Tade Thompson lives and works in the south of England. His first novel Making Wolf won the 2016 Kitschies Golden Tentacle award for best debut novel. He has written a number of short stories including “Budo” at Escape Pod. His horror novella Gnaw will be released in December from Solaris Books. Rosewater comes out 15th November, but is available for pre-order now.
Look, let’s just get this out of the way right now: Aliens have been done.
They’ve been done to death. We’ve had aliens in almost any configuration imaginable. If you plan to write fiction with aliens in it, you face the weight of what has gone before. How can you possibly make it new? How can you make it fresh? I don’t know. That’s your job. All I can tell you is every single person who gave me writing advice when I was starting out said stories that are all a dream are clichés to be avoided otherwise they’ll get amateur cooties on you. And then there was Inception.
The oldest known narrative featuring outer space and aliens was written in the second century. Yep. You read that right. Vera Historia (“true stories”) by Lucian of Samosata. It even has war on the moon. Arguably, War of the Worlds (1897-1898) is the most well-known alien invasion narrative in modern times. Either way, if you’re reading this, humanity has been telling stories about aliens since before you were born. That’s a lot of stories, man, and a lot of tropes. If you’re going to dip your toe into this you should have some idea of what’s gone before and where you want to position yourself in relation to them. You’re going to want to ask yourself some questions.
1. Why are they here?
I have never been able to buy the narratives that tell us aliens are here to beat up on humanity just because. Now, assuming these folk come from outside the solar system, they’re going to have expended a lot of energy to get here. They did not do that just to probe Bubba’s anus. Are they refugees? Are they on a revenge mission because one of our rockets went astray? Are they lost? Are they explorers? You should answer this question satisfactorily. I say ‘should’, not ‘must’ because it’s okay for the nature and motivation of your aliens to be unknown and unknowable, as long as it’s deliberate and not an oversight or laziness. An example of this is The Roadside Picnic by the Brothers Strugatsky. What we see it humans picking away at what the aliens left behind. In Rosewater, my aliens have screwed up their homeworld and need a new home.
2. How did they get here?
This is where we talk about spaceships. You can be an aeronautical engineer or a literal rocket scientist who will spend pages and pages describing alien rocket fuel or dimensional Einstein-Rosen bridges. Or you can hand-wave a big damn mothership. Whatever you choose should fit your narrative. In Ted Chiang‘s “Story of Your Life,” the writer doesn’t bother describing the vessels other than to say, “ships appeared in orbit and artifacts appeared in meadows.” It serves a narrative that focuses more on linguistics than astrophysics. All I’m saying is, give thought to how they got from Planet Thorg in the Sigslime Quadrant to Earth. Decide how you let the reader know this. In Rosewater I did not make Earth a specific target. The aliens took a scattershot approach and our planet happened to be in the line of fire.
3. What will the reactions of humans be?
Most likely, fear, since that’s how we react to the unknown. Aggression often follows this. But you don’t have to make your first contact story about fear and war. One of the questions I asked myself in Rosewater was could there be an apathetic response to invasion? Under what circumstances might that occur?
4. What do they look like?
Ahh, the little green men from mars or the gray aliens with the bulbous eyes or the lizard people (whose womenfolk always seem to have breasts despite not lactating)…see the opening statements. It’s all been done. Check out Without Warning (1980), a serious film which, when I was growing up, we treated as a comedy. The alien was laughable. You have to give thought to the appearance or the manifestation of the alien. Try to think of why they evolved to look the way they do, so that it’s plausible. Why are they reptiles? Why are they humanoids? Why are they crystalline beings with multi-dimensional brains? How does their appearance intersect with their technology? How will they interact with humanity? The creatures in Story of Your Life make sounds that the human larynx was not designed to produce. When you get this horribly wrong, it becomes a manifestation of your latent xenophobia. Which brings us to:
5. What do the aliens represent?
So maybe H.G. Wells was writing about British Imperialism and the Martians represented a colonizing power. In James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) they represented the Viet Nam War. In Jeff VanderMeer’s SOUTHERN REACH trilogy perhaps there is a forced confrontation with how much we are destroying the Earth? For me, First Contact will always be Christian missionaries infiltrating and British Redcoats making landfall in Lagos.
Or not. Maybe you just want to write an action romp with no deeper meaning. That’s fine too, but know that your subconscious will make itself felt. Aliens are the ultimate Other and how you treat them says something about your attitude towards people not like you. If you write a monoculture, it means something. If you give an entire planet one single language, it means something. If you make them “evil”, it means something. Hint: these are not good things.
Readers, what are your favorite first contact stories? One lucky commenter will win your choice of a copy of Rosewater or a book from our Stacks.
George Alex Effinger’s “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything,” because the exo-sapients were such know-it-alls!
It’s not a “story,” but I love the first contact moment between the humans on Earth and the Vulcan expedition (Star Trek canon) and the way that moment influenced centuries of history afterward.
That was a great moment and it carried so much emotional weight for the viewers because of our years/decades of history.
There were some great short stories in “Alien Contact” anthology edited by Marty Halpern. Especially one the stories has stayed with me since I read it 4-5 years ago. It’s Harry Turtledove’s “The Road Not Taken”. I absolutely loved it.
When I read this article’s title, I immediately thought about Ridley Scott’s Alien. I think that’s how I like my alien stories in general: with suspense and horror.
I usually don’t like pages and pages of scientific description of the ships etc., but I need some details and satisfactory explanations, otherwise technology becomes indistinguishable more magic ;).
ALIEN CONTACT sounds interesting.
Looking over my librarything account, I really haven’t read a lot of true first contact novels… Really the only one that I would say qualifies is Timothy Zahn’s Conqueror’s Pride, and that was in high school. I really liked it at the time, but am not sure about how I would feel about it if I read it now.
Oh, and Making Wolf sounds really good, so I just ordered that on kindle.
Reading the question “…what are your favorite first contact stories?”, I was immediately daunted by the idea of trying to rifle through forty-five years of Sci-fi reading memories (probably couldn’t remember half of it if I tried). Instead, I just let the phrase “first contact” kind of just float there alone in my mind’s eye. The first thing to rise to the top was “Ylla” by Ray Bradbury (I’d first read it in “The Martian Chronicles” when I was 11 years old). Sure, there was his style of writing (which had instantly appealed to me), and the fact that it was some manner of ‘science fiction’ (a prerequisite for anything I read at the time) but, mostly, it was the feeling (that I can still ‘taste’ to this day) of having my perspective wrenched in such a way that the idea that people could be so wildly different -externally, circumstantially, etc.- yet be so much the same really sank in. It was to me (as an 11 year old) not so obvious a thing, but nonetheless something that established itself in the foundations of how I saw the world.
My favourite is “Foreign Tongues” by John Wiswell. It features an alien who communicates by taste and thinks ice cream is the dominant species.
I really liked “Yesterday’s Kin” by Nancy Kress. It does a great job of hitting all the areas you talked about in this article. The aliens have a clear motivation and humanity reacts to them in a very true fashion.
My first thought was Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. I read it as a kid and it made a lasting impression.
I’ve read less scifi and first contact stories than fantasy – though if you think about it a great deal of fantasies, especially portal ones, have ‘first contact’ moments.
Regardless, the first thing that came to mind was ‘Year Zero’ by Rob Reid which definitely shows the differences of the other as well as the sameness. I wouldn’t say there was a whole lot of logic going on in that story but the humorous exploration of other was pretty interesting.
Achilles, if you live in the USA, you win a copy of ROSEWATER!
Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!