So what happens after first contact? Leaving aside War of the Worlds scenarios where one race is completely destroyed, after the initial shock, what’s it like five or fifty years into a universe where we know we’re not alone? Human history provides several possible outcomes, ranging from genocide to colonization to occupation to friendship and political alliance to the innocuous missionary outpost or even lone, Marco Polo-like figure, venturing into the unknown.
Each of these come up in Second Contacts at one point of another, but this is a Canadian anthology, and though it has its dark moments (see Albert Nothlit’s “The Translator,” Matt Moore’s “As Below, So Above,” and — more whimsical but no less violent — Naomi Libicki’s “A Girl and Her Tentacle-Monster”), editor Hayden Trenholm’s own analysis is correct: It basically leans toward the hopeful.
In fact, many of the stories could have been episodes of Star Trek, particularly the less rough-and-tumble, Shatner-less Next Generation iteration of my youth. Diplomacy, cultural exchange, unity, the commanding yet soothing accent of Patrick Stewart: This is the rule rather than the exception in the minds of many of the contributors to the book.
That’s not to say there aren’t upheavals or conflicts even in the more optimistic futures. “Free Radical” by David Tallerman imagines a technologically superior race setting up shop on our planet, offering technology and political and social stability, but pushing almost nothing, insisting on little, letting humanity take what they want, evolving at their own pace, no strings attached.
Certainly it seems like a reasonable compromise between the black-and-white hands-offness of the Prime Directive and the recklessness of most human-on-human first contacts, including the well-meaning ones. So why do human terrorists, with no religion other than humanity, strap bombs to their chests in protest at the intrusion? Simple racism? An inability to accept constraints on freedom even in the purely abstract?
I suppose we might ask Scotland, post-Brexit, that same question. William Wallace is seven centuries buried and independence is again on Scottish lips. Unity versus independence, it’s just one of those many human conundrums, the eternal tension of a species defined by its dichotomies. Canadians, the Quebecois particularly, know this well.
In “Look, Don’t Touch,” Holly Schofield considers the alien point of view when a human girl is recruited into their ranks, as does K.G. Anderson in “Grief,” which features a therapist struggling to aid an extraterrestrial diplomat having a hard time on Earth. And other stories are set not in a near-future version of our own world but in alien settings where humans are the invaders (Andrew Barton’s “Strong Arms Be Our Conscience”), or — going one step further — feature no human characters at all (Nicole Lavigne’s “Soil of Truth”).
Story is conflict and while not every tale has a clear-cut villain, the protagonists usually face one challenge or another. There are more verbal confrontations and emotional crises than physical violence or even the threat of it, which isn’t to say that the stakes aren’t high. Getting along isn’t always easy; adjusting to change isn’t always easy. But to again paraphrase Mr. Trenholm, it’s a happy future if we’re still around long enough to meet another kind of intelligence.
Second Contacts presents a diverse set of polished stories, most written by seasoned authors, and the theme is an interesting one. Truth be told, none of the stories really blew me away. Perhaps the high number of stories and overall short length of the volume left the writers too little space to work with, or perhaps in the long history of science fictional aliens it’s hard to find something new to do with the set-up that isn’t trivial.
(To be clear, first contact and its aftermath is a topic I’ve been thinking about and exploring through both fiction and non-fiction for decades and I would be hard-pressed to think of a new twist on it. This won’t be true for every prospective reader.)
The anthology Carbide Tipped Pens, published a year earlier, was much broader in its scope, limiting itself only to the genre of hard science fiction, and it is perhaps not surprising that it had more major stand-out pieces for me. Still, Second Contacts left me thinking again both about that day we would finally know everything has changed, and the years that follow. At minimum it’s a thoughtful, capable primer on a perennial science fiction topic.