SF Book Review, Part 18: First Contact

In recent readings, I seem to have inadvertently stumbled upon a series of First Contact stories. Like any sub-genre, these generally include other sub-genres (notably military SF and Space Opera), but there’s actually something of a through line with these three books that I found interesting. I will start with the most famous of the three, an exemplar frequently referenced when discussing First Contact stories:

  • The Mote in God’s Eye by by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle – This is one of those novels that shows up in “Best Of SF” lists all over the place, and as a mix of military SF, Space Opera, and First Contact, I was pretty well on board with the premise. And yet, it took me quite a while to actually get into the story, which is my primary problem with the book: it’s a bit on the bloated side. Much time is spent with a lot of characters, but they still tend to feel two dimensional and functional, rather than fully fleshed out. This is not normally a problem, except that a lot of time is spent on character building, so if you’re going to go down that route, you should make that worthwhile. Fortunately, the dilemma at the heart of the book is a truly fascinating puzzle, both in figuring out what is causing the problem and what kinds of solutions could be proposed. The puzzle is posed by the alien species first encountered by humans in this book, and results as an interplay between biology and sociology. It also explores the weird moral quandaries of First Contact stories. I won’t go into more detail here because while this book is a little bloated and long in the tooth, the core ideas are fantastic and worth exploring. Just be patient with it at first, as it takes a while before things start to get really interesting.
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts – This book made waves back in 2005/2006 (it was nominated for a Hugo), and as a novel of ideas, it is fantastic. Again, though, I’m left with characters that Watts wants to delve into, but are nevertheless not all that relatable. They are interesting, as a point of fact they are all “freaks” of one kind or another, but there’s no real point of entry for us normal humans. The closest we get is a guy named Siri Keeton, but he’s had portions of his brain removed and isn’t the most likable guy in the world. Again, not a terrible thing in a novel of ideas, except that Watts spends a bunch of time, for example, going into Siri’s childhood friend and ex-girlfriend. Outside of Siri, we’ve got a linguist with multiple personalities, a few other folks, and a Vampire. Yes, a vampire, and actually that’s one of my favorite bits about the book. As the universe of the book goes, Vampires were real predators from the distant past that have been resurrected through recovered DNA. They are far more intelligent than humans, their brains operating in parallel, allowing them to maintain multiple simultaneous thoughts in their mind. This leads to advanced pattern recognition, which ended up being their original downfall – they have trouble perceiving right angles (i.e. a cross would actually harm them). In the late 21st century, they’ve been resurrected and given drugs to help with the Euclidian problem, but their vastly different way of approaching the world means their speech patterns are cryptic and odd. They are very nearly an “alien” presence, and in fact, they are one of many explorations of consciousness that seems to really drive this book. The first contact with aliens goes rather oddly, and it’s never particularly clear if they are a conscious intelligence, or something less than that. There is a very rich exploration of the concept of Philosophical Zombies, for instance, among other ideas. Watts does not dumb anything down and really lays on the ideas thick. This makes for interesting reading, but it’s also clear that Watts has a very pessimistic approach to all of this, which hampers things a bit for me. Not fatally so, to be sure, and it’s clear that Watts knows his stuff and plays the game well. I just wish there was a bit more of a story here to hang all of these interesting ideas on… Watts just recently released a sequel of sorts (at least, it’s set in the same universe) called Echopraxia. After some initial Hugo Award buzz, the chatter around this seems to have dropped off considerably. I don’t know that I loved Blindsight enough to run after Echopraxia right away, but if it does get nominated, I will look forward to reading it.
  • A Sword Into Darkness by Thomas A. Mays – This was one of the 2014 books I was looking to read as a potential Hugo Nominee for next year’s awards. As a self-published book in a sub-genre that the general Hugo voter tends not to like (military SF), I seriously doubt it will make the slate (or even come close, really), but I may consider nominating it. As a first contact story, it takes the angle of a potential invasion of aliens. Given the realities of space travel, we can, of course, see them coming once they turn their ship around and start decelerating, thus revealing their thrust. This is an implicit reference to The Mote in God’s Eye, made before a character in this book explicitly references the classic. A team of humans on earth recognizes the threat and privately finances the creation of a greeting party (complete with new drive technologies and weapons). The government is initially dismissive, then helpful, then, well, I won’t spoil anything there. The science behind everything is very well thought out, especially when it comes to the weaponry and battle sequences. This shouldn’t be too surprising, since the author was a longtime member of the US Navy. Of course, so is our main protagonist, a pretty obvious Gary Stu character who gets to fall in love with another cliche or whatever you’d call the SF equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That being said, these are fun characters. They don’t have a ton of depth, but at least Mays doesn’t try to shoehorn it in where it doesn’t belong. They do their job well enough, and I enjoyed spending time with them. The story is well paced and has a more satisfying plot than the previous two novels mentioned in this post. Mays’ prose style isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s functional enough and propels the story along nicely. As plot goes, it’s a pretty tight little story, and Mays even manages to do something that most alien invasion stories get wrong: he’s come up with a compelling reason for a violent invasion. This is one of the major problems with most invasion stories. Given the amazing amount of resources and time it takes to reach another planet with a sentient species, why bother? When it comes to resources, our planet is hardly unique. You could mine whatever you needed from elsewhere in our solar system (or presumably lots of other systems) without ever having to risk your target fighting back. And so on. Mays has devised a pretty interesting reason for the invasion, one that gets at the hard of what makes a lot of First Contact stories tick while managing to turn it on its end at the same time. It’s an impressive trick, and something that elevates this book above a simple trashy SF Space Opera or Military SF story. I’m still on the fence in terms of whether or not I would nominate this, but if I did, it would be primarily because of the motivation factor.

Up next on the First Contact front, The Three-Body Problem, another potential Hugo contender.

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