"Is Anybody Out There?" ed. Gevers and Halpern

Pros: Some enjoyable flights of fancy
Cons: Some stories that try too hard to be high-minded and end up being obtuse
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Review book courtesy of Penguin Group

 

The universe is vast, and it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t at least one other intelligent race out there, if not many. So why have we seen no evidence of aliens? Do they deliberately hide themselves from us? Are they already among us? Do they keep us in quarantine? Do advanced civilizations inevitably destroy themselves? Are we too blind to recognize an alien when we see one? Is Anybody Out There? is a collection of 15 short stories about the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life within our universe, edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern.


 

In attempting to write something new regarding aliens, many writers get tempted to write high-concept surreal pieces, often ones designed to leave us with dangling questions or inspire a realization in us. This can be done well, and of course the line between thought-provoking and obtuse will be different for each reader. However, to do this risks creating a story that confuses or bores instead of inspires, makes things muddier rather than providing insight. Too many of the stories in this book came down on the latter side of things. It didn’t help, from my view, that the very first story of the book (Alex Irvine’s The Word He Was Looking for Was Hello) was needlessly overwrought, and thus set the tone poorly. Michael Arsenault’s Residue, by contrast, nicely straddles the line between concept piece and fun diversion, which keeps it from taking itself too seriously. Ray Vukcevich’s One Big Monkey, much like Irvine’s story, feels like surrealism primarily for the sake of surrealism.

Report from the Field, by Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn, tells a not-unfamiliar tale of an alien sent to decide whether to admit humans to a greater society, who horribly misinterprets our entertainments and comes to highly unflattering conclusions about us. While this is a fairly well-worn concept, the execution is still fun. I particularly like the alien’s take on golf, which shows some nice originality.

Jay Lake’s Permanent Fatal Errors gets most of its appeal and originality from its wonderful world-building. In this case the most obvious aliens aren’t the only (or even the major) SF element. The world itself is set in the future, in a time when people can be modified in all sorts of ways, and space travel is eminently possible. I love his depiction of the sorts of people who would deliberately become immortal, and what they would do with that liberty.

I couldn’t quite get into either Paul Di Filippo’s Galaxy of Mirrors or Yves Menard’s Good News from Antares. They’re both interesting concept pieces, but they just didn’t grip me as stories. The same was true to a lesser extent of Sheila Finch’s Where Two or Three; the depth of her message would have been more effective if I could have felt more for the characters. They’re standby stereotypes designed to evoke sympathy, but that really wasn’t enough.

An example of a concept story done right would be David Langford’s Graffiti in the Library of Babel. In it, aliens are using a most unusual method to contact humanity and share knowledge. The characters are interesting and play off of each other well; the story is clever; the events are sly and interesting. In other words, the story is interesting not simply because of a concept, but independently of it as well. Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Dark Man falls into this category as well, but then after a handful of these anthologies I’ve grown used to assuming her stories will be among the top few!

Pat Cadigan’s The Taste of Night gives me mixed feelings. It’s carried out beautifully (the depiction of synesthesia is brilliant), but the alien angle never quite clicked for me. Matthew Hughes’s Timmy, Come Home manages to be both a lovely concept piece and a good character piece, something that I wish more of these stories had accomplished. Ian Watson’s A Waterfall of Lights and Felicity Shoulders and Leslie What’s Rare Earth also fall somewhere in the middle here—I enjoyed the concepts, and found the characters interesting enough, but neither story as a whole really gelled together for me.

By far my favorite story in here would be the final piece, James Morrow’s The Vampires of Paradox, in which an assistant professor who’s an expert in paradoxes has to help a monastery save the world. It succeeded in drawing me into the exploration of paradoxes, the plight of the monks and nuns, and the wild journey of the professor himself quite effectively. I not only enjoyed the intellectual exercise but cared about what happened to the characters and their world.

 

Too many of the pieces in this book felt like intellectual self-gratification without enough care shown for the characters and stories. That was normal back when genre fiction was new, but I don’t see it nearly as often any more. As several of the stories showed, there’s no need to sacrifice plot and people for the sake of an idea.

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