Tag Archives: first contact

Nojiri offers a solid first contact story in Usurper

Something bizarre, bigger than anyone could ever build, was protruding from the surface of Mercury. She was not sure whom to tell. She was not even sure she should tell anybody at all.

Title: Usurper of the Sun
Author: Housuke Nojiri
Year: 2002
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

usurperVIZ Media’s Haikasoru imprint has, for a while now, been publishing English translations of Japanese science fiction in order to bring it to a wider audience. Since I have no familiarity with Japanese sf, I thought it was time to dive in and have a closer look. My first taste of the Haikasoru library is Usurper of the Sun, a first contact story in a hard sf vein with a compelling premise.

Aki Shiraishi is a precocious member of her high school’s astronomy club. While observing a Mercurial eclipse with the school’s telescope, she discovers something unexpected: an apparent structure on the planet’s surface. A huge structure. What is it? How did it get there? Maybe more importantly, who put it there? As Aki’s observations are confirmed by the scientific community, these questions rage around the world as seven billion people debate the meaning of what may be the most important event in human history.

Soon, though, it becomes clear what the structure on Mercury is doing. The very material of the planet is being ejected, launched into space, and is slowly being assembled into a gigantic ring around the Sun. All the previous questions of who, what, and why are now transferred to the Ring, whose purpose is unknown. What is known is that the Ring has already begun blocking part of the Earth’s share of sunlight, and things will only get worse as the object grows.

This is a wake-up call for humanity to grow up fast, to stop all its petty bickering and fighting, and to join together to address the common threat. Over the course of several years, a spacecraft is built and a mission planned to investigate the Ring at close range. During this time, Aki has become a world-famous figure. Her discovery sparked in her an unquenchable passion to uncover the truth, and after an intense college education in the sciences she has become the world’s foremost “Ringologist.” So it’s no surprise when she is chosen for the mission.

Upon reaching the Ring, Aki succeeds in discovering it’s purpose — or at least a part of it — which leads to an even bigger revelation: our solar system is going to have visitors. This leads to a whole new set of questions. What will these aliens be like? Why are they coming here? Is it an invasion? Do they even know there’s life on Earth? How can we communicate with them?

The book’s cover blurb compares it to the work of Clarke, and I do get a vague sense of that, although I can’t put my finger on exactly why. I was reminded more of Lem, actually, in that one of the main themes of Usurper is the unlikelihood of any truly meaningful communication with an alien species.

This is a well-told and engaging story with a fascinating premise that takes a mature approach to the well-known first contact scenario. My only complaint might be that there’s a certain innocence to the whole thing, a kind of airy, Young Adult style to it. I don’t know if that was the author’s intention, or if maybe that’s a general Japanese aesthetic, or what. I just would have preferred a bit more sophistication in some of the story’s aspects, particularly in the characterization department. But minor complaints aside, it’s a good fun read, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Rollback combines medical advances and alien contact to tell a decent human story

rollbackRobert J. Sawyer’s Rollback (2007) takes a couple of familiar science fiction tropes and blends them together into a well-told human story. One is the discovery of (and communication with) alien life via signals received from a distant star. The other is the concept of radical life extension, in the form of a complex (and unthinkably expensive) medical procedure, the “rollback” of the title. This is the story of two people, a husband and wife, who find themselves at the intersection of these two astonishing discoveries, and the way their lives are changed by them.

The two central characters are Don and Sarah Halifax. Sarah is a SETI researcher who decoded the first alien communication received in 2009, and led the endeavor to compose and send a response. Now, in 2048, a second alien message has arrived, but this one is mysteriously encrypted, and no one can figure out how to crack it. At this point Sarah, who is now 87 years old and nearing the end of her life, receives an unusual offer from a rich businessman with a keen interest in SETI. This man wants Sarah to work on decrypting the message, and to send another reply, but he also wants something more; he wants her to be around when the next message arrives. And since the aliens are 18-point-something lightyears away, a full round of communication takes roughly 37 years; unfortunately, Sarah will be long dead by then. So he offers to buy her a rollback — an amazing new procedure costing several billion dollars that, after cleaning and purifying the body at the cellular level and making important genetic and chromosomal changes, leaves the recipient’s body in the state it was at approximately the age of 25, giving another six or seven decades of life (at which point the person could conceivable get another rollback).

Sarah will only accept if her husband Don gets a rollback as well, a condition the rich industrialist reluctantly agrees to. Sarah is eager to decrypt the message and learn more about the senders, and they both look forward to a second life, a chance to watch their grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up, and to continue their successful 60-year marriage. However, tragedy arises when it becomes clear that, while Don’s rollback went smoothly, Sarah’s didn’t “take.” Due to some complication, it just didn’t work. Much of the story concerns the very end of her life, her success with decrypting the message, and her bittersweet knowledge that her beloved husband will get another life, but that she won’t get to share it with him.

This human tragedy is handled with genuine feeling, both from Sarah’s perspective, and from Don’s as he experiences conflicting emotions — guilt over his rollback working, grief over the impending loss of his wife, the euphoria of his new youthfulness, more guilt over the sexual urges that come with it, and feelings of uselessness as he no longer has the skills to get a job in the modern world. He also has to deal with the envy of his friends and acquaintances, and dash their desperate hopes when he explains he has no secret connections to get them a rollback as well.

Aside from the human story, it’s also interesting how Sawyer handles the matter of the aliens and their communications. I especially liked his thoughts on the purpose of such a communication, and his distinction between telling and asking:

“What a ridiculous notion, that beings would send messages across the light years to talk about math! Math and physics are the same everywhere in the universe. There’s no need to contact an alien race to find out if they agree that one plus three equals four, that seven is a prime number, that the value of pi is 3.14159, et cetera. None of those things are matters of local circumstances, or of opinion. No, the things worth discussing are moral issues — things that are debatable, things that an alien race might have a radically different perspective on. Ethics, morality — the big questions. And that’s the other thing, the other way in which we were totally wrong about what to expect from SETI. Carl Sagan used to talk about us receiving an Encyclopedia Galactica. But no one would bother sending a message across the light-years to tell you things. Rather, they’d send a message to ask you things.”

That’s an interesting view on the subject, although I don’t know if that’s necessarily the only reason aliens would want to communicate. Nevertheless, that’s what Sawyer’s aliens are interested in. The first message they send turns out to be a questionnaire on moral and ethical issues, to be answered by 1000 people and sent back. The answers to the questionnaire have an impact on the second message, but I’ll leave that part for you to discover on your own.

The book switches between different time frames, mostly centered around 2009 and 2048, and along the way we get numerous glimpses into the characters’ lives at different points in their careers. There are many intriguing conversations between Don and Sarah and others, on topics like evolution, quantum physics, philosophy, social issues, and so on. They are also science fiction fans, and often make reference (Don especially) to various movies and tv shows, from Star Trek to Lost in Space to Contact. That last one is actually one of my few gripes with the book. At one point Sawyer has his two main characters engage in some light bashing of that movie, and by extension Sagan’s book, generally calling it implausible and tainted by Hollywood. And since I’m one of the many, many SF fans who love that book and movie, well, hey, that’s just not cool. It’s hard to be sure whether or not this is a case of Sawyer talking through his characters, but it did seem that way.

My other gripe is that the book ends in a very naive fashion, completely ignoring the tendency of governments to sweep in and take control of anything deemed important; the way government steps aside to let a few ordinary individuals control an extremely important resource is not very realistic.

Other than that, though, the book is well written, and contains plenty of stop-and-think moments, convincing characterization, and depth of feeling. I also think Sawyer does an excellent job with the robots in the story (manufactured by the rich industrialist mentioned above) and their behavior. A satisfying read, certainly.

The voice of that SF master, Stanislaw Lem

hmvMy experience with Stanislaw Lem’s work has been limited so far, but the few times I have read one of his books I’ve gotten the inescapable impression that I was reading something written by one of science fiction’s true masters. Lem’s writing is full of philosophical depth and intellectual intensity; and there are emotional tensions in his characters that can be uncomfortable at times, but that let you know you’re reading about a realistic person with realistic struggles. By the time you get to the end of a Lem novel, your brain will have gotten a serious workout; you will have thought and you will have felt, and you will have loved it. Lem is just that good.

His Master’s Voice is a novel from 1968 that definitely fits the above description. The basic theme is a Lem trademark: the impossibility (or near impossibility) of communication with alien life. That’s an assumption I happen to disagree with, but that in no way lessens its value as one of a multitude of viewpoints to consider. Lem goes against the general trend in science fiction, which is overwhelmingly optimistic about alien communication. I tend to share that optimism, but nevertheless I think Lem’s opinion serves as a useful counterpoint to the majority view and provides some needed perspective. After all, that widespread optimism is also based on assumptions, and who knows if they could turn out to be wrong?

The basic plot concerns an alien signal that is picked up; it is unknown whether it was intended for Earth, or if it was merely intercepted on its way somewhere else. A research group, half-jokingly called His Master’s Voice, is formed to study and try to decipher the signal. The group consists of a wide variety of specialists: mathematicians, physicists, biologists, linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and representatives of any other discipline you can name. The project is kept strictly secret and controlled by the military. The story is told through the eyes of one of the lead mathematicians, writing a memoir of the project years later.

The book touches on a great many scientific, philosophical, and political issues, and really says much more about our modern world than it does about extraterrestrial contact. One of the tensions among the project members is the “two cultures,” the divide between the social sciences and the physical sciences; the members of the project almost naturally sort themselves into these two camps, referring to themselves as “elves” and “dwarves,” respectively. Lem lays some well-deserved (in my opinion) criticism on the soft social “sciences” and their defensiveness when anyone intrudes on their territory, their “Mystery of Man” as Lem puts it; he also has some comments about the influence of Freud. But the tensions are not limited to soft vs. hard science. Lem portrays science as a whole as not quite the idealistic model we tend to see it as.

Another of the big issues is the relationship between scientists and the government/military. The main character muses frequently on the morals and responsibilities of scientists, and chafes under the military’s domination of the project and scientists “renting out their consciences.” At one point Lem makes an analogy with pigs that are trained to search for truffles, and refers to “scientist-pigs” who are likewise trained to search out new weapons technologies for their governments. Lem is definitely not one to hold back his opinions!

Yet another major theme is the modern world’s relationship with technology and how it has changed our lives for better or worse. Lem refers to our time as an….

… era made sober by an overabundance of discoveries, which tore apart like shrapnel every systemic coherence, an era which both accelerated progress as never before and was sick to death of progress….

And he questions the need for that never-ending technological progress, always churning out new gizmos and racing to provide the latest, fastest, newest versions of old ones:

Thus the means of civilization replace its ends, and human conveniences substitute for human values.

What I’ve said so far gives only the barest taste of the depth of this novel and the wide array of topics commented upon therein. It’s a very serious look at many of the complexities and ugly realities of our modern society. The basic thrust of this book is that maybe humanity isn’t as mature or advanced as it likes to think it is, and maybe we need to work harder at understanding ourselves before we can ever hope to understand life from other worlds.

And that alien signal? It never does get deciphered. The task turns out to be beyond our abilities:

The hypotheses popular before the existence of the Project seemed to me incredibly shallow; they ricocheted back and forth between the pole of pessimism, which called the silentium universi a natural state, and the pole of mindless optimism that expected announcements clearly and slowly spelled out, as if civilizations scattered among the stars would communicate with one another like children in kindergarten. Yet another myth has bitten the dust, I thought, and yet another truth has ascended overhead — and, as is usually the case with truths, it is too much for us.

His Master’s Voice is simply one of the best “signal from an alien species” novels, and stands right alongside such classics as Gunn’s The Listeners and Sagan’s Contact.

Pohl’s Jem may not be a “gem” but is still worth a look

jemIn various profiles of Frederick Pohl, I have more than once seen Jem (1979) listed as one of his best and most important novels. After giving it a read I can see why it’s considered “important,” but I haven’t read enough of his work (at the time of this writing) to know if it’s really one of his “best” or not. This is a book packed with very pointed comments about politics, power, greed, war, imperialism, and the uglier side of humanity in general, and for that it deserves its due. From a storytelling standpoint, however, it’s not quite as successful. Certain elements of plot and character are unconvincing or out of place, making immersion in this fictional world more difficult. Nevertheless, it’s still a worthy investment of reading time.

The story is set in a near future in which the nations of Earth have arranged themselves into three large-scale alliances: the Food Bloc, the Fuel Bloc, and the People Bloc. The three entities exist in essentially Cold War conditions, with minor skirmishes here and there, but managing to avoid any major wars through the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction. That’s Earth, one of the story’s two locations; the other is a newly discovered planet, Jem, that happens to be habitable by humans. The three Blocs send their own separate expeditions to this new world to investigate its lifeforms, resources, and colonization potential. Officially they are bound by treaty to cooperate and share information; but the reality is far different, as each camp races for advantage and domination of Jem for its own benefit.

This race to exploit a new world isn’t hindered in the slightest by the discovery that Jem has its own indigenous intelligent life, three species in fact. Although sentient, these natives of Jem are primitive, and thus in no position to put up a fight against the invading humans, most of whom never even question the moral implications of what they’re doing. The Jemman natives are seen as a resource to be used and profited from, nothing more. One of the main movers and shakers behind the Food Bloc expedition describes one of the Jemmans’ expected roles:

“For openers, Dr. Ravenel, I’d like to see your people create some trade goods. For all three races. They’re all going to be our customers one of these days.”

This shot at unrestrained commercialism brings back fond memories of Pohl’s classic, The Space Merchants, which tackles the same problem much more thoroughly.

But the Jemmans are seen not only as future consumers, but also as recruits in the humans’ ever escalating series of conflicts. They are manipulated and pitted against each other as the alien invaders become more and more open and brash in their machinations. Finally, the situation devolves into all-out war, and not only on Jem:

The world she had left was blowing itself up, and the world she had come to seemed determined to do the same.

What happens in the end — annihilation or survival? — I’ll leave for you to discover on your own.

What I really like about this book is Pohl’s sense of political reality, his no-holds-barred skewering of our species’ arrogance, and his ability to illuminate deeply fundamental human flaws very simply, often in a single sentence, such as this one that brings to mind Orwell’s “more equal than others” line:

“But learning to live together doesn’t mean that some people can’t live a little better than others.”

The main problem I have with the book is that it can’t quite decide if it wants to be a serious straightforward novel, or if it wants to be satire. For the most part it comes across as serious. But then there are certain situations and events that could have come right out of a Robert Sheckley story. For instance, during one camp’s first contact with an intelligent Jemman species, one member tries to communicate, while another, with no apparent sense of incongruity, starts shooting them to collect specimens! This equivocation between the serious and the satirical lessens the novel’s impact, I feel. Also, some of the characters feel less like real human beings, and more like caricatures of various personality types; and there is little progression or change in them over the course of the story.

Even with those flaws, though, Jem still has a lot to say and is worth reading.

Sagan’s classic tale of first contact

It’s pretty common to hear the phrase “the book was better than the movie,” and usually it’s true; because no matter what the quality of a book is, Hollywood is usually all too willing to lower it by several notches in order to make a movie that appeals to the masses. In the case of Carl Sagan’s Contact, however, I have to say both the novel and the movie are of roughly equal quality, and high quality at that. Which is fitting, since Sagan wrote in the Author’s Note at the end that the initial version of the story was conceived for film, and the novel grew out of that.

I’m not going to delve much into the plot; I’m sure you’ve all seen the movie (if you haven’t, you should), and it doesn’t differ from the book in any extremely major ways. (As far as I can recall — it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the movie.) The biggest difference I can see is that the movie had one person using the Machine, while the book had five people who went on the journey. Also, there was of course a greater level of scientific detail in the book. But that’s to be expected; it is, after all, Carl Sagan we’re talking about. And I don’t recall the movie including the part about messages buried inside the transcendental numbers, although I could be wrong. But basically, this is one of those rare cases in which, if you’ve seen the movie, you’ve substantially gotten the essence of the book. Of course that’s not to say you shouldn’t also read the book. On the contrary, it would be well worth your time.

When I reviewed James Gunn’s The Listeners a while back, that other classic of first contact via radio astronomy, I said I had the feeling I’d like Sagan’s novel better. And in fact, that’s the way it turned out. Sagan’s book has many of the same strengths as Gunn’s, but without some of the weaknesses of that other novel. For one thing, Sagan’s Palmer Joss character was a far more interesting religious adversary than Gunn’s Jeremiah. For another, Sagan gave a much more convincing portrayal of the political situation surrounding the scientific ones. However, I have to wonder if Sagan was paying homage to Gunn with this passage, which strongly echoes the plot of The Listeners:

“Yes. Maybe something’s about to go wrong on Vega,” the Director of Central Intelligence interrupted. “Maybe their planet will be destroyed. Maybe they want someone else to know about their civilization before they’re wiped out.”

I will say, though, that on the level of pure writing style, Gunn outdoes Sagan. After all, Gunn is a professional fiction writer, while Sagan was of course a master of a different kind of literature — inspiring non-fiction books about science and reason. Actually, I couldn’t help but notice how his love for reason and rationality shines through even here, in his single foray into fiction. As part of the background world of Contact, he pokes fun at some of our species’ silly and illogical forms of news and entertainment, for example referencing the “now defunct National Inquirer,” and commenting thus on the world of television:

Lifestyles of the Mass Murderers and You Bet Your Ass were on adjacent channels. It was clear at a glance that the promise of the medium remained unfulfilled.

Coincidentally, that fits in perfectly with a recent discussion I started on the very same topic.

Sagan’s fictional world of television also has some glimmers of hope, though, including:

[...] Promises, Promises, devoted to follow-up analyses of unfulfilled campaign pledges at local, state, and national levels, and Bamboozles and Baloney, a weekly debunking of what were said to be widespread predudices, propoganda, and myths.

It was passages like these, just as much as the story of galactic travel and alien contact, that made me realize just how much I miss Sagan and wish he was still around.