Friday, February 4, 2022

The best novels of First Contact

For frequent visitors here, my interest in the the First Contact theme will come as no surprise. My fiction has explored the possibilities fairly extensively, for example in Moonstruck, the InterstellarNet series, and, most recently, Déjà Doomed. In "Alien AWOLs: The Great Silence," a chapter in Trope-ing the Light Fantastic: The Science Behind the Fiction, I address the absence of contact -- so far -- in a nonfiction sense. (Click on cover thumbnails on the blog RHS if you're curious about these titles.)

Why am I so interested? First, there’s the Big Question of are we alone. Whatever the answer, the implications are profound. But beyond that, there’s just so much great SF on the topic. A reader recently challenged me to name my favorite First Contact fiction. So: here 'tis! (And as hard as it was winnowing the candidates to a few, the order within my list is not a further ranking.)

(Oh, and please excuse Blogger's odd word-line spacing of this post.)

The list? Drumroll please ...

The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells

War of the Worlds
How could a list of First Contact novels not include the masterpiece that started the genre? The story that famously caused widespread panic in 1938 when Orson Wells produced it as a radio drama? And, on a more personal note, the 1953 movie adaptation was perhaps the first SF movie I ever saw. (Not first run – I’m younger than that.) Like most everything Wells wrote, The War of the Worlds was creative and clever.

 Contact, Carl Sagan

 Where Wells introduced the public to the notion of up-close-and-personal encounters with aliens, Sagan’s Contact popularized the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) through radio astronomy. And what adventure ensues!


It has since been my pleasure to visit the New Mexico radio-astronomy observatory made famous by the 1997 film adaptation and the West Virginia radio-astronomy observatory that’s home to the world’s largest steerable radio telescope – the latter place having much earlier been host to the first-ever SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) conference. Both were awesome.

Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang

 Another variation of First Contact storytelling is: how might humans achieve meaningful communication with aliens? We’ll likely have little in common with them. Our psychologies, even the senses with which we perceive the world, may be very different. “Story of Your Life” is an exemplar of the challenges – and joys – of tales in this subcategory.


Story of Your Life
Analog editor John Campbell famously challenged his authors to “Write me a story about a creature which thinks as well as a human but not like a human." In the novella “Story of Your Life,” Ted Chiang met that goal in truly outstanding fashion. I’m originally a physicist, and especially enjoyed that a philosophy of physics played a key role in the story. Arrival, the 2016 movie adaptation, omitted the physics wrinkle – but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.)

 (The collection includes several more Chiang stories. While those aren’t on the First Contact theme, all are excellent. Chiang is, simply, a fine SF craftsman.)

 Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke

Rendezvous with Rama
How about aliens we don’t quite meet, but whose presence is palpable? When well done, that can be intriguing. IMO, the finest example of this version of First Contact comes as we readers explore the wondrous artifact/world that is Rama as it hurtles into our solar system. Who made it? Why? Where is it going? What will it mean to us?

(Clearly I’m not the only SF author intrigued by the First Contact theme. I struggled to chose among three Clarke novels with a first-contact aspect. The others are Childhood’s End and 2001.)

The Mote in God’s Eye, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

The Mote in God's Eye
The “Moties” (as this novel’s aliens are nicknamed) are among the most memorable fictional aliens I’ve ever encountered. They certainly meet the John Campbell challenge (see my #3 pick). It never hurts when the stakes in an adventure are existential. Unlike my other picks, this time it’s humans reaching out to the aliens, not the other way around. And that outreach turns out not to have been the wisest of ideas ….

You needn’t take just my word for this final pick. Robert Heinlein dubbed it, “possibly the best contact-with-aliens story ever written."

(Unfamiliar with any of these gems? Amazon links were helpfully provided under the cover thumbnails.)

Oh, by the way, look forward to yet another take on the theme from me later this year. I call it On the Shoals of Space-Time.

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