the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘first contact


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.

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

published in 2018

where I got it: purchased used








Occasionally, people ask me for book recommendations.  I try to recommend something the person will like, so if they ask me to recommend something poetic, something beautifully written, something strange but glorious that gets better every time I read it, without pause I will recommend Catherynne Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed.  I will talk your ear off about this book, and it’s sequel, and the tragedy that the publisher is no longer in business so the books are no longer in print, and yadda yadda.


If I could only read one book for the rest of my life, I would choose The Habitation of the Blessed.


Knowing that, doesn’t make writing this review any easier.


Artists are gonna art, people should write the book they want to read, the world needs something happy right now. Space Opera is up for a number of awards, I hope it wins some of them, for sheer uniqueness, weirdness, and unapologetic over-the-top audaciousness.


Your mileage may vary. Remember this post?  I was 50 pages into Space Opera when I wrote it.


The concept behind Space Opera is, simply,  Eurovision Song Contest, in SPAAAAAACE!!!!! All the sentient races in the galaxy participate, and every so often an upstart race is invited to participate. If said upstart race wins (or at least places decently), they are welcomed into the galactic community. If they lose, they are deemed non-sentient / a danger to the galaxy, and summarily annihilated.  This “win or die” premise is presented in rather a Douglas Adams fashion, so all feels like fun and games. But the big question remains: Does Humanity Deserve to Survive?


Representatives are sent to Earth to find humanity’s best musicians. They were hoping for Yoko Ono.  Instead, they got Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes.


If you like over the top humor, if you like a narrative style that blows you off the page, if you’re looking for something really different, if you like wacky aliens and over the top descriptions, and a heartwarming ending, this book is for you!


I’m a buzzkill.  I’m a killjoy. I hit sensory overload around the time most people get out of bed in the morning. Don’t get me wrong, i get a kick out of short term sensory overload. In  the right circumstances, I quite enjoy it.  But long term sensory overload? something that puts me into overload too quickly?  It’s, um, not good.


I DNF’d this book, twice.

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On a lark, I picked up China Mieville’s Embassytown to reread.  I read this back when it came out in 2011, and it blew my mind. (I even wrote a pretty good review!) I remember being intimidated by the vocabulary, of having open while I was reading. I remember that at the time I wondered if half the words were made up, or if Mieville was trying to prove that he was smart and I was dumb.  I was the girl who read what was given to her.  Maybe Mieville was just telling me to pick up a damn dictionary already.


On this reread, pen in hand, I decided to underline every word I didn’t know.  I underlined maybe five words? All of which I could figure out contextually. That girl, the one who got all defensive because she ran into words she didn’t know? Eight years later that girl is a stranger to me.  These days, words I don’t know are like eating a fruit i’ve never had, or a dessert i’ve never heard of, or gaining access to the rare book room at the library. They are a joy.


Speaking of weird words I don’t know Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun tasted like mochi and illuminated manuscripts .  To put that in context, the first time I tasted Mochi I cried with joy.

(Words you don’t know is like rehearsing with a jam band. You want to be the worst musician in the room, because that guarantees you’ll learn from the other musicians. Being the best musician in a jam band is boring – you risk not becoming a better musician)


I can’t talk about Embassytown without talking about language, and how spoken communication is both more and less about the actual words that come out of our mouths.  My fave subgenre of scifi is books that deal with language, linguistics, first contact, communication. I hate the word “communication”, it is such a bland, cheap sounding word for something that encompasses basically everything.


This post  has minor and major spoilers for Embassytown. Consider yourself warned.  But like any Mieville book, i can tell you what happens at the end, and it won’t spoil any of the good parts of the book for you.


In the book Embassytown, the aliens, the Ariekei, speak with two mouths, two voices at once.  If what they are saying is two syllables, they say both syllables at the same time. The way this is presented within in the text fantastic, it looks something like this:



It takes two humans, speaking at the same time, to speak in Language that the aliens will understand.   One human talking just sounds like white noise to them. They hear sound (maybe?) but the sounds are just noise.

(spoilers, and hella cool conversation on language ahead!)


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Hello February!  You are officially the month wherein I start complaining that winter has gone on too long.


January though, was fantastic!  Vintage Science Fiction month was a rousing success as always, the quieter conversations were balanced out by a very fun watch-along of the 1984 movie of Dune, seen for the first time by many.  Every January I also attend ConFusion, a fan run science fiction convention in the Detroit suburbs.


The promise I made to myself in the days before ConFusion were “you don’t have to do it all. Do whatever you want, and not a bit more”.  I tend to exhaust myself at these events, going to too many panels in a row without eating, trying to meet all the people,  suffering from fear of missing out if i don’t make an appearance at every event, feeling socially awkward because I really don’t know that many people and yadda yadda. So this year I hung out with my friends, worked some shifts at the Apex table in the vendor room, attended very few panels, ditched the hotel entirely on Friday night to visit my favorite sushi restaurant and have a drink at my friend’s bar, didn’t push myself to do to much, and had a fantastic time.


Here’s the thing tho – I have a bunch of neat memories and they are all smushed together. I don’t know what conversations happened with who, or what exactly was said in which panel, or what came together in my brain when to come up with what ideas.  It’s become a congealed memory blob.


In one of these panels – Disaster Response in Science Fiction, Philosophy in Science Fiction, and Game Boards in Scifi and Fantasy, there was a tiny aside about the 3 types of conflict:


Person vs another person

Person vs nature

Person vs themself


In that same panel, or perhaps a different one, I though about or maybe made mention that First Contact with aliens will challenge everything we think we know.


Thanks to the congealed memory blob in my brain, all of that combined to:


Won’t first contact be the ultimate of “Person vs themselves”?  Anyone involved with first contact would have to be able to separate themselves from everything they think they know, all of their assumptions, all their preconceived notions, all those easy “well, what *should* happen is. . . “ thoughts.  You’ve got to get past all those barriers within yourself before you can understand someone else.  You’ve got to be willing to bare yourself, or communication will never happen. Wanna talk with aliens?  You gotta defeat yourself first.

Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter

Published Aug 1 2017

where I got it: purchased new









Stories about generation ships are nothing new, we tend to see a good crop of them every year. The novel might focus on the disenchanted middle generation that didn’t leave Earth, and won’t see their destination, or perhaps deal with a mutiny, or a malfunction on the ship, or the fact that their destination planet can’t support human life.  What I’m saying is that for the most part, many of us have seen this story before.


In Noumenon, Marina J. Lostetter goes in a somewhat different direction, and succeeds through the magic of ultra-fast pacing. It sounds counterintuitive, right? Speed up the pace of a story, to tell the story better? In Noumenon it works, and creates a unique situation for what might have otherwise been a forgettable novel.


The first few chapters race by – an interstellar mission is funded, a subdimension drive is invented and tested and engines are built, an AI is designed around a common personal assistant program. In these early chapters you’ll find yourself turning the pages faster than you realize. The prose is easy on the eyes, the characters are easy to get along with, we see everyone at their best, and we’re science fiction fans so of course we’re cheering for an interstellar mission!  And before you know it, we’re in spaaaaaace!


A few decades later, the implications of the twist start to hit.  These aren’t just any regular people on a colony ship.  Don’t think I’m spoiling things, because this is the least of the spoilers – the ship is crewed by genetic clones of the people who were chosen to go.  When those clones age and “retire”, new clones will be born.  If “Bob” is a biologist (making that up as an example) then every Bob who is every born on the ship will always grow up to be a biologist.  The colony ship will always have just as many pilots, communications experts, doctors, teachers,  sanitation workers, and scientists as it needs.  Only one “Bob” is ever alive at a time, but there’s usually always a Bob walking around somewhere.  Pretty interesting idea!

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dark forest

I finally got around to reading Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest earlier this month. My better half read it a few months ago, and I nagged him into writing a joint review with me. Well, more a conversation than a joint review. Epic spoilers ahead! Or, as Better Half says “If you’re on the no spoilers ship, better watch out, there’s rocks ahead”. He thinks he’s forgotten most of this book. He’s wrong.  Here’s what we thought of Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest.

Andrea: You and I are both drawn towards character driven narratives. The Dark Forest is even less character driven than The Three Body Problem. I had a tough time getting into the story, because it was hard for me to grab onto any of these characters. Did you have a tough time too?

Mike: Somewhat of a tough time, it was easier for me as I chose to read this as an historian viewing the book as ‘future history’. Then, I could just follow the ebb and tide of historical forces as the story unfolded.

I liked the hope given to the Wallfacers, the unreality of the projects, and that one of them actually does save the Earth.

Andrea: What’s that phrase? Necessity is the mother of invention? Humanity is desperate, so we’re willing to put our faith in crazy things. All the other Wallfacers had these ridiculously complex ideas, and the one that saves the Earth seems so simple. Talk about playing the long game! Being given limitless money and told “Save the World”, it was interesting to see what these people did with their funds and resources. Reminded me a little of the Selacao (how the hell do spell that?) from the anime Eden of the East. But the Wallfacers take advantage of their situation, they can spend money on silly stuff, and say “it’s part of the plan”. Many of the Wallfacers had a similar “ultimate plan”. Were you surprised?

Mike: I also saw the Eden of the East connection, one of my favorite animes! The Wallfacers, with one exception, chose brute force methods to win a war, which is exactly what a war winner does not choose. Subtlety was only chosen by one facer, people scoffed, and he won.

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three bodyThe Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

published in November 2014

Where I got it: purchased new












This review contains minor spoilers.


I had a very tough time getting into The Three Body Problem.  In the first half of the novel, it’s hard to tell what’s going on, who or what is important to pay attention to. There are certainly interesting and important things that happen (and which are explained at the end), but I couldn’t understand how any of the dots were connected.


The story starts during China’s Cultural Revolution.  Professors, scientists, academics, anyone who is seen to be under the influence of western thoughts are persecuted and often psychologically tortured to the point of suicide. Ye Wenjie watches as her physicist father is murdered by teenaged Red Guards. Guilty by association, Wenjie is sent to the frontier to be politically rehabilitated through manual labor. A talented scientist herself, she is recruited to be part of the secretive Red Coast Base.  It will be years before anyone is allowed to talk about what happened at Red Coast.


The narrative jumps between Ye Wenjie’s life at Red Coast and modern day China, where nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao is pulled into a military investigation where he could be the key to stopping a dangerous enemy. Except no one will tell him who the enemy is, or where they are. He’s shown a list of scientists who recently committed suicide, and is exposed to a terrifying countdown that is counting down to, what exactly? Reluctantly, Wang becomes friends with Shi Qiang, the gruff police officer who had originally pulled him into the military meeting. A name on the list of dead scientists catches Wang’s attention, Yang Dong. He’s encouraged to visit Yang’s elderly mother, who turns out to be Ye Wenjie.


The connection between Wang and Ye Wenjie is a point of no return. For Ye, everything she’s worked towards is coming full circle. For Wang, he learns of a video game called Three Body, in which the goal of the game (or at least the first level of it) is to predict how long the next stable and chaotic eras will be in an environment in which the laws of orbital mechanics don’t seem to make any sense.  Players who understand what the game truly represents are invited to learn who made the game and why.

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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.