We’re all waiting for this moment, the instant we know for sure that we’re not alone in this big, cold universe.
Regardless of how our first contact actually happens, a good story has to have drama. No one wants to read We Met the Aliens and Gosh, They Were Nice.
Carl Sagan was one of my heroes growing up (along with Jim Henson and Jacques Cousteau) and I read everything of his I could get my hands on. When Contact was released, I read it with the highest expectations, which was a bit of a mistake.
Contact is a great First Contact book, with plenty of hard science, interesting characters, and a good story. Unfortunately, the ending left me a little disappointed—actually, I got angry—so if you read this, be prepared for a fun ride and meh ending.
It could just be me, though:
“[Sagan’s] informed and dramatically enacted speculations into the mysteries of the universe, taken to the point where science and religion touch, make his story an exciting intellectual adventure and science fiction of a high order.”
Foreigner is the first of a thirteen-book series, so if you like it, you’re in luck. It’s a little slow-moving and introspective; if you’re looking for a rapid-fire page-turner, this isn’t it.
Survivors of a lost spacecraft crash-land on a planet inhabited by a hostile, sentient alien race. The humans are relegated to second-class citizen status, and it remains that way for generations, until a human survives an assault by the aliens.
“Three-time Hugo-winner Cherryh’s gift for conjuring believable alien cultures is in full force here, and her characters, including the fascinatingly unpredictable atevi, are brought to life with a sure and convincing hand.”
On the planet Ilmatar, under a roof of ice a kilometer thick, a team of deep-sea diving scientists investigates the blind alien race that lives below. The Terran explorers have made an uneasy truce with the Sholen, their first extraterrestrial contact: so long as they don’t disturb the Ilmataran habitat, they’re free to conduct their missions in peace.
Well, humans wouldn’t be humans if we didn’t do things we were explicitly told not to do.
“An impressive debut by a gifted writer.”
―Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“An exceptionally thoughtful, searching and intriguing debut.”
―Kirkus (starred review)
This collection of stories was written from 1934-1964 by the “Dean of Science Fiction” (real name Will Jenkins).
While innovative and creative, Leinster retained a firm grip on real science. Indeed, some of his ideas now appear astonishingly prescient.
In “First Contact,” he proposed a solution to the problem of spacefaring humans confronting aliens of similar psychology and technological development.
He also wrote the first computer-paranoia yarn, “A Logic Named Joe,” back in an era when computers weren’t even a gleam in Bill Gates’s eye.
A sadly underrated author, Leinster was a storysmith with a talented and educated imagination. Unfortunately, he proved a poor novelist and was never able to transcend the pulps.
“[R]emarkable inventions, providing a window on to science fiction’s first Golden Age that demonstrates exactly what made it golden.”
Seventy-year-old Ofelia is a population of one on an abandoned colony planet, and she loves it.
She is happily free of the demands, the judgments, and the petty tyrannies of others. But when a reconnaissance ship arrives at her idyllic domain, and its crew is mysteriously slaughtered, Ofelia realizes she is not the sole inhabitant of her paradise after all. And, when the inevitable time of first contact finally arrives, she will find her life changed yet again—in ways she could never have imagined.
Remnant Population was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1997.
Ariel Blum is pushing thirty and doesn’t have much to show for it. His computer programming skills are producing nothing but pony-themed video games for little girls. His love life is a slow-motion train wreck.
Then the aliens show up: a swarm of anarchist anthropologists, exploring our seas, cataloguing our plants, editing our wikis, and eating our Twinkies.
Ariel sees the aliens’ computers, and he knows that wherever there are computers, there are video games. He decides to start a business translating alien games so they can be played on human computers. But a simple cultural exchange turns up ancient secrets, government conspiracies, and unconventional anthropology techniques that threaten humanity as we know it. If Ariel wants his species to have a future, he’s going to have to take the step that nothing on Earth could make him take.
He’ll have to grow up.
The first book in the well-regarded Xenogenesis trilogy, Dawn is often called both brilliant and disturbing. The protagonist goes through serious hell, so if you’re after a light read, this probably isn’t it.
Lilith lyapo awoke from a centuries-long sleep to find herself aboard the vast spaceship of the Oankali (creatures covered in writhing tentacles), who had saved every surviving human from a dying, ruined Earth. They healed the planet, cured cancer, increased strength, and were now ready to help Lilith lead her people back to Earth—but for a price.
Janus, a moon of Saturn, now revealed as an alien artifact, has suddenly left orbit and headed for interstellar space.
Bella Lind and the crew of her comet-miner, the Rockhopper are the only humans in the solar system positioned to catch the huge alien machine. Though only planning a short expedition, the Rockhopper soon finds itself trapped in Janus’s time- and distance-distorting slipstream.
“[S]pectacular, large-scale space opera…Reynolds (Century Rain) is occasionally clumsy in his character interactions, but he has a genius for big-concept SF.”
The human race has had wormhole technology for over 300 years and has colonized several hundred planets.
Over one thousand light-years away, a star vanishes. It does not go supernova. It does not collapse into a black hole. It simply disappears. Since the location is too distant to reach by wormhole, a faster-than-light starship, the Second Chance, is dispatched to learn what has occurred and whether it represents a threat. In command is Wilson Kime, a five-time rejuvenated ex-NASA pilot whose glory days are centuries behind him.
“Hamilton’s exhilarating new opus proves that ‘intelligent space opera’ isn’t an oxymoron.”
— Publishers Weekly
Part fact, part fiction, Majestic is the story of the Roswell cover-up, told by a guilt-wracked government agent who worked for decades to keep the truth from the public.
That sounds like well-worn material, but most reviewers mention how terrifying Majestic is.
Dragon’s Egg is a neutron star with a surface gravity 67 billion times that of Earth, and inhabited by cheela, intelligent creatures the size of a sesame seed who live, think and develop a million times faster than humans. The cheela culturally evolve from savagery to the discovery of science, and for a brief time, men are their teachers. But of course, not for long.
“Forward’s book is a knockout. In science fiction there is only a handful of books that stretch the mind—and this is one of them!”
—Arthur C. Clarke
In an alternate universe, scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians live in seclusion behind ancient monastery walls. That is, until they are called back into the world to deal with a crisis of astronomical proportions.
Reader’s of Stephenson’s earlier works will not be surprised by this take on Anathem:
“[L]ong stretches of dazzling entertainment occasionally interrupted by pages of numbing colloquy.”
colloquy: a high-level, serious discussion (I had to look it up.)
Roadside Picnic was refused publication in book form in the Soviet Union for eight years due to government censorship and numerous delays. Heavily censored versions published between 1980 and 1990 significantly departed from the original version written by the authors. The original Russian-language novel was finally published in the 1990s.
Roadside Picnic takes place in the aftermath of an extraterrestrial event (called the Visitation) which simultaneously took place in half a dozen separate locations around Earth for a two-day period.
Red Schuhart is a stalker, one of those young rebels who are compelled, in spite of extreme danger, to venture illegally into the Zone to collect the mysterious artifacts that the alien visitors left scattered around. His life is dominated by the Zone and the thriving black market made up of alien products. But when he and his friend Kirill go into the Zone together to pick up a “full empty,” something goes wrong. And the news he gets from his girlfriend upon his return makes it inevitable that he’ll keep going back to the Zone, again and again, until he finds the answer to all his problems.
Centuries ago, one small town in Germany disappeared and was never resettled. Tom, a historian, and his theoretical physicist girlfriend Sharon, become interested. By all logic, the town should have survived. What’s so special about Eifelheim?
In the year 1348, the Black Death is gathering strength. Father Dietrich is the village priest of Eifelheim, and to his astonishment, he makes first contact between humanity and an alien race from a distant star, when the aliens’ ship crashes in the nearby forest.
“Author Flynn masterfully achieves an intricate panorama of medieval life, full of fascinatingly realized human and Krenken characters whose fates interconnect with poignant irony.”
– Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit linguist, heads a team of scientists and explorers on an expedition to the planet Rakhat, where contact has been established with two apparently primitive races, the Runa and the Jana’ata. The narrative shifts back and forth between 2016, when contact is first made, and 2060, to a Vatican inquest interrogating the maimed and broken Sandoz. A paleoanthropologist, Russell makes the descriptions of the inhabitants of Rakhat both convincing and unsettling.
The Sparrow won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, James Tiptree, Jr. Award, Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis and the British Science Fiction Association Award.
However, not everyone loved it:
“Much like the worlds it juxtaposes, this novel seems composed of two stories that fail to come together.”
John Dies At the End was first published online as a webserial in 2001, then as an edited manuscript in 2004, and a printed paperback in 2007.
I’m a huge fan of the sequel to this book, This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It, but this one is pretty damn funny, too.
It’s a bit more of a comic horror story than a straight first-contact science fiction tale, but it’s still worth a read.
A drug called Soy Sauce lets users look into another dimension. That’s not a calming thing, because some really hideous monsters from that dimension are here and about to enslave humanity.
“The book’s smart take on fear manages to tap into readers’ existential dread on one page, then have them laughing the next.”
(It was also made into a movie, which I abandoned after about ten minutes. Stick to the book.)
Gateway deals with first contact with alien technology more than actual aliens, but it’s a lot of fun. In fact, there’s a really wonderful tension in stories about screwing around with alien technology you don’t understand, and Pohl uses that to full effect. The characters are vulnerable, the scope is cinematic, and it’s just a hoot.
Robert Charles Wilson is one of those excellent writers who doesn’t have the fame I’d like to see bestowed on them.
At Blind Lake, a large federal research installation in northern Minnesota, scientists are using a technology they barely understand to watch everyday life in a city of lobster-like aliens upon a distant planet. They can’t contact the aliens in any way or understand their language. All they can do is watch.
Then, without warning, a military cordon is imposed on the Blind Lake site. All communication with the outside world is cut off. Food and other vital supplies are delivered by remote control. No one knows why.
As with his other books, author Wilson does a great job in combining exciting science fiction and characters that feel true.
“Thoughtful and deliberately paced, this book will appeal to readers who prefer science fiction with substance.”
When I think back to being blown away by books as a kid, The Martian Chronicles always comes to mind.
Bradbury imagines a place of hope, dreams, and metaphor—of crystal pillars and fossil seas—where a fine dust settles on the great empty cities of a vanished, devastated civilization. Earthmen conquer Mars and then are conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.
In this classic work of fiction, Bradbury exposes our ambitions, weaknesses, and ignorance in a strange and breathtaking world where man does not belong.
Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion.
An English translation by Ken Liu won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel.
“Remarkable, revelatory and not to be missed.”
―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
The Gods Themselves is one of, if not the best, Asimov novel. It won the Nebula in 1972, and the Hugo in 1973.
A race of aliens inhabit a parallel universe with different physical laws from this one. Their universe is dying, and by exchanging matter with Earth, the aliens acquire an alternative source of energy. However, the exchange of physical laws that also provides Earth with energy will result in serious trouble for us and our sun.
Only a few know the truth—an outcast Earth scientist, a rebellious alien inhabitant of a dying planet, and a lunar-born human intuitionist who senses the imminent annihilation of the Sun. These few beings, human and alien, hold the key to the Earth’s survival. But who will listen? Who will believe?
On July 26, Arthur Gordon learns that Europa, the sixth moon of Jupiter, has disappeared. Not hiding, not turned black, but gone.
On September 28, Edward Shaw finds an error in the geological records of Death Valley. A cinder cone was left off the map. Could it be new? Or, stranger yet, could it be artificial? The answer may be lying beside it—a dying guest who brings devastating news for Edward and for Planet Earth.
As more unexplained phenomena spring up around the globe—a granite mountain appearing in Australia, sounds emanating from the Earth’s core, flashes of light among the asteroids—it becomes clear to some that the end is approaching, and there is nothing we can do.
Wells appears to have enjoyed the idea of obliterating his neighborhood. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “I’m doing the dearest little serial for Pearson’s new magazine, in which I completely wreck and sack Woking—killing my neighbors in painful and eccentric ways—then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity.”
Send a linguist with multiple-personality disorder and a biologist so spliced with machinery that he can’t feel his own flesh. Send a pacifist warrior and a vampire recalled from the grave by the voodoo of paleogenetics. Send a man with half his mind gone since childhood. Send them to the edge of the solar system, praying you can trust such freaks and monsters with the fate of a world. You fear they may be more alien than the thing they’ve been sent to find—but you’d give anything for that to be true, if you knew what was waiting for them. . . .
Author Stanislaw Lem has the best aliens, mostly because he makes them completely and profoundly, well, alien. Communication with them is often impossible, and the humans that attempt to interact with them are well-intentioned but unsuccessful. Lem’s humans are some of the best in science fiction as well: they screw up, are late, fail to see the whole picture, act irrationally, and even the brightest of them can be swayed by vanity and pride.
It’s possible to argue that Stanislaw Lem is the best science fiction writer ever, and Solaris is his most famous book.
When Kris Kelvin arrives at the planet Solaris to study the ocean that covers its surface, he finds a painful, hitherto unconscious memory embodied in the living physical likeness of a long-dead lover. Others examining the planet, Kelvin learns, are plagued with their own repressed and newly corporeal memories. The Solaris ocean may be a massive brain that creates these incarnate memories, though its purpose in doing so is unknown, forcing the scientists to shift the focus of their quest and wonder if they can truly understand the universe without first understanding what lies within their hearts.
In the year 3016, the Second Empire of Man spans hundreds of star systems, thanks to the faster-than-light Alderson Drive. No other intelligent beings have ever been encountered, not until a light sail probe enters a human system carrying a dead alien. The probe is traced to the Mote, an isolated star in a thick dust cloud, and an expedition is dispatched.
Robert A. Heinlein, who gave the authors extensive advice on the novel, described the story as “possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.”
An uncontested sci-fi classic, Rendezvous with Rama is also one of Clarke’s best novels, winning the Campbell, Hugo, Jupiter, and Nebula Awards.
A huge, mysterious, cylindrical object appears in space, swooping in toward the sun. The citizens of the solar system send a ship to investigate before the enigmatic craft, called Rama, disappears. The astronauts given the task of exploring the hollow cylindrical ship are able to decipher some, but definitely not all, of the extraterrestrial vehicle’s puzzles. From the ubiquitous trilateral symmetry of its structures to its cylindrical sea and machine-island, Rama’s secrets are strange evidence of an advanced civilization. But who, and where, are the Ramans, and what do they want with humans? Perhaps the answer lies with the busily working biots, or the sealed-off buildings, or the inaccessible “southern” half of the enormous cylinder. Rama’s unsolved mysteries are tantalizing indeed. Rendezvous with Rama is fast-moving, fascinating, and a must-read for science fiction fans.