the Little Red Reviewer

First-Contact recommendations for SciFiMonth

Posted on: November 9, 2019


What’s your favorite science fiction theme, asked another SciFi Month participant.

Without a doubt, my favorite science fiction theme is First Contact. What will we say to aliens when we meet them? How will we communicate? How will we be understood? What if they are incomprehensible?

I really dig the “communication” part of first contact stories. Of course we’re going to try to talk to aliens! Of course we will wildly misinterpret everything they say! And of course we have the ego and the hubris to have no idea that we are misinterpreting everything, because the first time a xenobiologist or xenolinguist admits they are “approaching this problem with the mind of student”, some idiot will say “are you saying you’re too dumb to be here?” and that will be the end of the conversation and the beginning of the misinterpretation.  More on the tip of that iceberg at the end of the post.


Anyway, I love me some first contact stories, and if they touch on language, all the better!

If you like that too, here are some recommendations that may be of interest to you.


Arrival – When aliens arrive and start giving us their written language, a linguistics professor is brought in to translate. What she sees makes no sense, and when the symbols are finally translated, it is more than just language and sentences. She’s literally able to see the events of her life in a new, and sometimes frightening way. This movie is based on the short story “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. I’m a sucker for visuals and effective pacing, and I have a major thing for linguistics. I enjoyed the short story and LOVED the movie.


Babel 17 by Samuel Delany – All the linguistics fun of Arrival, plus a bucket of super cool characters, a wild adventure, and smart people talking about smart things. Did I mention the main character is a poet? I vaguely remember in the movie Contact, there is a line “they should have sent a poet”. Well, Delany did. You’ll like this one, I promise.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell – are you in the read-along for this? What do you think so far? Yeah there is aliens in this book and first contact! The Sparrow is probably the most unexpected first contact book ever written. It’s weird, because we don’t actually learn much about the aliens. Well, we see a lot, and figure out a lot of what their saying, but it always seemed to me that what the humans had so much trouble with was the paying attention and actually listening part. So in a way, they do learn, only after it is too late.


Defenders by Will McIntosh – so, we meet aliens, and they can read our minds. We don’t quite understand their invasion or what they want, so humans make the group decision to freak the hell out. We design and build cyborgs to protect us. And then we win the war against the alien invaders. So what to do with all these cyborgs, who have been programmed to protect against an invader that isn’t a threat anymore? I appreciate that McIntosh talks about the aftermath of a failed alien invasion.


District 9 – When the aliens visit, their mothership hovers above Johannesburg, and doesn’t move. Nothing happens for months. When our military cuts into the ship, we find starving creatures, so we “rescue” them. And put them in a “refugee camp”. It gets so much worse and more dehumanizing from there. Every time I see this movie it is harder to watch, because I know what’s coming. And every time I watch this movie I enjoy it more, because maybe there’s hope that humans won’t always be shit heads.

Blindsight by Peter Watts – just an excellent book, all around. This was the book that got me turned on to the idea that humans think we are really good at communication, but we are actually quite terrible at it. The aliens lurking at the edge of solar system might really not want to talk to us. Or, in a weird way, maybe they are just saying hello? There’s probably no way to know. If you like edge of your seat scifi thrillers, this is the book for you. Also, scientifically possible vampires.


The Visitors by Clifford Simak – I just read this last week! The most peaceful alien invasion story I’ve ever read. The aliens come, and they just sit in the woods and in some farms. They literally just sit there. They eat some trees. A few cars accidentally get eaten. The aliens don’t talk to us, they don’t communicate at all (or do they?). Before leaving they give us a gift, something they think we will enjoy having. It is a gift that could destroy our civilization as we know it. At first, I thought these kind aliens were giving me a “yes, there really is a free lunch!” type story, and then when I got to the end of the book I realize that there is no such thing as a free lunch.


Have you read any of these books or seen any of these movies? What did you think of them?

What are some of your favorite first contact books and movies?



What fascinates me about First Contact stories, is that when it comes down to it, those stories are not about the aliens. They aren’t about how humans will interact with, communicate with, be judgy about, or be accepting of aliens. First contact stories are a mirror for how we interact with each other. They mirror how we communicate with each other, how we judge each other, how we accept (or don’t. Or eventually come to accept) anyone who is different from us.  Like many science fiction themes,  First Contact stories show how humans can normalize certain types of reactions to anything that is new, or different from what we are used to.

I don’t know if it’s brilliant or depressing that we need science fiction to show us that humans have a habit of being assholes to each other.

26 Responses to "First-Contact recommendations for SciFiMonth"

Transfigurations by Michael Bishop (1979) has long been one of my favorites — especially the short story that forms the prologue….

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It’s not precisely first contact — more like first attempt to understand the alien species….

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Even not-quite-first-contact stories are wonderful places where characters get to understand (finally!) that with their education and their smarts, they don’t actually understand anything about this other group.

Thank you for linking to the review, I am super intrigued by the novella “Death and Designation Among the Asadi”, as you mention the crux of that story is that the xenologist who wrote all those notes has gone missing. Jeff Vandermeer, one of my favorite authors, has done stories in that vein as well, and I loved them. So i think I will like the Michael Bishop take on that, as well.

The novella is the opening of the novel, correct?


Yeah, the novella forms the prologue.


Hallo, Hallo, – now that I have my 10 #BookishNotBookish post outlining my plans for #SciFiMonth live on my blog, I’m taking to the stars to visit with everyone whose been sharing – mind, this year, I liked going outside my box with my participation post *and!* I’m seriously happy with my first book spine poetry which cleverly knitted out a proper poem! (smiles)

*First Contact* stories are one of the ones I’ve listed as being my favourites when I reached out via LibraryThing forums to seek out new authors to start reading. You can see the fuller list here as I was attempting to participate in your Vintage Sci Fi Month. I admit, when I started the convo I hadn’t foreseen the direction it would take but thankfully everyone ended up being civil about sharing their opinions many of which I shared myself.

I’m still in search of stories to read… I even did a search through Scribd to see if I could spy out some Indie Sci Fi audiobooks or other lesser known SF authors who were writing about Spacers, the Rim or tackling First Contat, Generation Ships or even Terraforming. I’m going to put this into a proper Discussion post this year – come to think on it, get a wider net of feedback but then I spied your topic in my feeds via Reader and jump over straightaway!

Have you come across the works of Cindy Koepp? She writes an unnamed Space Opera series – come to think on it, at two shared links this comment is going to go into moderation – if you key in her name in my Search box (upper right) or pull down the #JorieReads menu and enter my Story Vault, you’ll find her easily under “Science Fiction”. I’ve reviewed the first two stories in this sequence and she very much has left a deep impression on me about First Contact (as initially all my experiences were through being a Trekkie).

A bit of a glimpse as to why I liked her style: Koepp has a natural capacity for etching in humanistic thematics focusing on family and the life of the stars in balance with one another – wherein you feel pulled into the emotional throes of her characters, even at first meeting! Her characters feel vibrantly real – sincerely honest and particularly human, even the ones who are most decidedly from another world!

Koepp bridges spoken speech and telepathic communication well – you are never guessing what is being exchanged or by which method either!  A true joy is watching how her characters interact and express emotion – as their emotion is nearly surmised by their body language and their choice of words, enveloping you in the urgency of the crisis they are facing. Koepp has developed this world quite well – as each character in turn wholly feels fully fleshed together with their individual quirks and trademarks of personality.

Koepp shifts her focus from the ships to the ground – where you get to see the situation from the planning and execution stages straight through to the ambassadors who are sent on field assignments to directly communicate their intentions to the alien race. This is a lengthy process as both species are unfamiliar with each other and therefore, overly cautious, too. Somehow Koepp made it sound believable there would be mistaken interpretations along the way but also, how each of the species wanted to communicate even if they did not always chose the best course to do so.

I think she pulls into the heart of what you’re seeking yourself and why we both love finding First Contact stories. I need to go through your list and see if I can find some which will be a good fit for me as reader.


If you have time, please do write a post on indie-authors, and any other authors you come across who are writing first contact stories!

the Cindy Koepp stories sound just lovely – a marriage of character studies, space opera, how families interact, and how people deal with uncertainty about the future.

my list above is a super short list, please do NOT limit yourself to just these titles. Just because I liked it, doesn’t mean it will speak to you as it spoke to me. I found some great suggestions on, even without a log in, I was able to access their lists, and the “first contact scifi” list had about 200 titles, only a few of which I was familiar with.

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Ooh, I am so thankful to hear this – I thought Koepp might resonate with you based on what you were blogging about on these stories. You’ve definitely tapped into her message and the heart of what she left behind inside them. I’m hoping the series continues, truly.

Ooh I won’t… as that is the truth isn’t it? Sometimes we can’t follow suit after each other as some stories just aren’t our cuppa – that happened with Ms Czerneda’s newest Fantasy novel for me… I couldn’t get into it and that saddened me on a deep level but then I realised it was meant for other readers instead.

I’m going to go chase down that list you’ve mentioned… I admit, I do use GR the way you’re implying as sometimes their lists are the easier ones to read/find/research through… I appreciate all the encouraging words and will be writing up a special post that will run for #SciFiMonth.

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Arrival and District 9 (which punches me in the gut every time I watch it) are two of my favourite movies. 🙂
Babel-17 sounds interesting. I am ashamed to say I’ve yet to read any Delaney. 😦 And The Sparrow has been on my list for a while now but I’ve yet to find a copy on my bookshop travels.
Fab list. 🙂


District 9, right? like, that gut punch is even worse when you know what’s coming. When the movie came out, it got a lot of attention, and then no one ever talked about it again, which makes me sad.

If you’ve a local bookshop, even a place that specializes in used titles, they can probably order you a copy of The Sparrow.

Don’t be ashamed to have not read something that someone else has read. You have read a ton of titles that I am not familiar with! I view those unread titles as future adventures to look forward to!


I love First Contact stories, too. I’ll be keeping an eye on this post and comment section to see what other films people recommend.


What are some of your favorites? My list above was very short and limited, I’d love to hear your recommendations, and about your experiences reading first contact stories. 🙂

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I love The Fresco by Sherri S Tepper. It is totally the future I want.

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oooh! I don’t think I’ve read that one! What is it about? My favorite Teppers are her Arbai books.


I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about first contact, The Sparrows sounds interesting. You’ve made me want to read The Visitors now! x


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Yes, The Visitors was wonderful! I hope you have an opportunity to read it.


[…] have you got any to add to her list? Andrea the Little Red Reviewer has some first contact recommendations for those of you loving The Sparrow […]


Arrival and District 9 are my favorites. I ended up DNFing Sparrow though 😦 as the book paid more attention to human relationships than aliens. I am interested in picking Visitors and have Babel-17 on my TBR for next year. Great list!

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Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve watched Arrival, I always want to watch it again!


I would like to add Three-Body Problem which is my most favorite first contact book that i have ever read.

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I can’t believe I forgot that one! That series is filled with so many brilliant ideas!


I loved Arrival and had no idea it was based on a short story! Now I’m tempted to track it down. And The Visitors has me so curious, both from your review and that cover- just imagine looking up and seeing THAT lol. I’ll have to get a copy.

I’ve never seen District 9, either, darn it! 🙂


The short story is called “The Story of Your Life”, it is in Ted Chiang’s collection “Stories of Your Life And Others” , and it might be online somewhere too. They bulked up the plot a LOT for the movie, the original short story doesn’t have any politics or military stuff in it at all, it is just Louise’s sort of diary of her experience with the aliens. It’s a beautiful story, doesn’t have the tension that the movie has.

I highly recommend District 9! If you get Netflix discs, they have it.


Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. An oldie, still stands up. Count on me for an oldie… Also Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, although in it, we are the visiting aliens.


I need to reread Childhood’s End. The first time I read it, a few years ago, I think I was looking for something that wasn’t there, so I was disappointed. Now that I know what’s there, I can see it a little clearer. Everything by Hal Clement is wonderful!


Love Arrival and District 9. Now I want to rewatch.
Lynn 😀

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FTC Stuff

some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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