Tonight on “Well Read” Terry interviews David Brin, the author of “Existence,” a very high-concept “first contact” novel. Well, what is that? It’s a novel that concerns humanity’s first contact with an extraterrestial species. Here’s my reading list – I had fun with this one.In a lot of these stories, it’s fair to say that humans do not retain control of the situation:
“War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells. This book scared the pants off its readers when it was first published in 1898. Wells wrote it between 1895-1897; people were thinking about other life forms way back then.
In “War of the Worlds,” the Martians basically lay waste to southern England, with complete disregard for human life. That was a novel idea and terrifying idea at the time, because the Victorians were still hanging on to a gentlemanly idea of war. Europeans would be personally introduced to total war during World War II.
“War of the Worlds” had an interesting resolution – humans were helpless against the Martians. Just as everything seemed lost, it was finally microscopic organisms that did the creepoids in.
Of course, “War of the Worlds” was made into a famous 1938 radio broadcast, with the actor Orson Welles telling the story in news dispatches. It was so realistic, in the already tense atmosphere of pre-World War II, many listeners were convinced it was happening. The most recent movie version in 2005 was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Tom Cruise.
Moving forward to 1953, we have “Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clarke. Arthur C. Clarke was a writer who thought big, and “Childhood’s End” embraces all kinds of questions about governments, control and creativity.
In the story, earth is invaded peacefully by the mysterious Overlords. Their arrival helps end all war, usher in a world government, and turn the planet into a near-utopia. However, the Overlords, who initially don’t appear in a physical form but speak through various humans, don’t answer a lot of questions about where they are from, what they have in mind for us, and other irritating questions that keep popping up.
Everybody gets along well, but creativity sees a decline. Some humans break away to form their own island and things get interesting from there. I can’t begin to spell out what happens, but suffice it to say that this novel will “blow your mind up,” as a friend of mine used to say.
Clarke also wrote “2001: A Space Odyssey,” another first contact novel (based on an earlier Clarke short story, “The Sentinel”) that everyone knows about because it was made into the magnificent movie of the same name. Let’s hum the theme music here, and move on.
One of my favorite first-contact novels is the harrowing “The Sparrow” by Mary Doria Russell. This 1996 book remains among the most unsettling books I’ve ever read.
In “The Sparrow,” scientists pick up transmissions from a far–away world, and a group of colonists organize to travel there and settle it. In a twist, the group is sponsored and organized by a group of Jesuits.
Their leader, Emilio Sandoz, believes the group is divinely inspired. What could possibly go wrong?? Can I just say that things do not go as planned – seemingly innocent actions like introducing agriculture have unforeseen consequences. The mission ends disastrously, and the story is told in flashback, as Sandoz, who has suffered terribly, tells a group of church inquisitors what happened.
This is as much a novel of ideas, a meditation on good and evil, as it is a science fiction novel. It tracks along the lines of the real Jesuits, who colonized countries all over the world with the best of intentions. Things didn’t turn out as planned for them either.
There’s a sequel to “The Sparrow” called “The Children of God,” which takes up and furthers Sandoz’ story, but to be honest, I was so shaken up by “The Sparrow” that I haven’t read it.
Seattle Times science fiction reviewer Nisi Shawl recommended another book that takes up the theme of colonization. “White Queen,” a 1994 book by Gwyneth Jones, tells the story of a crew of alien ne’er-do-well adventure types who have the same impact upon Earth’s culture as white explorers have had upon non-European societies they “discovered.” Earth is pretty much a mess, and at first the aliens are welcomed as saviors. But complications ensue!
Duane Wilkins, science fiction buyer at Seattle’s University Book Store, recommends 1974’s “The Mote in God’s Eye” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle:
In 3016, the 2nd Empire of Man spans hundreds of star systems. But man has never found any other intelligent beings, until until a 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.
Humans find a civilization that’s at least one million years old and that has always been isolated in its own solar system. The “Moties” are kind, but a little evasive. It seems that they have a problem that no one has been able to solve in…a million years.
This is an example of “hard” science fiction,which means it goes into considerable scientific detail, and pays a lot of attention to subjects like military strategy in addition. Lots of speculation about how politics, the economy and the arts would have evolved in the third millennium.