Talking to strangers

Musing about first contact stories

Talking to strangers
Image: Andrew Liptak 

On Monday, I came across a piece in The Atlantic about Carl Sagan's novel Contact, "Why Does Contact Say So Much About God?", which is something of an overview of the novel and its basic message and the role that faith plays in it. I've had a copy of the book for years now, but never managed to get into it. However, while reading the piece, I found that you can stream the film on HBO Max, and ended up putting it on to see how well my memory of the film was, and ended up getting sucked into the film for the rest of the afternoon.

I didn't quite get the film when I first saw it, probably back in high school or early college, but watching it now, I was really taken aback at just how good of a film it is, and how it digs into the question about contacting and communicating with an extra-solar intelligence.

I've been trying to think about the first couple of stories that I've picked up that explicitly deal with first contact scenarios. There's H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, of course, which explores the disastrous version: an invasion as aliens come to take our resources. This is an entire subgenre of science fiction literature that stretches from Wells' novel all the way up to films like Independence Day and Battle: Los Angeles, to books like Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and Cixin Liu's Three-Body Problem.

The story that sticks out to me the most, however, is Murray Leinster's novelette  "First Contact"(which you can find in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol. 1) , in which a human ship encounters an alien vessel in the Crab Nebula. It's a neat logical puzzle of a story as both crews realize that if one of them turns tail and retreats, the other will be able to track them home – an unacceptable risk that harkens back to those invasion tropes – and they ultimately both come to the conclusion that they should just switch ships, turn off their tracking equipment, and head home. Leinster's story relies on both human and alien crews recognizing some basic constants in the universe, and extrapolates that out to behavior. The his aliens are essentially human, just in slightly different shapes, something that we'd later see in shows like Star Trek: an assumption about alien life developing along the same lines as us, and therefore, are somewhat recognizable.

After watching Contact, I've picked up the book, and I've finally been able to get into it. I've been enjoying it so far, and Sagan's background as a scientist comes out authoritatively. Like "First Contact", the book and film are resting the idea of an alien contact with mathematics: the recognition that there are universal truths that come out of the basic nature of the structure of the universe. There's an episode of Stargate SG-1, "The Torment of Tantalus", that illustrates this neatly, and it's something of a trope for other first contact scenarios.

Those stories have generally dealt with the initial contact: a mutual recognition of a fellow intelligence out in the cosmos, it's interesting reading and watching Contact alongside a bunch of other books that have dealt with similar ideas in radically different ways. Most recently, I was reminded of Michael Crichton's Sphere, which deals with a possible first contact with an alien artifact deep under the ocean, but also Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic, which seems to delight in Arthur C. Clarke's adage "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," and that while civilizations might theoretically be able to contact us, we might not even rise to a recognizable benchmark for recognition. There's other, recent books that play with this: James S.A. Corey's The Expanse series deals extensively with the idea of vastly advanced civilizations, as well as Cixin Liu's The Dark Forest, which present some additional dangers to humanity when we stumble into the affairs of such civilizations.

Back in 2021, I was struck by Arkady Martin's A Desolation Called Peace, her sequel to A Memory Called Empire, which dealt extensively with the prospect of first contact, and having to deal with an alien civilization that's difficult to understand, because, well, they're alien. It reminded me quite a bit of Timothy Zahn's Conquerors trilogy, where humanity encounters an alien civilization and misinterprets its first contact radio package as a weapon, which kicks off an accidental war.  

Review: Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace
Two novels, Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace and Timothy Zahn’s Conqueror’s Pride deal with first contact in some interesting ways

What I've been mulling over this week because of Contact is how deceptively complicated the idea of two beings/civilizations/intelligences communicating can be. There's plenty of stories about how humanity meets its interstellar peers, exchanges information and technology, goes to war, makes new friends, etc., but there's something really basic that I've been enjoying with Sagan's book, which is that it's not the discovery that we aren't alone in the cosmos: initial contact is this one singular moment of recognition. It's an understanding of complexity and intention, based in the universe's most basic principles.

So, tl;dr, it's an excellent movie, and a book that I'm enjoying quite a bit this week.

Reminder: Consider Phlebas contest!

Today's the deadline to submit an entry for this contest! I've got around 100, and I'll be picking the winner tonight. Those who've entered are on a spreadsheet with a number, which I'll select via random number generator.

Another reminder: if you're a Transfer Orbit supporter, you can get a second entry via the Slack channel. (If you don't have access, lemme know.)

Let’s do a giveaway
Want to win a copy of The Folio Society’s Consider Phlebas?

Further Reading

April Books Part 2

In case you missed it, here's the second roundup of the month for books hitting stores in April. Lots of neat looking ones here. I'm already working on the two May book lists, and they're both shaping up to be packed.

20 new sci-fi and fantasy books to check out this April
Even more books to add to your TBR

Climate fiction

Jeff VanderMeer has an excellent piece out about the state of climate fiction and whether or not he sees it as an effective tool in the larger challenges that we face. Lots of good quotes, some good overview of how the term "cli-fi has been used" and so forth.

Interrogating “cli-fi”
A good piece to read from Jeff VanderMeer

End of an era. Netflix will discontinue its DVD-by-mail service, which is unfortunate. I have fond memories of ordering a whole bunch of films years ago, before streaming was a thing, and I know folks who still use it. It does look like it might continue in some form or fashion, with Redbox noting that they'd be interested in picking it up. Still, if you live in a place without a lot of good internet, it'll make it harder to get movies.  

Experimental runtimes

This went out to supporting subscribers earlier this week, but it's available to all subscribers. Paramount announced a Star Trek: Section 31 film, and I think it's an interesting opportunity for streaming services take advantage of the fact that they have videos on demand that aren't constrained by a TV schedule.  

Experimental runtimes
Star Trek: Section 31 could be a neat experiment

Fanfic of your own. Polygon has a really interesting report about a recent trend: a Tiktok/Instagramer who's been turning fanfiction into bound editions. It's a neat bit of crafting and fandom. This bit struck me:

"I have seen multiple fanfictions that I loved removed from websites by the author for various reasons. Physical copies are comforting. Fanfiction is still a legal gray area and I worry that one day the archives that house my favorite fanfictions may cease to exist."

Never give up, never surrender! Variety reports that Paramount has begun work on a Galaxy Quest TV series, to be created by Mark Johnson, who produced the original.

There's been a lot of back and forth on a continuation of Galaxy Quest over the years, with Simon Pegg working with screenwriter Georgia Pritchett at Paramount last I heard. Variety notes that it's only Johnson on this one, so I wonder if that earlier effort has been scrapped.

New Arden novel. The Bear and the Nightingale author Katherine Arden is a good friend who actually lives not too far away (she interviewed me during the Cosplay book launch), and just announced her next book, The Warm Hands of Ghosts, which I'm very excited to get my hands on. I've read bits of it already, and I think this'll be a really big one for her.

New Kuang novels. The Bookseller reports that R.F. Kuang has sold two new novels to HarperCollins: a new historical novel, and a fantasy. I've enjoyed both Babel and Yellowface, so I'll be interested in seeing what these end up looking like.

To boldly go. Star Trek: Strange New Worlds was recently renewed for a third season, and season 2 is set to debut later this summer. Here's the first teaser for that upcoming season.