Several of the most imaginative minds in science fiction (and science) gathered at this year's Readercon to discuss a fundamental question of our existence: Why does it seem like we're alone in the universe? Writers Jeff Hecht, Steven Popkes, Robert J. Sawyer, Ian Randal Strock, and Michael A. Burstein offered their recommendations for the best fictional explorations of this question, commonly known as the Fermi paradox. See their picks, and find out more about one of the greatest paradoxes in human existence.
Stephen Baxter's Manifold Trilogy
In these three novels and a few related short stories, Baxter explores possible solutions to the Fermi paradox. His first Manifold novel, Time, operates under the conceit that we really are the only ones around, despite high-probability estimates to the contrary. Space, Baxter's second Manifold novel, asserts that there have been a multitude of other civilizations, but various cosmic disasters destroy them before they are able to make connections. The third novel in the series, Origins, posits that intelligent life is actually separated into parallel universes, so that it is impossible for two different civilizations to contact each other. Baxter's Manifold short stories, which are collected in the book Phase Space, explore these and other possible answers to this perplexing question.
Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey
Everybody knows this famous novel of space exploration and the pitfalls of advanced technology. In this story, Clarke postulates that intelligent life does exist independent of our planet and our species — but we're not smart enough to understand their messages. The limited awareness of humans is probably the most plausible explanation for the Fermi paradox, but it's also quite a depressing one.
Terry Bisson's "They're Made Out of Meat"
This Nebula-nominated short story, which Bisson has made available online, is at once hilarious and chilling, an all-dialogue portrayal of intelligent extraterrestrial beings who decide that we're far too primitive to even contact. "What is there to say? 'Hello, meat. How's it going?'" That's one solution of the Fermi paradox — the aliens are here, but they're too snotty to pay us any mind.
David Brin's Uplift series
Brin's Uplift stories, beginning with the 1980 novel Sundiver, contain another assertion that humanity is vastly simple compared to other lifeforms. In this universe, civilizations are not permitted to interact with other intelligent life until they have been "Uplifted" — and that only happens when a vast galactic society decides that they are not only sentient, but sapient. Since every other species in Brin's novels has been found by a far more advanced civilization, genetically modified for thousands of years, and then uplifted, the evolution of the human race seems something of a mystery. Our unique independent development would explain our puzzlement with the Fermi paradox.
Stanislaw Lem's Solaris
In Lem's novel, which has twice been translated to feature films, he explores the idea that alien intelligence operates on a totally different level from our own. Humans who venture to the planet Solaris do discover an intelligent lifeform there, but they are incapable of communicating with it in any way that they understand. Instead, the organism manipulates their emotions and their thoughts without revealing its own, and in the end the planetary researchers are left confused and half-insane. Though this is, again, a depressing idea, it still leaves us with the hope that our society might one day advance enough to commune with others and move forward.
I'm sure you have even more recommendations for Fermi paradox stories, and I urge you to share them with io9 in the comments — but do it quickly. As panelist Michael A. Burstein pointed out, "Wouldn't it be funny if we got a signal from aliens tomorrow and this whole conversation was moot?"