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

Gabrielle Malcolm

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.

Alien Contact

Publisher: Night Shade
Format: Paperback
Price: $15.99
Author: various
Length: 487 pages
Editor: Marty Halpern
Publication date: 2011-11

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.




Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.


Alastair Sim: A Very English Character Actor Genius

Alastair Sim belongs to those character actors sometimes accused of "hamming it up" because they work at such a high level of internal and external technique that they can't help standing out.


Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers Head "Underwater" in New Video (premiere)

Celebrating the first anniversary of Paper Castle, folksy poppers Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers release an uplifting new video for opening track, "Underwater".


Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's New LP Is Lacking in Songcraft but Rich in Texture

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's The Mosaic of Transformation is a slightly uneven listen. It generally transcends the tropes of its genre, but occasionally substitutes substance for style.


Buzzcocks' 1996 Album 'All Set' Sees the Veteran Band Stretching Out and Gaining Confidence

After the straightforward and workmanlike Trade Test Transmissions, Buzzcocks continued to hone their fresh identity in the studio, as exhibited on the All Set reissue contained on the new box-set Sell You Everything.


Patrick Madden's 'Disparates' Makes Sense in These Crazy Times

There's no social distancing with Patrick Madden's hilarious Disparates. While reading these essays, you'll feel like he's in the room with you.


Perfume Genius Purges Himself and It's Contagious

You need to care so much about your art to pack this much meaning into not only the words, but the tones that adorn and deliver them. Perfume Genius cares so much it hurts on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Confinement and Escape: Emma Donoghue and E.L. Doctorow in Our Time of Self-Isolation

Emma Donoghue's Room and E.L. Doctorow's Homer & Langley define and confront life within limited space.


Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump White House -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.