it from her front-porch? ★★★☆☆

“Laws of Survival” by Nancy Kress : If this isn’t one of Kress’ best, please point me to better so that I might exalt. It’s a little long, but the first contact element is played well, and in such a way that it informs her deeper themes (and not fitting those themes to the first contact element). ★★★★★

“What You Are About To See” by Jack Skillingstead : The alcoholism bit felt a bit heavy-handed; and the bit with the alien was played more for the “weird” factor (an excuse to do some time-slipping) than it was for the first contact element. I guess it came together in the end, but I found myself more frustrated than not. ★★☆☆☆

“Amanda and the Alien” by Robert Silverberg : Pruriently amusing at times and but so that makes you feel a little creepy?7 In the same vein as “If Nudity Offends You”–sort of. In the same vein as “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”–sort of. ★★☆☆☆

“Exo-Skeleton Town” by Jeffrey Ford : A slight whiff of Naked Lunch? and/or a taste of Gun, with Occasional Music?8 Surreal and twisted up and though the aliens are not all that alien, there is a great story in here. ★★★★☆

“Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss : Some lovely writing, but somewhere the story gets lost in the poetics. (And I couldn’t even ding it for falling back hard on one of the obviously-inevitable slain-lamb metaphors which, though we had a slain lamb, never quite tied in with the story in a meaningful way.) ★★☆☆☆

“Swarm” by Bruce Sterling : Not strictly “first contact”, but “first contact with them“. Reminds me in many ways of Blindsight by Peter Watts,910 particularly with respect to its twisty little ending. And this is my favorite kind of first contact story–where some seemingly innocuous species turns out to be unimaginably older and more mature than some arrogant human species, and one that has written off “intelligence” as a cancer. (Only some small-ish points off here for aspects of the style.) ★★★★☆

“MAXO Signals” by Charles Stross : Pitch perfect in every way. The right length, just the right twist, and just the right little joke to stab at you contra to “Swarm” (which you just finished reading). ★★★★★

“Last Contact” by Stephen Baxter : As the title suggests, almost an anti-first contact story. But’s understated, and has the perfect tone on which to end the anthology. ★★★★★

Further reading: Halpern’s blog post round-up of his research etc. in creating this anthology

UPDATE: (6/25/2012) Marty Halpern offers up this point of clarification:

He also recommends one of his other anthologies, Is Anybody Out There? — which is dedicated to interpretations of the Fermi paradox.

  1. Currently: John Joseph Adams is my favorite anthologist. []
  2. I’m being a little too heteronormative there. The story would go after the same point if Vic and Enn were gay. So in that way, it’s more about entering the foreign country of sexual maturity than it is entering the foreign country of “girls”. The key points remain the same though: let’s confront what it means to grow into our sexuality, and let’s use aliens on Earth as the backing trope. []
  3. That said, at one point when reading this my thought was: “Did he just finish playing Civilization? or Alpha Centauri? or something?” (And then I noticed it was first published in 1985 so… probably not.) []
  4. So… an inverted version of the previous inversion? []
  5. My review of Embassytown: February 14, 2012. []
  6. I swear I don’t say this about every Doctorow piece. I really don’t. I really did like this story so much better than (say…) “When SysAdmins Ruled the Earth”; but… []
  7. Who writes teenaged girls like this? Maybe I just don’t understand the Bay Area? []
  8. My review of Gun, with Occasional Music: July 18, 2008. []
  9. My review of Blindsight: April 9, 2007. []
  10. Though in all fairness, “Swarm” predates by Blindsight by 24 years. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

3 Responses to review: Alien Contact

found_drama says:

If you couldn’t tell from the review… I recommend it. There are a couple of duds in there, but for the most part it’s solid–a bunch of real winners and keepers.

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