An anthology solely made of first contact stories? Now that sounds like something I want to dig my teeth into. I read so much speculative/slipstream/literary/fantastic fiction that every now and then I really start to hanker for some good old science fiction. Thankfully, Gevers and Halpern’s anthology fit the bill. Not every story worked for me, but that wasn’t really a surprise with such a focused theme.
I’m not always a fan of themed anthologies as I tend to lose my interest in them towards the end of the book. Case in point, as I drew near the end of this anthology, I had to space the stories out so that I could give them the attention they deserve.
Paul McAuley’s introduction sets the scene: he explains the Fermi Paradox—even using conservative estimates, the chance of life on another planet is high enough that we should have seen/met someone by now, but where are they?—and puts some questions to it to set up the reader for the stories to come. Perhaps McAuley does too good a job and foreshadows the coming stories too well. I don’t know what the guidelines for this anthology were, but nearly every story brought in the Fermi paradox, and it started to feel a little overworked as I went through the book.
In Alex Irvine’s “The Word He Was Looking for Was Hello” we meet Dalton, who is struggling with the Fermi Paradox. This is the beginning of an almost singular note that rings throughout the anthology. Irvine alternates the narrative between Dalton’s struggles and alien visits that may have already happened. Irvine provides clues to whether the visits have happened, but lets the reader make his/her own decision. I’m not sure that it works for me, but Irvine has talent and the story is a lot of fun to read.
My favorite story in the anthology just might be “Residue” by Michael Arsenault. An unidentified couple eschews spending the evening in front of the TV in order to watch the stars. The resulting whimsical conversation about the potentiality of aliens is bright and inventive. And unlike the Morrow piece later in the anthology, the philosophizing in this story flowed nicely for me. Perhaps the fact that the story is almost entirely made up of dialog was what made the difference between the stories for me. If you’re going to write a story that’s only dialog, it had better be snappy dialog. And in my opinion, Arsenault succeeded.
Yves Meynard tackles the what-if idea of stories turning out to be true in “Good News from Antares.” It’s an interesting, if over-used, concept: the writer’s literary creations really exist. There’s a part of me that wonders whether the encounter was real or imagined, and it’s that thought that makes the story work for me. Either option is very plausible.
“Report from the Field” by Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn takes a look at how aliens might view us as potential candidates for enlightened life. I found stories like this alternately humorous and…not annoying, but somehow unfulfilling. This was no exception. The story elicited a few genuine chuckles as the alien viewing human life gets things wrongs, or interprets things in completely incorrect ways. But I can’t help but read these stories wondering, “Are those the things aliens would wonder about? Are those the things that would get misinterpreted?” To me, if the point is that the aliens are so different that our everyday life looks like an insurmountable risk to elevated life-forms, how could we hope to understand the alien mind in the story in the first place? When I get to this point mentally, I usually tell myself to stop being so serious and just enjoy the story.
Jay Lake’s “Permanent Fatal Errors” was a great story. The main character is one of several immortal Howards; genetically modifed humans created for deep-space exploration. The problem is, the modifications to the humans to make them Howards leaves them socially incapable of co-existing. So how do they work together in the enclosed area of a space ship? The intrigue and interaction of the characters was fascinating to me. Even though there are many similarity among the Howards, they are all unique and when something unexpected comes along on their trip, Lake creates a nice little action thriller with some of the Howards wanting to remain true to the mission and others wanting nothing more than to cause strife. The great thing is that even when things seem straightforward there’s always another twist on its way.
“Galaxy of Mirrors” by Paul Di Filippo attacks the question of what we would do if aliens and alien planets started showing up as completely formed entities, instead of slowly evolving other millennia as we did. Di Filippo’s main character devises a schema to determine where the next civilization will appear. The love interest for the main character feels contrived and doesn’t add a lot to the story. She feels a little under-developed and I would have liked to see the relationship develop more naturally.
“Where Two or Three” by Sheila Finch delves into the Fermi paradox, but Finch focuses on the human side of things. Maddie is doing community service at an assisted living facility and meets Sam, an astronaut. At first it seems the two will have nothing in common, but Maddie keeps coming back to Sam. Finch completely captures the curiosity and burgeoning maturity of a teenager when faced with something outside their everyday life. The science fiction elements are slight, but for me that doesn’t matter when the story is so well told.
Maybe I’m unfairly prejudiced, but when I read fiction that features librarians as major characters, like “Graffiti in the Library of Babel” by David Langford, I get my dander up. The character just feels like a stereotype of a librarian, and the librarian in the story is not the main character, his actions are very important for where the story goes. Maybe someone with such old-fashioned views would be put in charge of a large digital collection, but I would hope that the institution would find someone more forward-thinking instead. That said, I did like the interaction between the characters and enjoyed how Langford set up the puzzle for them to solve: let’s say we get messages from aliens, who’s to say whether the messages are harmful or harmless?
“The Dark Man” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch didn’t work for me at all. The story went from a taut little thriller to something much bigger and the transition felt too abrupt. Perhaps that’s the effect Rusch was going for; it certainly was the effect she wanted her protagonist to feel. Still, it threw me out of the story and I wasn’t able to get back into it.
“One Big Monkey” by Ray Vukcevich reads very much like Vukevich’s typical absurdist stories. He employs a Rashomon-style technique to move the story from one narrator to the next and ties it into the modern reality TV show. I say “absurdist” because if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Vukevich before, often his stories feature implausible settings, characters or both. In this case, as the reader jumps from one characters point of view to another, you’re left not feeling quite sure what to think. While this might be frustrating to many readers, I’m always impressed by a story that I can read multiple times and have it change slightly with each reading.
I couldn’t help but think of the protagonist in Pat Cadigan’s “The Taste of Night” as one of those people—who seem to be in every large city—who walk around muttering to themselves. What if they are talking to someone (or as in most of the case these days, talking on a cell phone)? Nell struggles with synesthesia, and has left her home to live on the street so she can focus on the messages she perceives are being sent to her. I almost wish Cadigan could have given us more of Nell’s life outside of her synesthesia, but her husband is such a jerk I’m glad he’s in the story only as little as he is. But, it did make me think about how someone with this condition, someone who leaves her life and home like Nell, would affect the people left behind and how they would try to cope with it. It’s a small part of the story, but it stuck with me long after I finished reading it.
I found “Timmy, Come Home” by Matthew Hughes fascinating. Brodie hears things, voices. In his efforts to fix this condition, he goes through a whirlwind of practitioners from doctors to priests to mediums and finally a hypnotist. Hughes does a wonderful job of using hypnotism to work his way into Brodie’s head and show us what might be happening there. After so many stories exploring going out into space and leaving the planet, it was really refreshing to have one that went the other way.
“A Waterfall of Lights” by Ian Watson was another story that didn’t work for me. There was a lot of effort put into setting up the characters, but in the end I didn’t feel like it mattered that we knew so much about them. The story really felt like it needed some tightening up. I think the events of the story could have happened without so much scene setting.
“Rare Earth” by Felicity Shoulders and Leslie What created a set of characters that I really cared about. I wish the story had been just about them and hadn’t needed to incorporate aliens into the story at all. I would read a whole book about these characters. Unfortunately, the alien concept feels kind of wedged into the story and it ends rather abruptly for my tastes.
“The Vampires of Paradox” by James Morrow introduces us to the Monastery of Tertullian. Inside the monastery, the monks (men and women) study paradox. However, it’s not that simple. An outside force is invading the monastery and they are in need of an additional paradox to study to stave off the invaders. Dr. Kreigar, a professor of paradox at NYU, is brought to help with the problem. This is the last story, and I had certainly had my fill of paradox by the time I got to it. The philosophical introductions to the paradoxes being studied at the monastery were very off-putting. Much like my reaction to Langford’s librarian, Morrow’s introduction of philosophical argument into his story set off alarm bells from my philosophy degree. I also had a lot of trouble believing the resolution to the story. I didn’t find it plausible that it was something the monks wouldn’t have thought of on their own.
In the end, not every story worked for me. But, I liked more than half the stories, and in my book that makes a successful anthology. I think it’s hard to find an anthology as a reader where you like all the stories. More than half is a good number to shoot for. Editor Marty Halpern has been blogging about the anthology for a while now, and he has some of the stories online, so you can try a couple out to see what you think before you invest your time and money.
John Klima is the editor of the Hugo Award winning Electric Velocipede which recently published its twentieth issue.