Monday, April 25, 2011

Alien Contact, the Anthology: Beginnings...

Science fiction has always had a love affair with aliens, as far back as the early days of the pulps, with their BEM1 covers and stories such as John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?"2 (written as by Don A. Stuart in Astounding Science Fiction, August 1938 -- pictured left) and Murray Leinster's "First Contact" (in Astounding Science Fiction, May 1945 -- pictured below).

I don't recall my age at the time, but I had the misfortune to be home alone on a Saturday afternoon when the movie Invaders from Mars was the featured matinee movie on television. And to tell you the truth, I've not watched the movie again since! I'm going strictly by memory here, so bear with me if all the details in this brief recap aren't completely accurate (though I did look up the characters names on the Internet Movie Database).

As I recall, ten-year-old David MacLean wakes up one morning to a loud noise and bright lights outside. He rushes to his bedroom window in time to see a flying saucer land in the sand dunes just beyond the fence. He tells his father, who goes outside to investigate, but his father doesn't return home until the following day -- and when he does, he behaves differently: moody, sullen, quick to anger. And, David spots an unusual, albeit small, scar on the back of his father's neck. Soon, the same personality change (and scar) affects his mother, the police chief, and other townspeople. David finally turns to, and confides in, a local doctor, Pat Blake, and she, in turn, confides in a local astronomer, Stuart Kelston. Together, they convince the Army of the danger, and the Army intercedes. The good doctor is captured by the aliens, but she is rescued just before the mind-controlling device is inserted in the back of her neck. At the climax of the film, the Army endeavors to blow up the UFO bunker, as the UFO itself attempts to lift-off. David, Doctor Pat, and others are racing down the hill, away from the UFO and the pending explosion -- while the recent events pass before David's mind's eye -- and then...

David awakes as from a dream, to a loud noise and bright lights outside. He rushes to his bedroom window in time to see a flying saucer land in the sand dunes just beyond the fence.

Whew! That was a creepy ending. Dream becomes reality? -- not something I had ever seen in a movie, at least at that point in my young life. I can't say I had actual nightmares of that movie, but certain images were burned in my mind for many years, particularly the evil-looking alien head with the wriggling tentacles, encased in a large glass bubble, carried by two Martians: green, seven-foot-tall, primitive-looking creatures with insect-like eyes. As I said, I haven't seen Invaders from Mars probably since I was around David's age, but the images, and feelings, still remain. (I will also admit that I haven't seen the movie Alien, either, since its original theater run -- and a midnight showing at that; but I'll never shake the image of the alien bursting out of Kane's [John Hurt] chest.)

For me personally, it's a love/hate relationship with alien tales: they can freak the bejesus out of me -- particularly movies -- but I keep coming back for more. Something about the unknown, and the unknown possibilities -- and the hope that, just maybe, there really is an ET out there somewhere.

This is why, in 2007, after Nick Gevers and I decided to work together on an original anthology project, I jumped at the prospect of doing Fermi Paradox-themed Is Anybody Out There?3 -- even though Nick presented me with a number of excellent ideas.

And this is also why, on August 27, 2008, when I visited the house of Night Shade in San Francisco, and met with Jeremy Lassen, Editor-in-Chief, to discuss ongoing and future projects, I proposed an anthology of previously published "alien contact" stories. In the course of contacting authors for Is Anybody Out There? a few had expressed to me the fact that they had already written their Fermi Paradox story, or their first contact story, and thus weren't particularly interested in writing yet another such story. This got me to thinking: Classic Golden Age stories like Leinster's "First Contact" and Campbell's "Who Goes There?" have been collected in numerous anthologies [I strongly recommend The Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthology series], but not so these "contemporary classics" from, say, the past 30 years or so. Periodicals are ephemeral, and online 'zines even more so (if SCI FICTION4 is any example). So, it falls on editors and anthologists to ensure these stories are collected for present as well as future readers.

Author James Gunn, professor emeritus of English, and director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, both at the University of Kansas, postulates that "humanity/the individual and the alien" is one of the 14 Basic SF Plot Elements.5 Right up there with time travel, AIs, dystopian SF, space travel, etc. -- though Gunn has a far more elegant way of stating these in his list.

My goal with anthology Alien Contact is to present readers not only with an outstanding selection of fiction from the past 30-plus years, but also to showcase just a sampling of the myriad ways writers tackle this basic plot element. When I read through these stories I just shake my head in utter awe, thinking: How did she/he do that? When everything comes together just so in a story it can simply be mind-boggling.

Though I had a large number of stories in mind already, I posted a request for additional story suggestions on newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written, on private e-list fictionmags, and on various online SF news and information sites. I contacted about a dozen "name" authors (or their agents) to determine if each author was open to my using a particular story in a reprint anthology of this nature. Jeremy and I had an opportunity to chat further about the project on Saturday, February 28, 2010, at Potlatch 18, held at the Domain Hotel in Sunnyvale (California). And I made another trip to the city on Thursday, June 10, 2010, to visit the new Night Shade warehouse (they had moved the previous November), at which time Jeremy and I had yet another opportunity to chat about the project. (You can't say that I'm not persistent!)

However, due to scheduling, the down economy, and other such factors, my alien contact anthology was sort of like the ongoing SETI project: just out of range of discovery. Finally, on October 20, 2010, I received an email from Jeremy with the subject line: "Alien Contact: Let's Do It!"

I've been maintaining an online database of alien contact stories; earlier this year, I had opened the database for input by readers of this blog. The database currently has nearly 150 stories listed -- and I still have 17 stories by Jay Lake to add as yet. So there is no shortage of quality stories. And I'm sure these 150+ stories barely put a dent in the subject matter. In fact, if you can recommend a story from the past 30 years or so that isn't currently listed on the database, please feel free to enlighten me with a "comment" below.

I've had an extremely difficult time deciding on the 26 stories that I eventually selected for Alien Contact. I even had some friends and contacts read a few of the stories just to garner additional opinions. At least a half-dozen of the stories I selected were from authors who each had two (or more) stories that were perfect fits for the book -- some of these stories award winners -- and it nearly drove me crazy having to make a decision between the two. I also did my best to avoid overlapping plots and/or content -- though I found it intriguing that so many stories have aliens as bug/insectlike beings, but the similarity ends there. And, quite often, length was simply the deciding factor on whether I included a story or not.

I could discuss each of the stories here, with little tidbits like "art as an expression of the alien" or "the alien as both self and other" -- isn't that what an introduction is all about? -- but to do each story justice I would need far more words than any publisher ought to allow for a book's introduction. And to simply list here the 26 stories that make up Alien Contact would be, well, boring! Besides, I would rather the stories -- and their respective authors -- speak for themselves.

So, here's my plan:
Beginning the first week of May -- and continuing through the following 25 weeks -- I will write a blog post about one story each week. By the end of October, readers will know the full contents of anthology Alien Contact, just in time for the book's publication in November. I hope you'll join me here each week....

[Continue on to Story #1]


1. BEM = Bug-Eyed Monster. Shown here is the cover from Amazing Stories, February 1939, on which we have a typical BEM of the early pulp magazines.

2. The story "Who Goes There?" has been adapted three times on the big screen: The Thing from Another World (1951), John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), and a prequel to the 1982 film, also entitled The Thing, to be released this October. The Campbell story is available online in its entirety on

3. Is Anybody Out There? was accepted by Daw Books and published in June 2010. A number of the stories in that anthology would have been a perfect fit for inclusion in Alien Contact, but I wanted to give voice to other stories. Of course, you can always purchase a copy if this subject intrigues you. I have a dedicated IAOT? page set up on this blog, which includes links to the full text of six of the stories.

4. SCI FICTION, edited by Ellen Datlow, was an online magazine of sorts that published original and classic short fiction; after 5½ years, the sponsor, the SciFi Channel (now Syfy), eliminated the site because it did not generate revenue. Some online archives may still be available. For a complete list of stories, some with appreciations: The ED SF Project.

5. James Gunn's list of 14 Basic SF Plot Elements (courtesy of author Kij Johnson, who posted the list to my Facebook page; Kij wrote that she had annotated the list at one point, and is working on a comparable fantasy list):
  1. far traveling
  2. the wonders of science
  3. humanity/the individual and the machine
  4. progress
  5. the individual and society
  6. humanity/the individual and the future
  7. war
  8. cataclysm
  9. humanity/the individual and their environment
  10. superpowers
  11. superman/superwoman
  12. humanity/the individual and the alien
  13. humanity/the individual and religion/spirituality
  14. miscellaneous glimpses of the future and past

[Note: If anyone can provide an online link/resource to this list of Basic SF Plot Elements, I'd be most appreciative. Please "comment" below.]


  1. Curt Jarrell was kind enough to send me a link to a photo of that scary alien-head-thing from Invaders from Mars. Evidently it had the same effect on Curt as it did on me; he stated that he was about David's age as well when he first saw the movie. Blogger comments, unfortunately, do not allow the "img" tag, so the best I can do is link to the image. I'd say "enjoy," but it's such a creepy alien!

    Mars alien-head-thing

    - marty

    1. Update: I've discovered that the link Curt Jarrell provided is no longer available. So, I tracked down an image of the Invaders from Mars alien head under glass, uploaded it to my Flickr page, and here's the link.