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Alien Contact edited by Marty Halpern

01/02/2012. Contributed by Kelly Jensen

Buy Alien Contact edited in the USA - or Buy Alien Contact edited in the UK

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pub: Night Shade Books. 491 page paperback. Price: $15.99 (US), GBP 9.12. (UK). ISBN: 978-1-59780-281-9.

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An anthology is a bit like a buffet. You’ll find dishes you’re familiar with, those you usually avoid and lurking in between, the dodgy, odd looking stuff you’re not willing to try, but do anyway and either discover a new favourite or spend the rest of the night nursing a rebellious tummy.

With its impressive list of authors, ‘Alien Contact’ looked very appetising. Odd stuff would lurk in the corners, no doubt, but the appeal of such well-known names as Stephen Baxter, Orson Scott Card, Cory Doctorow, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, Elizabeth Moon, Charles Stross, Michael Swanwick and Harry Turtledove was enough to nudge aside any doubt regarding complete literary satisfaction.

I’ve listed ten authors as printed on the cover. ‘Alien Contact’ contains twenty-six stories. In short, editor Marty Halpern has gathered an awesome collection of stories and as soon as I’ve finished writing my review, I’ll actually place an order for a print copy of this one to put on my shelf. I have no doubt I’ll be re-reading it.

One of the annoyances of ebooks is not being able to flip back to the cover to reacquaint yourself with the cover art or the back cover to re-visit the blurb. The table of contents requires some button pushing I’ve not quite mastered yet. I’m sure there are buttons for the front cover too, it’s still not as easy as flipping pages. So I began at the beginning of ‘First Contact’ and worked my way to the end. I’d forgotten most of the author list by the end of the first story, ‘The Thought War’, a disturbing tale by Paul McAuley involving aliens that mimic, then replace us, and mumbled in pleased surprise when I ‘turned the page’ and saw a story by Neil Gaiman.

I really like Neil Gaiman’s novels and I enjoyed his story, ‘How To Talk To Girls At Parties’, immensely. Then I flipped another electronic page and stumbled across another author I knew. This trend continued, almost unabated, through the end of the anthology. Self-professed geek I am, I actually got quite excited as I found Orson Scott Card’s story, then one by Ursula Le Guin. I might have squeaked when I discovered Michael Swanwick had an entry, I bounced when I saw a Cory Doctorow story. At that point, I was only about half-way through the book. My favourite authors kept rolling past, eliciting pleased squeals and excited exclamations. By the time I finished the last one, I felt I held in my hands more than an anthology. ‘Alien Contact’, is more than a ‘year’s best’. Marty Halpern has delivered an accurate and outstanding representation of contemporary Science Fiction and the people who are writing it.

So many stories gave me reason to pause, but none more so than the final entry, ‘Last Contact’ by Stephen Baxter. At the end, I actually said, ‘Wow!’, which reflected my feelings about the story, but also its choice as the final one in the collection and the anthology as a whole.

‘Last Contact’ tells the story of Maureen and her daughter, Caitlyn, as they wait for the end of the world. Knowing the end is coming, Maureen does what she predicts most people will do, she just gets on. She putters about the garden, planning for seasons she will never see. Caitlyn is an astrophysicist and one of the team who predicted the end. Her remorse regarding events beyond her control is obvious and touching. Through their conversation, we learn what is happening as they count down to the end.

The ‘Big Rip’ is swallowing the universe, disassembling it at the atomic level and, while Earth waits its turn, the night sky darkens steadily, stars and entire galaxies disappearing from view. Messages keep arriving from the diminishing stars, though, inexplicably, after years and years of nebulous silence. There is a vague hope the messages will offer a solution and desperate attempts are made to decipher them. Maureen hints that decryption is not necessary, however, and as the story ends, she offers her answer, which is chilling and poignant. I’ll not give it away as that would spoil the story.

Stories featuring the end of the world or a rise from the ashes are amongst my favourite and having this element combined with alien contact made this story one I’ll remember long after I move onto the next anthology. ‘Last Contact’ was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 2008 and has appeared in several anthologies, so it’s likely I’ll stumble across it again at some point.

Back toward the beginning of the anthology is a story by George Alec Effinger called ‘The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything’. I had never heard of the author before, but am always eager to try something new which is why I love anthologies so much. The aliens who know everything are called the nuhp and they are a very opinionated bunch. Given that their mothership is tethered to the Washington Monument (they’re very apologetic about the damage), humanity strives to overlook the nuhps’ curious and unwavering attachment to very specific ideas because the aliens are so very helpful when not recommending what sort of car everyone should drive and how best to furnish a house. The nuhp green a desert, using hollyhocks, the best flower, and promise to help with poverty, unemployment, population expansion and the big one, travel amongst the stars.

They keep their promises and Earth becomes idyllic again, the population slashed in half, jobs for everyone who wants them and enough for everyone to eat. There is galactic harmony. How they accomplish this, however, is for you to read for yourselves. Unsurprisingly, ‘The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything’ is another multiple award nominee and is featured in other collections. It’s a good, fun read.

As I mentioned earlier in my review, there are twenty-six stories in this anthology. Unusually, I read every single one and I’d love to talk about all of them. Realistically, I cannot. The author list is impressive enough that I do not need to recommend each and every story, though, they will find attention and readership. I am going to mention one more story, because it was one of those that caught me by surprise. I wasn’t sure I enjoyed it until the very end, when everything clicked. Then I had to put aside the anthology and go think for a bit. To me, that marks a good story.

‘Sunday Night Yams At Minnie And Earl’s’ by Adam-Troy Castro is more a novella than a short story. Max Fisher was one of the men who helped tame the last frontier of his time, the Moon. Now, as he nears the end of his life, he has journeyed back there to look up old friends and reminisce. What he discovers, like so many pioneers before him, is that the Moon is no longer a ‘frontier’. The domed habitats of the Moon feature casinos and luxury hotels and the view, the surface of the moon, once barren but for the footsteps of those early explorers, is cluttered with flashing billboards and other such detritus of human society. But for the blue marble Earth suspended in the sky, one might forget they were on the Moon at all.

Something else that has been forgotten was a phenomenon known only to those early teams of men and women who helped colonise the Moon: Minnie and Earl. Some distance away from the construction, there was a house, early American with a wraparound porch, flower garden and resident golden retriever. Minnie and Earl, a couple in their seventies, lived there and they enjoyed entertaining their friends. No one could figure out who or what Minnie and Earl were or how they managed to keep the grass green inside the invisible dome that looked like a white picket fence. They were simply inexplicable. Turns out, that’s sort of the point, but not really. The explanation of why Minnie and Earl exist and who they are goes beyond this story and when they fade along with the excitement of a new frontier, there is a feeling something wonderful has been lost. Max Fisher remembers them, though, and his journey to recover them was quite moving. I’m not surprised this story is another award winner.

So, I’ve hardly mentioned the stories by those huge names on the front cover, but as I’ve said before, I don’t have to. They will be read, as will every other story in this collection. ‘Alien Contact’ is a fantastic achievement on the part of the editor, publisher and the authors whose work is included. In my opinion, this is one of those essential anthologies; every half way serious Science Fiction fan should own a copy. It would be well worth the money at twice the price.

Kelly Jensen

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