JANE: Last week you said that you’d had another thought about aliens and how we react to them. I’ve been waiting all week to find out what this is!
ALAN: Yes, I did say that, didn’t I? Well, once you recognise that alien intelligences exist, a whole new set of problems arise. Probably the most important is the question of how you do you communicate with them? In other words, how do you handle the “first contact” problem?
JANE: Oh! I love first contact stories. I’ve even written a few… But you first!
ALAN: It’s easy to see an analogy with the classical age of exploration here on Earth. The European explorers came across many strange societies and faced this problem in real life many times. A brilliant novel that explores this is James Clavell’s Shogun which sees Japanese culture from a European point of view. The two societies are so utterly different from each other that the novel can easily be read as a dramatisation of the science fictional first contact. Several reviewers and critics have remarked on the parallel – I’m by no means alone in suggesting it.
JANE: Shogun is great. “Maybe a duck…” Talk about culture clashes!
When I set out to write the first Firekeeper novel, Through Wolf’s Eyes, I realized that in many ways that the Mowgli stories in The Jungle Books and Tarzan are both “first contact” stories because, although human by birth and biology, both Mowgli and Tarzan begin their association with humanity from an alien mindset.
Mowgli thinks of himself as a wolf first and a “citizen” of the larger community called “The Jungle” second. He clearly adheres to the “social contract” that is itemized in the Laws of the Jungle.
Tarzan never ceases to think of himself as a hairless white ape, even after he has reclaimed his birthright as Lord Greystoke. He never seems happier than when he can return to his roots. (Or, maybe we should say “branches”?)
Anyhow, my awareness of this shaped Through Wolf’s Eyes and the sequels, because I didn’t want to do another “first contact,” story – or rather “only” a first contact story.
ALAN: I never thought of those as “first contact” stories before, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I think you’re right – that’s exactly what they are. But, in pure science fiction terms, I think that Murray Leinster’s delightful novellette “First Contact” is probably the archetype. It comes up with a really ingenious answer to the problem.
JANE: If I read that, it was so long ago that I’ve forgotten it. Can you tell more or would that completely ruin the story?
ALAN: I’ll try.
Two spaceships meet in the void. Communication is established in a rather primitive manner through a kind of universal translator. The problem then becomes one of finding a way to ensure that neither ship can track the other back to their home planet. Neither wants to give any military (or technological) advantage to the other and if one side does get hold of information like that, it would clearly have the upper hand
The problem is solved on two levels. Formal negotiations come up with an ingenious plan but, perhaps more importantly, behind the scenes it becomes clear that the two groups are likely to work well together in the future. They have a lot in common. The crew members of each ship have been talking informally, and they quickly build a close rapport by telling each other dirty jokes…
JANE: (scribbling) Okay. I need to look this one up. It sounds vaguely familiar but…
My second published novel, Marks of Our Brothers, is an alien first contact story. However, unlike many such stories where a meeting in space or suchlike makes very clear that the aliens in question must be “people” not “animals,” (after all, they have spaceships or space stations or something), the problem in Marks of Our Brothers is somewhat different.
Here the question is whether or not the aliens in question are “people” at all. They don’t have hands. They are not obvious tool users, even on the primitive level of, for example, David Weber’s treecats. In fact, they look rather like Labrador retrievers.
The book grew out of my fascination with how many tests sociologists and suchlike use to measure “intelligence” are based on human norms.
ALAN: Of course, the stories we’ve both mentioned assume that the humans and the aliens do actually have a communication channel, either face to face or through some sort of communication device. The problem becomes much harder to solve if the alien race is long dead.
JANE: Yeah, “long dead” would make it difficult to have any sort of contact with a race.
ALAN: That’s true in a very literal sense. (Sorry to ruin your joke by taking it seriously.) But it does raise the question of just how could archeologists of the future come to grips with the language and culture of a society that has no living members with whom to talk? There are lots of societies here on Earth that we know very little about, and whose written records we cannot read. How much harder will that be for truly alien societies with which we have nothing in common?
JANE: Since I’m married to an archeologist, I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it is to learn about a past culture – even if that culture has living descendants. The complexities would grow exponentially with a completely alien culture.
ALAN: H. Beam Piper came up with a beautiful solution to the problem in his short story “Omnilingual.” He assumes that technological societies have more in common with each other than non-technological societies do because scientific truths are universal. The story itself uses the periodic table of the elements as a Rosetta stone to unlock the secrets that an alien society had left behind.
JANE: Okay. I’m sure I read that one, but it’s been a while… I need to find a copy and re-read it. Any other good first contact stories to suggest?
ALAN: I’m very fond of a series of short stories about a team of unorthodox engineers by the British writer Colin Kapp. In each story, the team is presented with an alien technology from a long dead race. They have to deduce what the technology is for, often to a tight deadline. After several semi-catastrophic red-herrings lead them up several garden paths, they eventually find out what the technology is really supposed to do, just in time to prevent a disaster.
The stories are somewhat formulaic, but their humour, and the ingenuity of the alien technologies transcend the formula. The stories have a small cult following in the UK. They were published under the title Unorthodox Engineers by Dobson Books and the stories originally appeared in Dobson’s New Writings in SF series. Probably the best of the stories is “The Railways Up on Cannis”…
JANE: I haven’t read those. I’ll see if I can find a copy. So many books, so little time…
An alien first contact short story I’m fond of is Larry Niven’s “The Warriors.” It’s the tale of the first encounter between humans and the Kzinti. You get a look from both sides and the each makes assumptions based on their own cultural values that are fascinating.
ALAN: I’ve not read that one. I’ll add it to my list. Hmmm… Infinity plus one… I may have a problem here…
JANE: Another place to sample a bunch of first contact stories is the anthology First Contact edited by Larry Segriff and Martin H. Greenberg. I contributed a short story called “Small Heroes,” which is reprinted in my new collection Curiosities.
ALAN: I’ve not read that one either. Oh well – at least I’ll get to read your story when I buy my copy of Curiosities.
JANE: I hope you enjoy it when you do…