With the release of my latest First Contact novel, Wherever Seeds May Fall, on January 22, I thought it would be interesting to look at the Top Ten First Contact novels. I’ve tried to work in a few outsiders amidst the predictable classics of the genre.
SPOILER ALERT: Rather than discussing the novels in what amounts to a broad outline akin to a synopsis, I’ll be talking about why they make the list, which may involve spoilers but is far more interesting.
10: Pushing Ice
Alistair Reynold’s Pushing Ice is a novel in three distinctly separate acts. In essence, an ice hauler is sent to investigate a Saturnian moon that has departed orbit and is headed for interstellar space. It quickly becomes apparent that the moon is an ancient alien artifact and the crew of the Rockhopper has been captured.
The challenge every spacefaring interstellar species must face is the impossibility of exploration as potentially thousands of generations may pass before a probe finds anything interesting. Reynold’s offers a unique solution in his underrated third act. He imagines an advanced alien civilization that sends out traps. Once the trap is sprung, it accelerates to almost the speed of light, fast enough that time dilation takes effect. Then, in the far distant future, ALL the traps can converge on the same location in space/time to be examined. It’s wickedly and deviously clever.
9: The Three-Body Problem
Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem is a trilogy of stories looking at the Dark Forest as a solution to Fermi’s Paradox. This isn’t pew-pew bang-bang shooty-shooty science fiction, it’s about exploring the big ideas and thinking about the implications. Also, as it’s translated from Chinese, it demands patience from the reader, but the payoff is worth the effort with some serious thought being given to the nature of life itself.
My novel, Wherever Seeds May Fall, was inspired by Liu’s Dark Forest in that I considered a slight variation on the problem. Like Liu, I hope I’m wrong.
Sphere is a slow burn. An alien spacecraft is discovered on the ocean floor. The exploration crew is cut-off from the surface team by a storm. They go on to realize the alien craft is human, having returned to Earth from the future. In its cargo hold is a sphere. The alien sphere is, well, alien. It’s purpose and function are inexplicable to human minds.
By modern standards, Michael Crichton’s Sphere is a little slow and gets a bit sloppy in the middle. At one point, it’s in danger of going off the rails, but Crichton wrangles it back. Crichton loves a science fiction thriller. He gets us to examine not only the prospect of alien contact but our own human nature. Like Solaris, it is deeply concerned with the divide in the human psyche between morals and instincts. Both of these books helped inspire my novel But the Stars.
7: The Gods Themselves
Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic,” and Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves extends this further, looking at the bounds of known nuclear science and extrapolating from there to suggest we would see such advanced alien races as being essentially gods albeit in a parallel universe.
Religion is the third-rail of science fiction. For those that aren’t familiar with the US subway system, the third-rail is electrified. Touch it and it’s the last thing you’ll ever touch. In the same way, it’s a brave author that takes on our zealous devotion to religious ideals. To suggest they’re misplaced is anathema to most, but the hallmark of good thinking science fiction.
6: Rendezvous With Rama
Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama normally hits higher in this kind of top ten list, but for me the characters were one-dimensional. The concept, though, is amazing and something that could very well happen at some point in the near future. When the extrasolar object Omaumau passed through our solar system in 2018, plenty of people were quick to draw parallels with Rama. This is a novel that could very well be prophetic. Like so much of Clarke’s work, its legacy is in inspiring us to think deeper about the possibility of First Contact.
5: Dragon’s Egg
Dragon’s Egg is speculative science fiction at its best! It imagines how life might evolve on a neutron star and, due to the relativistic effects of heavy gravity, in a very different timeframe to our own. Technically, Dragon’s Egg is a novella, but it is beautifully written and examines a hypothetical alien race that goes from the Stone Age to the Space Race almost in the blink of a human eye. For me, there was something visceral in seeing humanity go from god-like to pitied within the arc of a single story.
Like Sphere, Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is concerned not just with the nature of an alien intelligence (which Lem suggests might be utterly incomprehensible to us), but our own nature and our response to the realization we are not alone. This is not light reading. Solaris is for the mature, committed reader, but the payoff is there in terms of a philosophical journey into the nature of intelligence. Think of Solaris as the Lord-of-the-Rings-of-Science-Fiction. It’s more of a journey than a book.
3: Mote in God’s Eye
Larry Niven’s The Mote in God’s Eye imagines a civilization that expands and reaches the point of interstellar travel only to be held captive by the tyranny of its location. The inhabitants of Easter Island suffered a similar fate, and the book looks at the clash of cultures between human civilization and a civilization that has had to accept the brutal fate of a boom/bust cycle over and again.
We tend to anthropomorphize animals. Dolphins are cute and friendly. They’re mammals just like us. Only they aren’t. Males regularly gang-rape females in brutal assaults. Not so cute now, huh? In the same way, we tend to anthropomorphize First Contact. The Mote in God’s Eye does no such thing. It challenges us to consider that aliens might have their own morality that is completely incompatible with our own. After all, “mote” is a splinter in the eye.
Carl Sagan’s Contact is perhaps best known as a film starting Jodie Foster, but the book explores far more material than the film and has a few twists along the way that didn’t make it into the movie script. Contact is easy to read and keeps its discussion of science at an accessible level. It’s the COSMOS series compactified into a fictional story.
Contact was the inspiration for my novel Anomaly.
1: War of the Worlds
Forget everything you’ve seen in the films. War of the Worlds is beautifully written and stands the test of time. Not only is this one of the first stories in the First Contact genre, but it also continues to show more maturity and plausibility than latecomers. As with several other novels in this list, it not only speculates on the nature of alien intelligence but looks at our own intelligence and how our fears and mortality can distort our own thinking. If there’s one book in this list you should grab as an audiobook, it’s War of the Worlds.
If there are other novels you think should be in contention, leave a comment below.
If you’re interested in reading some new and exciting science fiction, check out my latest novel, Wherever Seeds May Fall. Do you think it might make a list like this one day?