Friday, October 15, 2010

Is Anybody Out There? -- Recent Reviews

As I've posted previously, and you may have read elsewhere, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the SETI program: the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. And unlike movies such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T. or Independence Day, scientists have as yet discovered no sign, good or ill, of extraterrestrial intelligence. But now that 50 years have passed with no such sign, these very same scientists are beginning to rethink their methodology.

"Alien hunters should look for artificial intelligence" is the title of an article by Jason Palmer, a science and technology reporter, for the BBC News. (via @daj42) The article includes an audio link to a 3-minute, 30-second recording by Dr. Seth Shotak on "what form 'aliens' may take." Dr. Shostak is a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and he "argues that the time between aliens developing radio technology and artificial intelligence (AI) would be short....that the odds favour detecting such alien AI rather than 'biological' life."

This comment on "alien AI" brought to mind one of the stories included in my co-edited anthology Is Anybody Out There? (with Nick Gevers, from Daw Books, June 2010), which includes the story "A Waterfall of Lights" by Ian Watson. In the story, ophthalmologist Roderick Butler (who teamed up with an artist to create an experimental project at the Museum of Modern Art), says to the visitors on opening night: "...let me introduce you to the aliens in our midst, the super-intelligent evolved immortal creations of aliens from another cosmos which preceded ours! They are in your very own eyes! We don’t see the aliens in our universe because it is through those alien intelligences that we perceive!"

To paraphrase Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strip, "We have met the aliens, and they are us."

Last month, Ray Vukcevich (@rayvuk), one of the contributors to the anthology, sent me a link to yet another BBC News article, which revealed the Top 10 "unanswerable" questions. The data was based on approximately 1.1 billion queries made on the Ask Jeeves search engine since its launch in 2000. Amongst questions like "What is the meaning of life?" (#1) and "Do blondes have more fun?" (#4) and "What is love?" (#7), can be found question #5: "Is there anybody out there?"

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I'd like to share with you bits and pieces from four more online reviews of anthology Is Anybody Out There? that have appeared in the past two months.

First up is the review on August 19 on EDGEBoston, by Kilian Melloy, Assistant Arts Editor. Kilian concludes his review with: "What most of these stories do, aside from exploring some facet of the enigma and advancing one or more theories to account for it (Are we living in a galactic, low-tech 'wildlife preserve' for pre-spacefaring civilizations? Are we living in a holographic universe devised in an alien lab? Are we destined, ourselves, to be the one instance of life that seeds the galaxy?), is address -- some subtly, some with overt relish -- the equally troublesome question of communicating not with far-flung aliens, but with the person right next to us. Is Anybody Out There? is a smart book dealing with a deceptively complex and important question -- but doing so in a myriad of entertaining, and thought-provoking, ways."

This next review appeared in The Davis Enterprise on September 15, and was reprinted in the Owlcat Mountain blog, the personal blog of book critic Kristin Taggart. Kristin writes: "The best stories are those where aliens exist, but are hiding from us. The funniest is Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn's 'Report from the Field,' in which an alien observer gathers information about humanity from our books, movies and TV shows. To say that the narrator is horrified is an understatement, and the story will make readers think harder about what we're broadcasting for any passing alien to pick up."

One of the best blog titles ever has to be Not If You Were the Last Short Story on Earth, which reviewed the anthology on September 23. Reviewer Random_Alex ends his review with these kudos: "Finally, Pat Cadigan's 'The Taste of Night' [posted in its entirety here] is one of those stories that makes me want to flail my hands in the air and sputter a bit, because explaining why it's good is just hard. It reminded me a lot of James Tiptree Jr's 'Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light,' which probably helps explain its appeal.... it combines the intensely personal with suggestions of there being something more. The characters are wonderfully delineated, the poignancy is not overdone, and the sf elements are subtle as well as necessary. Magnificent."

And the last review is from Mark Watson on on September 26. I particularly enjoyed how this review was done: as each story was read, Mark posted a review of that particular story, such that the overall review of the book was accomplished in steps over time. I would check back regularly to see if the review of the next story had been posted. Mark picks four stories that he feels are the best: Alex Irvine's "The Word He Was Looking for Was Hello," Jay Lake's "Permanent Fatal Errors" [posted in its entirety here], David Langford's "Graffiti in the Library of Babel," and Ray Vukcevich's "One Big Monkey." But of those four, I think the story that Mark is most passionate about is Langford's "Graffiti in the Library of Babel" [posted in its entirety here]: "I was pleased to see David Langford in the volume -- he doesn't write much, but what he does write is invariably worth reading, as is the case here. He posits an interesting means by which intelligent life could choose to get in touch with embedding slightly obtuse messages within the texts of classical literature. It's a clever conceit, and Langford doesn't rest on that, upping the ante as the messages are decoded and the implications dawn on humanity."

If you enjoy reading science fiction -- science fiction about aliens, or at least the possibility of aliens -- intelligent science fiction about aliens, or at least the possibility of aliens -- then I do hope you will consider purchasing anthology Is Anybody Out There? if you haven't already done so.

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