Looking for Wit in Sci-Fi Lit?: ‘Alien Contact’ Has It

[29 January 2012]

By Gabrielle Malcolm

PopMatters Associate Books Editor

There’s quite a lot of contact in these stories; with many and various life-forms. A recurring feature seems to be hair that grows in snake-like tendrils and has a life of its own. More than one of the authors here seems to delight in that Medusa-like image. And there’s a powerful embedding of mythic motifs and Eden-like imaginings throughout these stories. Marty Halpern’s editorial brief was for writers to concoct their narratives around first encounters with aliens and, duly noted, numerous authors are represented here with perfectly tailored schemes.

Stephen King is spooky in ‘I Am The Doorway’; Ursula K Le Guin in ‘The First Contact with the Gorgonids’ is satirical and somewhat feminist; Neil Gaiman is witty and a bit Gen X in ‘How To Talk to Girls at Parties’; and Orson Scott Card’s ‘The Gold Bug’ produces a pioneering messianic hero who leads a colony of young idealists into a hard won wilderness/promised land. So far, so predictable; in short, there are no real surprises here. There’s a business-as-usual element to the collection, which doesn’t weaken it, but doesn’t really strengthen it, either.

Le Guin’s effort is suitably cryptic and shot through with a wry and clever quality. King is nicely creepy, a matter of infestation and infection from outer space. ‘Contact’ is manifest in many different ways throughout: insect-life, harvesting, visitation, and invasion. Gaiman depicts a pair of charmingly geeky guys out ‘on the pull’ who discover the alien species known as ‘girls’ at a party. However, I think I reserve my most sumptuous praise for George Alec Effinger’s ‘The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything’. Looking for wit in Sci-Fi lit? This story has it in ample quantity.

He gets us to imagine a world in which an alien invasion takes the form of a population of the ‘nuhp’ emigrating to Earth. Think of a race of people who are exactly like your sophomore roommate in college; in the case of Effinger’s narrator (a jaded and fed-up US president) it was Barry Rintz. Barry likes everything that is safe, (M)iddle (o)f the (R)oad, and pretty bland. The power of the neutralisation of ‘taste’ (the ‘nuhp’ consider bowling to be ‘the very distillation of the essence of sex’ and Miklos Rozsa’s score for Ben Hur to be the greatest composition ever, along with Tex-Mex as the best of Earth’s cuisine) cannot be underestimated. There’s a surprising twist to the interactions between these decidedly non-superior aliens and Earth’s inhabitants. The driving force that is a dogged, nagging, bland conservatism eventually produces some interesting results.

This collection from Night Shade Books is quite an achievement. It is, understandably, predictable and breaks no boundaries in the main. However, along with Effinger’s contribution there are other witty and quirky examinations of the genre. The short story format is quite a liberating mechanism at times for authors, and this collection certainly displays that tendency. You feel that there’s some experimentation happening here and there, alongside the ones that have phoned it in.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/153545-alien-contact-edited-by-marty-halpern/