What will first contact be like?
Well, in all probability it will be the discovery of a microbe surviving in an extremely hostile environment on one of the moons of Saturn. But that, of course, is not what science fiction means by first contact. For science fiction, it means an encounter with intelligence, a meeting with some thing or someone with whom it is possible to have a meaningful engagement, whether that engagement is conversation or war or trade. And I shall leave dangling the question of what it says about humanity that those are the only forms of encounter with the alien that humanity seems able to envisage, with war, alas, taking first place.
Bearing all of that in mind, the nature of the contact can be very revealing about how we see ourselves. When America was feeling powerful and optimistic, first contact always came when we went out into space. But for a long time now first contact has involved the aliens coming to Earth; they may come as conquerors or they may uplift us into space, but they are always the bearers of superior technology, superior power.
So what are we to make of alien arrival witnessed through social media, mediated through social media, and seemingly orchestrated specifically for social media? Which is exactly what we get in Alien Morning.
Rick Wilber has written a number of stories concerning the S’hudonni Mercantile Empire, but in this novel he turns back to the beginning, to the moment that the S’hudonni first make themselves known to Earth.
Our protagonist, Peter Holman, is a one-time sports star now trying to make a living as a sweeper, that is, he has sensors implanted in his body that allow his followers to share exactly what he sees, hears, touches and tastes. Sweeper technology is new, there isn’t yet a very large audience for it; and Peter also is new at it, so he’s busy trying to build up the number of followers to a point where he can actually make a living at the game. Which is why, when we first meet him, he is engaged in a bout of fake sex with a Hollywood starlet. It’s a commercial engagement, arranged by their respective agents: he hopes the brush with glamour will increase his numbers; she hope the exposure will help her win a role in a popular sitcom. The fact that this encounter will eventually turn into a genuine if long-distance romance is beside the point. What we take away from this scene is that, a) Peter is a lady’s man, and indeed he spends a lot of the book boasting about his sexual conquests; and b) that we should think in terms of everything and everyone being for sale.
But that same night, as Peter and Chloe, the starlet, walk on the beach beside Peter’s Florida home, they look up and see ten strange lights moving in an unusual pattern across the sky. Because Peter’s sweeper equipment is turned on, the sight is recorded and broadcast. And because the lights disappeared almost immediately, Peter happens to be the first and almost the only witness to the appearance of alien craft in the skies above Earth.
As a result of this sudden fame, Peter is contacted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and while there he watches real-time images of ships approaching an alien vessel. Suddenly he sees the highly advanced Chinese ship completely destroyed, then time is reset and the Chinese ship is simply sailing away from the aliens. Did he see the truth, or a manipulation of the truth? Are the aliens able to alter time? Or are they skilled at making us see what they want us to see? Like much else in this novel, it is a question that is never answered; indeed, it is a question that is not even addressed. All we know, and it is something that is hammered home repeatedly as the novel progresses, is that the S’hudonni have some way of controlling what we see.
Peter’s relationship with the JPL doesn’t really come to anything (I got a distinct impression that the JPL came into the story simply to provide that view of the Chinese ship being destroyed; after that it served no real purpose and quietly disappears from the plot). More significantly, Peter is contacted by his brother, Tom, an eminent marine biologist. Tom wants to introduce a colleague, Heather Newsome, who also has an interest in the aliens. Heather, it turns out, has some connection with the aliens, and wants to provide Peter with more advanced sweeper equipment so he can serve the purpose of showing the aliens to the public. She is, in other words, buying his loyalty, a commercial transaction she seals in another way also: she is clearly Tom’s girlfriend, but as soon as Peter appears on the scene she abandons Tom and climbs into Peter’s bed, an action that will provoke an irrevocable and significant rift between the brothers.
Peter’s family is dysfunctional. His sister took to drugs, but has just now straightened herself out and is living in a comfortable lesbian relationship in California. Peter and Tom disagree over their father (Tom considers him a god, Peter knows he was a philanderer), and this has soured their relationship. This breakdown between Peter and Tom is important because it mirrors that between the brothers Twoclicks and Whistle, the two leading S’hudonni, whose rivalry eventually leads to near open warfare. Meanwhile, Peter is drawn into the entourage of Twoclicks, a jovial alien intent on looting the Earth of every historical artifact he can get his hands on. So he and Heather (who is really a shape-shifting S’hudonni) are at ground zero when the battle between the S’hudonni brothers starts in earnest, and Peter finds that both his sister and his brother are weapons used against him.
Alien Morning is the first volume in a trilogy, more than that it is the opening shot in a long, on-going series of novels and stories, so this volume cannot close anything off. We know, even before we start, that there is more to come. Even so, you would expect a novel to resolve at least some part of the story. But it doesn’t. The plot ends more or less in the middle of things. Even more frustrating, none of the mysteries with which the plot is littered comes close to being solved, not least the biggest mystery of all: why Peter? From the first appearance of the alien ships, Peter appears to be central to the alien plans. When Twoclicks comes ashore, it is Peter he approaches. Peter seems to have been watched since long before the aliens actually showed themselves. Peter is the only human to form part of Twoclicks’s retinue. He has been chosen, but we are given no clue why this might be, and Peter himself never thinks to ask.
We can only hope that some at least of this will be clarified in later volumes, because at the moment Alien Morning feels like only part of a book.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.