February 03, 2010


Every once in a while we do a post on science fiction stories here. For me the genre is just endlessly interesting thanks to remarkable storytellers who break new ground with each advancement in technology, biology, evolutionary psychology, etc. If you add into the mix recent discoveries of planets potentially capable of harboring life in other solar systems, suddenly novels of "first contact" have intriguing new playgrounds. A recent novel I haven't been able to stop thinking about is Blindsight by Peter Watts. It in part explores the questions: If an extrasolar intelligence arrived, would it even be possible for us to parse a completely alien psychology? And how would we react if it seemed to refuse contact or took no notice of our attempts to do so? We have a poor track record in dealing with things we don't understand and that frighten us, and Blindsight is a frightening novel. It has a kind of Richard Dawkins fueled bleakness that makes the story compelling but not at all the more hopeful alien contact described in something like Carl Sagan's novel, Contact.
I would very much like to be on the optimistic side but this novel left me hoping that if they're out there, we never meet them. It makes me remember footage from a SETI conference where anthropologist Ashley Montagu said "I can think of no worse fate for the human race than to meet a more advanced alien intelligence" (paraphrased), much to the chagrin of the more optimistic Carl Sagan seated next to him.

A few other suggestions of hard SF tales of first contact:
  • Mote in God's Eye; Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle
  • The Sparrow; Mary Doria Russel
  • Fiasco; Stanislaw Lem (the title being an ironic understating of the horrifying results when we attempt to force first contact on another solar system.)
  • Illegal Alien; Robert J. Sawyer
  • Revelation Space; Alastair Reynolds
  • Blind Lake; Robert Charles Wilson
  • Eater; Gregory Benford
  • Spin; Robert Charles Wilson
  • Eifelheim; Michael Flynn
How about your suggestions? Do you have a favorite story of first contact or other science fiction recommendation?


  1. Lem had several novels exploring the idea of the first contact from different angles. Zs wellas Fiasco, I can recommend Eden, Invincible and, of course, Solaris. He certainly was a pessimist regarding our chances of finding common methods of discourse in any sense.

  2. Good call Jorgon. I missed invincible, I'll have to pick it up.

  3. Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End was a good read.

  4. Ender's Game comes to mind

  5. I don't know why but when ever I hear anything related to sci-fi Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy comes to mind. Douglas Adams writing is so amazing and ever so entertaining.

  6. You know it really could be horrible. Consider what has usually happened in human history when a more technologically advanced culture has encountered a more primitive one? Even peaceful contact may result in the introduction of alien diseases to the human population (think about what happened when small pox was introduced to the Americas.)

    But perhaps interstellar distances are so great, that we'll only be able to chat with other species without meeting them. It could take years to exchange messages. Talk about awkward pauses in a conversation.

    Not to be xenophobic but it makes you wonder if attempts to contact ET's might prove disastorus.

    Remember kids don't talk to strangers.

  7. There's also the question of whether we would even be able to recognize another intelligent species if they were diffrent enough from us biologically, and showed no signs of technological development.

  8. Anonymous3:04 PM

    Hi, my name is David

    I have the pleasure of having one (1) of your works from when you attended the Art Center College of Design.

    The work was titled “Guitar Player”. The student ID is 895515. The name: Nathan Fowkes. The inventory was #4. The medium was charcoal.

    I bought these in a sale you and fellow students had in the basement of a building in, I believe, Santa Monica.

    I have been meaning to contact you for years. I happened to be exchanging artwork in my living room with additional artwork that I have and I thought of looking you up on the internet.

    I hope you appreciate that you work is enjoyed and was not lost in the many years shuffling.

    Thank you, for the pleasure your works have given me over the years.

    David (whipp1st@aol.com)

  9. Thanks David! And good to hear from you. I remember the drawing you're talking about, it was a little hard to part with some of those pieces but the sales helped get me through art school.

    Well said Stephen, I can't remember any titles at the moment but there have been several stories of for instance a hive mind where we only judged the individuals and found them non sentient. Which is exactly what happened in Enders Game, It never occurred to a hive mind species that individual humans were sentient. This idea of being able to peacefully interact with something incomprehensible (or not) is a major thread throughout the Ender series (by Orson Scott Card). Thanks for the reminder Tim.

    And Arthur C. Clarke leaned toward the Wise elder race aliens though the Time's Eye series featured an incomprehensible super race able to affect the flow of time. And sure enough, we end up at war with them in the far future.

  10. very inspiring work

    you are in my favourite blog

  11. I think it's called science fiction
    because it is.
    Good story telling always stires the imagination.
    Monster movies, and the Outter Limits set the foundation for more
    of this.
    However, I once saw an unidentified flying "saucer" that
    made me pinch myself, as I never
    would have believed it. So ...

  12. hi Nathan.....

    Thanks for your appreciation.........

  13. Hey Nathan, just as you always talk about contrast in color and composition, lets go to the other end of the spectrum. Shift from Richard Dawkin's bleak world view to C.S. Lewis's out of the silent planet. Tell me what you think.

  14. Appreciate the comments. And Sung, I'm a CS Lewis fan but regrettably I've never read his science fiction. I'll pick that one up.

  15. outstanding nathan! thanks for always inspiring!

  16. You sir, are a constant inspiration! Looking forward to seeing how this topic evolves;)

  17. Hey Nathan I've been meaning to recommend this youtube video to you, and this discussion seems like a pretty relevant place to do it. Unless I already sent it to you and I'm loosing it in my old age.

    Anyway the video is about Astrobiology.


  18. "The Taking" by Dean Koontz. Sleeping with the lights on doesn't help....

  19. Oh, I've got a good one for you! "The Hammer of God" by Greg Bear and its sequel, "Anvil of Stars". Like Childhood's End, it follows the idea that first contact may equal last contact. And there's always the Outer Limits episode "To Serve Man". :D

    I hope to take one of your color courses this year. Your Concept Design Academy class last year was a complete joy. I can't believe you trusted us enough to bring in your portfolios. It took all my willpower not to walk out with one of those rough color thumbnails from Angkor Wat!

    Thank you, too, for visiting and commenting on my blog. I hope you'll forgive the very tardy reply.

  20. I found your site through a link at Drawn.ca. Very nice work. My book recommendation is First Contract by Greg Costikyan. It's a bit of satire about the joys of capitalism in regards to us dealing with a much more savvy galactic economy.

  21. Anonymous1:25 PM

    Hello Nathan,
    Here are a few recommendations/recollections:

    "Macrolife: A Mobile Utopia" by George Zebrowski is about the species evolving beyond life on a single planet - how far this evolution is carried makes this book remarkable.

    The Hee-Chee novels of Frederick Pohl deal with the results of humans utilizing alien technology that is not fully understood. There are a few of them and maybe some short stories as well.

    "Neuromancer" by William Gibson doesn't really deal with extra-terrestrial encounters but it is a very cool book.

    - Ken Jones

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