Nancy Kress is the author of 29 books. Her fiction has won four Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Award. In a change of pace, her most recent novel is Crossing Over, a YA fantasy written under the name Anna Kendall.

Building a Story from Fortuitously Nearby Construction Materials

A few years ago, this question arose on an SF listserve: “If aliens did show up in very large and very many spacecraft in Terran orbit, what would be humanity’s response?” Various answers were offered. My answer was: “Every response you can think of.” Different human beings would view the aliens as threats, as friends, as trading partners, as mentors, as proof that God exists, as proof that God does not exist, as a reason to pass more laws, a reason to hold more revels, and a reason to build more bunkers. There would be joy and fear and awe and rioting and prejudice and TV shows. Humanity is not a monolith.

A more interesting question might be: What would be the aliens’ response to us? The aliens are here; they presumably expended a lot of resources to get here; what do they want?


Some of SF’s answers to this question are, to put it bluntly, pathetic. The recent movie Cowboys and Aliens has them coming for gold. (The mass of the universe’s gold is 1.31e44 kilograms, which is about 66 trillion times the mass of the sun, or about131,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 metric tons. The aliens need to conquer us for our gold?) Some SF suggests that aliens might want us as slaves. Or they’re after our technology. Really? Star-faring cultures need the secrets of iPods and nuclear fission? An even dumber answer is some implied variant of “They just like to blow things up.”

But there can be more legitimate answers to the question. After all, we have expended a lot of our own resources to get to the moon, which lacks gold, slaves, and iPods. We went there from motives of exploration, curiosity, and international competition, and it’s not inconceivable that aliens might harbor their versions of similar motives. But after they’re here–what then? Do we have anything to offer them that might be unique?

Thinking about this question prompted me to write “Laws of Survival,” my story in Marty Halpern’s forthcoming anthology Alien Contact.

The only unique things Earth has to offer a more sophisticated race is our biology and our behavior–much of which springs from the long evolution of our biology. What behaviors might we have that another race of beings might not?

I have a dog.

Certainly it’s possible that aliens, too, have domesticated pets. It’s even possible that they and their pets have the close, affectionate, loyal, and mutually protective relationship that humans have with dogs. But it’s also possible that they do not, and might be fascinated by such a possibility. It took us roughly 10,000 years to domesticate dogs, diversifying them into the astonishing variants we have now. (Nothing is more astonishing than to see my toy poodle, Cosette, stand next to a Newfoundland, unless it is to consider Cosette’s distant origin as a wolf.) From this germ sprouted my story.

A story can begin anywhere–with an image, an idea, a character, a setting. If it begins with an idea, such as “Aliens are interested in the human-dog relationship,” it had better develop the other attributes very quickly. Although I don’t usually do this, I modeled my story’s protagonist on a friend, also named Jill, who owned eight dogs (also five cats, but that’s another situation). Jill has the sort of interesting personality that makes for good stories: resourceful, prickly, independent, smart, and quirky. She is a survivor. She could, I figured, survive alien contact.

The story has two settings: a garbage dump and an alien “dome.” I can’t say where the garbage dump came from; some things just spring to mind as gifts (although a garbage dump is not recommended for, say, a birthday offering). The dome was carefully designed to provide Jill with a lot of dogs, a lot of challenges, and so a lot of plot.

After that, the story was easy to write (not always true for me). As is always true when I write, I didn’t know the ending until halfway through the story. Then it came as the logical consequence of what Jill wants, what the aliens want, and how we humans might respond to extraterrestrial contact.

What will really happen if aliens land on Earth? Who knows? A lot depends on where they choose to touch down, who’s in charge in that place, and how they (aliens and humans) decide to make their initial approach. There is nothing I would like to see more in my lifetime than proof that we are not alone in the universe.

I wouldn’t even hide Cosette.

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