BOOK REVIEW: Is Anybody out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 15 stories that explore the Fermi Paradox.
PROS: Three standout stories plus ten other good ones.
CONS: Two stories mediocre or worse.
BOTTOM LINE: A good collection overall.
Is Earth the only home to intelligent life in the universe? Statistically speaking, it’s improbable, and yet there are no signs of alien life on other planets. This contradiction, known as the Fermi paradox, is the theme of an anthology edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern, Is Anybody out There? It collects fifteen stories that involve the Fermi Paradox in a variety of ways: some offering explanations, some portraying first contact, many involving a mystery, and still others taking a less-than-serious approach. Although all the stories adequately use the theme, they work (as can be expected) to varying degrees.
Standout stories in this anthology include:
- “Where Two or Three” by Sheila Finch
- “Timmy, Come Home” by Matthew Hughes
- “The Vampires of Paradox” by James Morrow
Individual story reviews follow…
“The Word He Was Looking for Was Hello” by Alex Irvine is an oddly constructed story about a lonely man still wracked with guilt over giving his daughter up for adoption. This otherwise poignant idea is overshadowed by the man’s speculations about the existence of aliens which are injected along the way and too infrequently shed no light on character or plot.
Made up almost completely of dialog, “Residue” by Michael Arsenault is a trio of speculations about the possibility of alien life. Its lighthearted feel augments the interesting theories and turns the story into something that feels somehow…cute.
Yves Meynard’s story “Good News from Antares” wraps up a theory of extraterrestrial life in a personal story about an aging science fiction writer’s sense of self worth. Equal parts introspection and speculation combine to make a somewhat somber mood and an interesting piece of fiction.
“Report From the Field” by Mike Resnick & Lezli Robyn is a series of observations made by aliens who are contemplating asking mankind to join the galactic civilized races. In a classic example of cognitive estrangement, we learn the absurdity of our own cultural norms as seen by those on the outside…effectively played to humorous effect.
In “Permanent Fatal Errors” by Jay Lake, a crewmember, one of the ships’ crew of nano-enhanced immortals, stumbles upon a conspiracy plot. Given that the intrigue is the focus of the story, I was hoping for a better resolution (and a more concrete explanation of the mysterious signals), but the story is so filled with sf wonders, that it’s still quite enjoyable.
The general malaise affecting humanity gives rise to instant sentience in “Galaxy of Mirrors” by Paul Di Filippo. This spontaneous uplift is a decent source of mystery, but delivered with prose that’s difficult to get through.
Sheila Finch’s “Where Two or Three” is a touching story about a young girl who volunteers at a hospice. She befriends an ex-astronaut who presents a compelling mystery about what happened to him in space. The characters are ones you root for and help make this story a winner.
David Langford’s “Graffiti in the Library of Babel” proposes alien communications via a digital library separately sandboxed from the Internet. Although interesting ideas abound, it was hard getting immersed in the story as the messages were highly based on conjecture.
Condi, A modern-day former reporter turned disbelieving paranormal investigator, investigates the inexplicable periodic appearance of a black figure on the Spanish Steps in Rome in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “The Dark Man”. Condi is knee-deep in conspiracy theories and shadowy tails as she tries to find the logical reason behind a phenomenon that has since become myth. The mystery approach keeps the plot moving along, but the story – which itself feels like a launching point for more stories — is less about the science behind the mystery than it is about Condi’s realization that maybe some things are unexplainable.
The concept behind Ray Vukcevich’s “One Big Monkey” is, I think, that six people are living in a simulated Mars habitat using social media to play a thought experiment game based on Fermi’s Paradox. The execution, however, reads like a series of meandering streams of consciousness that do little to convey plot or characterization, and are consequently a chore to get through.
Pat Cadigan’s “The Taste of Night” is about a woman named Nell who seems to be developing a sixth sense that could very well be a conduit for communication with alien intelligence. This new ability causes confusion with her other senses, giving her synesthesia (see also Jeffrey Ford’s “The Empire of Ice Cream“). That confusion is communicated through prose that is syntactically correct, but oftentimes illogical. So although this condition is explored, the ending seems to lack any conclusion.
In “Timmy, Come Home” by Matthew Hughes, a man, seeking help for the voices he hears in his head, sees a series of professionals to help explain it. It’s an enticing mystery, one that Hughes’ straightforward prose make all the more enjoyable. The transcendental ending, though initially confusing at first, suits the man’s memories and fate.
A discussion between a quartet of friends about why there is no evidence of alien intelligence leads one of them (Roderick) to some odd behavior in “A Waterfall of Lights” by Ian Watson. Roderick theorizes that that artificial alien intelligence (a holdover from a previous universe) exists within every one of us within the complex neurology of our retinas. It’s an in interesting premise nicely augmented by the social drama of Rod’s unrealized affections for Nancy, the narrator’s wife.
In “Rare Earth” by Felicity Shoulders & Leslie What, glowing alien beings appear across the Earth. Nobody knows what they want, but it could have something to do with the stones collected by the grandmother of a high school student named Callum. This is a good story, even if the ending is filled with a few too many apparently correct guesses by Callum, whose characterization is nonetheless nicely done.
James Morrow’s “The Vampires of Paradox” is equal parts superb and mind bending. The premise is that a professor of paradox studies is approached by an abbot who needs his assistance. The abbot belongs to an order whose centuries-long goal is to prevent the devil from ruling the Earth by deflecting his advances with intense study of five paradoxes. Their plan has worked until the recent arrival of five cacodemons which have attached themselves to the order’s five followers, weakening their defenses and now they need a new unbreakable paradox to deflect them once and for all. Despite some setup mumbo-jumbo about tarns and lithospheres, it’s easy to be attracted to this story which not only offers intriguing mind puzzles, but also expertly characterizes the main character, Dr. Kreigar, who often communicates in paradoxical sentences. It’s not just a fun idea, it’s fun to read. Well done.
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