First Contact

Tagged: Theme

The most common Communications scenario in sf – often but not always Linguistic in nature – involves the meeting of humans with Aliens. These are generally called first-contact stories, and perhaps the best known of them is "First Contact" (May 1945 Astounding) by Murray Leinster. This poses the problem of contact as a puzzle grounded in mutual suspicion and Paranoia, eventually short-circuited by a gimmick solution. Written in direct response to Leinster, Ivan Yefremov's "Cor Serpentis" (1959; trans 1961 as title story of The Heart of the Serpent, anth 1961 Moscow, ed anon) argues that any society sufficiently advanced to have developed Starships must be sufficiently mature to have outgrown such unworthy suspicions (ascribed to the tainting influence of capitalism) and to deduce that another such society will have attained at least equal maturity.

Further alien-contact stories of particular relevance to this theme include the pioneering "A Martian Odyssey" (July 1934 Wonder Stories) by Stanley G Weinbaum; The Voyage of the Space Beagle (stories July 1939-August 1943 Astounding, May 1950 Other Worlds; fixup 1950; vt Mission: Interplanetary 1952) by A E van Vogt, featuring an exhilarating succession of contacts with Monsters whose natures must be comprehended; "The Big Front Yard" (October 1958 Astounding) by Clifford D Simak; Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) by Naomi Mitchison; The Mote in God's Eye (1974) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, where the variously specialized breeds of alien "Moties" include communications experts designed to facilitate contact; White Queen (1991) by Gwyneth Jones, beginning her Aleutian Trilogy; and Eifelheim (November 1986 Analog; much exp 2006) by Michael F Flynn. Some other authors who have made repeated use of the theme are Robert L Forward, Jack McDevitt, Edward M Lerner, Edward Llewellyn, James White – whose Sector General sequence, beginning with Hospital Station (coll of linked stories 1962), describes many successful first contacts initiated by giving medical assistance to distressed Alien spacefarers – and Wynne N Whiteford. One of White's Sector General novels, The Galactic Gourmet (1996), features an unusual "culinary first contact" as suspicious survivors of a fallen alien civilization are gradually won over to a diet their ruined world can sustain.

Stanisław Lem took a generally gloomy view of the prospects for first contact, arguing that it would be made highly problematic if not impossible by human limitations and inability to comprehend alienness. In Solaris (1961 Poland; trans 1970), the titular world-ocean's attempts to woo human explorers with familiar Doppelgangers drawn from their own memories evoke a complex of emotions dominated by alarm and horror; in Fiasko (1986; trans as Fiasco 1987), it is only in the final scene – when all hope of peaceful contact has seemingly been ruined by Paranoia-driven military action – that the mysterious aliens are even distinguished from their landscape and Technology. Further first-contact scenarios made disastrous by mutual incomprehension are found in Damon Knight's "Stranger Station" (December 1956 F&SF), where mere proximity on the Space Station of the title brings agony to human and alien alike; Robert Sheckley's "All the Things You Are" (July 1956 Galaxy), where every action and effluvium of human visitors is damaging to sensitive aliens; Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud (1957), where the contact itself is successful but attempting to assimilate the alien space-cloud's vast knowledge has Basilisk effects on human Scientists; Frederik Pohl's Slave Ship (1957), where the outreach efforts of the microscopic alien "Glotch" bring death to contactee and contacter alike; and Colin Kapp's "The Pen and the Dark" (in New Writings in SF 8, anth 1966, ed John Carnell), where well-meaning human efforts to penetrate a r Macrostructure of relatively modest proportions lead to Disaster since the artefact is a protective shield for beings composed of Antimatter.

Occasionally contact is not made with the aliens themselves but with their agents or tools, the most famous example being the monolith (or monoliths) of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The human race is superseded by the Xenoforming (which see) vegetation of never-seen aliens in Thomas M Disch's The Genocides (1965) ... but this and similar cases digress from the theme of contact to one of indifferent non-contact. Harry Harrison's "Final Encounter" (April 1964 Galaxy) offers an effective twist on the traditional first-contact scenario with the revelation that its long-sought "aliens" are another branch of humanity, radically altered by repeated adaptation (see Pantropy) for Colonization of Other Worlds.

Particularly elusive examples, which permit readers to interpret them as first-contact narratives but whose characters are denied this possible insight, are John Fowles's A Maggot (1985), in which the contact is between eighteenth-century characters and humans who have arrived from the distant future via Time Machine, and Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary (1991), whose eponym attracts descriptions like flies, but eludes them all, almost certainly because she was wrecked here on this planet. It is in general possible to deal in sf terms with events in human history so traumatically isomorphic with the sf imagination that they do not, in fact, demand fantastic renderings. The first contact experiences of the numerous cultures and nations occupying North and South America before the European invasions from 1500 on are tragically not easy to trace, partly because these cultures did not have writing, and partly these cultures were deliberately destroyed. Some hints of the perceptual challenges imposed by Europeans can be seen in Ilona Katzew's Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World (2011), where the struggle to grasp the wholly strange had some extraordinary visual outcomes; sf Illustrations of first contact scenarios tend to pale by comparison.

The first-contact scenario continues to fascinate sf authors. One engaging twenty-first-century example is Ken MacLeod's Learning the World: A Novel of First Contact (2005), whose narrative viewpoint alternates between planet-bound, batlike Aliens and humans on an approaching World Ship which aims to colonize the alien system with a multitude of Space Habitats. More darkly, Peter Watts's Blindsight (2006) confronts explorers from Earth with aliens of terrifying Intelligence, routinely able to outthink and outmanoeuvre us (see Invisibility) not despite but because of their lack of self-awareness and individual Identity – here presented as an inefficient dead end of human Evolution. Another less than cheery presentation is David Brin's Existence (fixup 2012), whose Uploaded alien emissaries prove to be the result of lengthy Darwinian evolutionary competition between first-contact approaches, during which originally benign motives have become less so and greetings are now mingled with Computer-viral Meme contagion: First Contact as chain letter or pyramid scam.

Relevant anthologies include First Contact (anth 1971) edited by Damon Knight, Encounters (anth 1988) edited by Martin H Greenberg, Isaac Asimov and Charles G Waugh, and First Contact (anth 1997) edited by Martin H Greenberg and Larry Segriff. [DRL/PN]

see also: Berserkers; Exogamy; Fermi Paradox; Lost Races; SETI.

further reading

  • Ilona Katzew. Contested Visions in the Spanish Colonial World (Los Angeles, California: Los Angeles County Museum of Art/New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2011) [nonfiction: illus/various: hb/anonymous eighteenth-century painting]

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