Saturday, October 29, 2011

Alien Contact Anthology -- Story #26 (the last story)

Story #26. This post ends my journey, so to speak, which began 26 weeks ago -- one-half year ago! -- to blog about each of the stories included in my anthology Alien Contact, forthcoming from Night Shade Books. The anthology is actually available this weekend at the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego, and should begin shipping, on schedule, November 1. I got behind only one week -- the week of August 28, due to a family emergency -- but made up for it the following week by blogging about two stories. I'm actually amazed that I've been able to maintain the weekly schedule, on top of everything else these past two months (more on this in my month-end recap). So let me get on with it already....

"Last Contact"
by Stephen Baxter

Solaris Book of New SF V1This story was originally published in 2007 in what has now become the first volume of The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, edited by George Mann and published by Solaris Books UK. The story is approximately 4,400 words in length.

I first read this story in December 2007: it was included in Jonathan Strahan's anthology The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Two, which I was proof reading and copyediting at the time for the publisher, Night Shade Books.

There are only two characters in this story (though other family members are spoken of) -- a mother and daughter -- that is, unless you want to count our galaxy as the third character. The daughter, Caitlin, is an astrophysicist, who discovered the Big Rip: "...the dark energy is pulling the universe apart, taking more and more of it so far away that its light can't reach us anymore. It started at the level of the largest structures in the universe, superclusters of galaxies. But in the end it will fold down to the smallest scales. Every bound structure will be pulled apart. Even atoms, even subatomic particles." The mother, Maureen, is a "search-for-ET-at-home enthusiast." The action, and dialog, all take place in Maureen's garden, when Caitlin comes to visit -- on three specific days: March 15, June 5, and October 14.

This is a minimalist story, yet powerful enough to stay with me such that, eight months later, shortly after proposing the Alien Contact anthology to Night Shade editor-in-chief Jeremy Lassen, I knew I wanted to include this story in the book -- and to make it the last story as well, the one that closes out the anthology. Here's an excerpt from March 15:

Caitlin walked into the garden through the little gate from the drive. Maureen was working on the lawn.

Just at that moment Maureen's mobile phone pinged. She took off her gardening gloves, dug the phone out of the deep pocket of her old quilted coat and looked at the screen. "Another contact," she called to her daughter.

Caitlin looked cold in her thin jacket; she wrapped her arms around her body. "Another super-civilisation discovered, off in space. We live in strange times, Mum."

"That's the fifteenth this year. And I did my bit to help discover it. Good for me," Maureen said, smiling. "Hello, love." She leaned forward for a kiss on the cheek.

She knew why Caitlin was here, of course. Caitlin had always hinted she would come and deliver the news about the Big Rip in person, one way or the other. Maureen guessed what that news was from her daughter's hollow, stressed eyes. But Caitlin was looking around the garden, and Maureen decided to let her tell it all in her own time.


Caitlin said, "I'm going to be on the radio later. BBC Radio 4. There's to be a government statement on the Rip, and I'll be in the follow-up discussion. It starts at nine, and I should be on about nine thirty."

"I'll listen to it. Do you want me to tape it for you?"

"No. Bill will get it. Besides, you can listen to all these things on the websites these days."

Maureen said carefully, "I take it the news is what you expected, then."

"Pretty much. The Hawaii observatories confirmed it. I've seen the new Hubble images, deep sky fields. Empty, save for the foreground objects. All the galaxies beyond the local group have gone. Eerie, really, seeing your predictions come true like that....


Maureen's phone pinged again. "Another signal. Quite different in nature from the last, according to this."

"I wonder if we'll get any of those signals decoded in time."

Maureen waggled her phone. "It won't be for want of trying, me and a billion other search-for-ET-at-home enthusiasts. Would you like some tea, love?"

Maureen actually reveals the key to the story's title in the next to last sentence -- but you'll have to read the story to find out what that is. Amidst all of the potential destruction of the Big Rip is this heartwarming relationship between Maureen and Caitlin, between mother and daughter. It can be no other way.

"Last Contact" was a finalist for the 2008 Hugo Award as well as the Locus Award.

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