Why do so many of science fiction's greatest stories have to do with meeting — and possibly falling in love with — strangers and strange beings? Author Pat Cadigan, whose story "Angel" is in the new anthology Alien Contact, muses about the allure of Meeting the Other.
Do you find it awkward to meet new people?
How about if they're not people? Would that make it less awkward?
Every science fiction writer has written this story at least once, although I'm sure the average is higher—probably half a dozen times or more. Meeting the Other remains one of the ultimate science-fictional scenarios and there's always a new way to look at it. Whether the premise is the first few seconds of First Contact or humans co-existing with thousands, even millions of sentient species in a crowded universe, this is a story with endless variations. Why? Because the most evocative thing you can say to anyone is, You will meet a stranger.
One of the first SF books I ever bought was an anthology called Invaders Of Earth, edited by Groff Conklin. I don't know anything about Conklin and he seems to have been all but forgotten now but he edited some wonderful anthologies (with any luck, <a href="http://www.sfgateway.com/">the Gollancz SF Gateway program might rescue them from oblivion). Invaders Of Earth was divided into three sections — invaders in the past, the present, and the future. I wish I could lay hands on that old book and name all the stories and authors. I do remember Mildred Clingerman's "Minister Without Portfolio", in which a grandmother fails to recognise green-skinned people as aliens because she's colour-blind; there was also a story by Donald Wolheim about an attempted invasion by alien weather, and "The Greatest Tertian," told by Martians who uncover evidence on a dead Earth of its greatest hero, Sherk Oms.
Times sure have changed.
They've changed so much that if you were to put Conklin's Invaders Of Earth side by side with Alien Contact, edited by Marty Halpern, you'd be tempted to think they were books from different planets. Which, of course, they are. The past isn't merely a different country — it's a whole different world.
Science fiction is never about the future and/or aliens — it's about the present and ourselves, as we are at that time. To me, it's fascinating to see how our imagined dealings with the alien have changed over the course of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Philip Jose Farmer and Theodore Sturgeon were the first writers that I knew of who wrote about xenophilia — loving the alien, if you will. I remember a very quiet story by Sturgeon in which an affair between an alien and a woman in a loveless marriage is thwarted by a matter of unfortunate proportions. The mores of the day meant Sturgeon could not be explicit, which actually makes the story that much more powerful: at the end, while the husband gives a patronising speech consoling his wife because he thinks the man in question is gay and cannot return her feelings, she stares at his arm resting on the table thinking, Yeah, that's just about the size of it. (Insert your own puny earth man joke here.)
A few years later, Philip Jose Farmer gave us "The Lovers," in which a human man misunderstands alien birth control with catastrophic results. Gardner Dozois's novel, Strangers, deals with the hazards of failing to grasp the exact nature of an alien culture's method of reproduction. (It's not as farfetched as you might think — check the thousand-yard stare on any father/non-birthing parent coming out of a delivery room for the first time.)
But I think it was James Tiptree, Jr. who first tackled the idea that people might sexualise the Alien, even fetishise the Other, in a serious way. She also dealt with the flip-side—conquered aliens twisting and compressing their bodies to appear more sexually attractive to oppressive human overlords (and then discovering to their horror that when they are in power, they are no better).
Stories about alien sex are no longer scarce — Ellen Datlow edited a whole anthology called Alien Sex, a mix of originals and reprints, all on the theme of congress with the alien. My own story in that anthology, "Roadside Rescue", deals with a human inveigled into a sex act so alien that he doesn't even know what happened until after it's all over — a far cry from Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, in which a priest is explicitly violated in a way any human would recognise. If everybody's got an angle on contact between humans and extraterrestrials, everybody's also got half a dozen more on the closer kind of encounter. (It's not that I sit around obsessing on this particular subject but let's face it: if we're not alone in the universe—and the odds say we aren't—this is something we'll have to deal with sooner or later.)
Which brings me to another of my stories on the theme of extra-terrestrial relations, "Angel," currently available in Alien Contact edited by rising editorial star Marty Halpern. I think Marty must give the matter of contact between us and Others an awful lot of thought. Last year, he and Nick Gevers co-edited Is Anybody Out There? (DAW Books), an anthology full of stories having to do with the Fermi Paradox (i.e., if there really is life out there, why haven't we heard from them, they never call, they never write, wtf?)
This year, we've already met. Alien Contact (available from NightShade Books in November — buy it, or aliens will kill you) is a compilation of ideas as to what form our interaction with the Visitor(s) will take. You may be surprised at some of the names. Mike Resnick and Ursula K. Le Guin are well-known for tales of aliens, but Stephen King isn't generally known for alien contact stories, The Tommyknockers notwithstanding. "I Am The Doorway" has the distinction of being the oldest reprint in the book; the most recent is "To Go Boldly" by Cory Doctorow, also not a writer readers normally associate with stories about aliens.
I suppose that, as one of the original 1980s c*b*rp*nk writers, I'm not, either, although I've written a few. I was delighted when Marty chose "Angel" — I was delighted that he thought of me at all but "Angel" is one of my favorite stories I've written. Not because it won a Locus Award in 1989 (although I'm pleased it did) and not because it was nominated for the Nebula, the Hugo, and the World Fantasy Award (although I'm not modest enough to go without mentioning that), but because it was so long in forming. I had almost all of it written in long-hand for years but I couldn't finish it. I even tried typing it up — yes, on a typewriter (by candle-light, in a log cabin) — but there was something missing. I put it in the fragment box and looked at it once in a while, to no effect.
Then I sold my first novel. I used part of the advance to buy a computer, which changed my work style for the better. I had a new baby and a full-time outside job so I kept a grueling schedule: after the baby went to sleep, I started writing at 10 p.m., knocked off at 2 a.m., and then got up four hours later to do it all again. I could do that in my early thirties — now, not so much.
After I finished the novel, I discovered I was still in gear so I went to my fragment box. "Angel" was one of four partials I found in it (the others, just FYI, were "Pretty Boy Crossover," "Two," and "My Brother's Keeper"). The typed pages were gone so I had to reconstruct the story from various handwritten drafts but once I got going, I made it all the way through the story. Whatever had been missing — I have no idea what that was — fell into place.
It's a peculiar story, with a nameless human narrator who feels as alien as the actual extraterrestrial, and for very good reasons. The human condition is many and varied — there have always been people who have lived in conditions, in situations, in ways we could not imagine, for reasons we couldn't fathom. As the West becomes more and more stratified, I see us becoming less familiar even as we think we're becoming more connected. Facebook friends aren't necessarily people you've met personally; how many Google+ circles do you have and what do you call them? If you told someone ten years ago that you had 2000 people following you, would they think you were a cult leader or just showing symptoms of clinical paranoia?
Did I mention the past is a different planet?
Sometimes I think when the aliens show up, they won't be any stranger to any of us than the people in the next building over, who aren't in any of our circles, either.
Alien Contact, edited by Marty Halpern, is on sale now. We'll be running Cadigan's story from the anthology in a few days.