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Bruce McAllister: The ‘Alien Contact’ Interview

This month, SF Signal is featuring guest posts and interviews with the authors of Alien Contact edited by Marty Halpern. Today, we’re pleased to bring you an interview with contributing author Bruce McAllister!

SF SIGNAL: Hi, Bruce! Thanks for joining us. What’s the appeal of alien contact stories for you?

Bruce McAllister: As a former academic I could take hours to answer this wonderful question, bore everyone and not really get to the truth. These days I simply go back to how it felt as a kid reading science fiction for the first time. The excitement. The sense of wonder that held both excitement and fear. The strangeness of every alien: Will it be at all human? Will I find myself in him /her/it? Or will it be so alien –so different–that I’ll be frightened? I think that we approach all aliens wondering whether we will find mirrors and whether those mirrors will show us only what we’re comfortable seeing or distort us in the ways that are also us. We go to the stars to find ourselves in a strange act of honesty….wanting the mirrors to give us what is comfortable and yet also risking seeing what’s true and less comfortable. The alien is us, in other words, but it/he/she/they let us go off on wonderful adventures to discover this fact when trying to do it our offices and bedrooms would be so much less fun, much more disturbing and much less heroic, epic and grand.

SFS: What was the first “alien contact” story you read that made a lasting impression?

BM: I have no idea. They all become one story–back then. I don’t know how it was for others when they first started reading, or for young fans just starting out today, but science fiction for me at 12 was an Ace Double every two or three days, reading at the dinner table, reading while walking, and reading late at night with a flashlight under the blanket, and it was all one great, never-ending story.

No, I’m wrong! My “first alien contact” story was my “first contact with sf ” story. Seventh grade. Math class. Girl I had absolutely no interest in romantically seated in front of me. Purse on the floor. Digest-sized magazine peaking out of that purse. (Later, I would know what Astounding meant.) I looked closer. There, on its cover, a lumberjack stood in a forest, but that wasn’t what was strange. What was strange was that he was staring at a door into another world–a door between two trees–a world of strange red plants and red air…and Alienness! I didn’t steal her copy; I bought my own; and when I read the cover story I had no idea what was happening: Some of the story–the lumberjack’s–was in regular type. But some of it was in italics, and those parts of the story were strange indeed–yes, alien! Six months later, having been bitten, having read some sf novels and many many sf short stories, I realized that the confusing story was simply the alternating points of view of a human and…yes, an alien on another planet! That doorway with its red world, the lumberjack mesmerized–in both wonder and of course some fear–had struck me dumb that day in math no less powerfully than a UFO with a big-eyed gray creature stepping out of it would have. The power of imagination. I’d met my first alien and wanted to meet more–even if I had to create them myself, discover them inside me.

SFS: Where did the idea-the vision-for “Kin” come from?

BM: When I first started writing, because I was into drawing and painting, I did rough storyboards for my stories or tore photographs from magazines and used them. That’s how my first stories, as a teenager and college student, came into being–for If and Galaxy under my first mentor, Fred Pohl. Later the storyboards gave way simply to images. If memory is right, “Kin” came to me as an image of a dirty kid from the projects in the future, an overpopulated world but a world tied through commerce to other races in the galaxy…but he wasn’t just an ordinary kid. He was gutsy; he wasn’t going to put up with powerlessness; he was special and more than you might imagine. He was on this very day doing something no one else would do. What was it? I wasn’t sure at first. I could see him, and I had the feeling, but not the rest of the image. And then the image completed itself: A fierce-looking alien, one you’d have a hard time anthropomorphizing–something from Ridley Scott’s Alien but with its own civilization and history of evolution on a Deathworld-like planet (see Harry Harrison’s trilogy, please)–and so upsetting to look at that the boy had to avert his eyes–was there in the boy’s room, waiting for the boy to speak. And then of course I heard it–the bridge–the connection. They boy spoke and he said, “There is someone I want you to kill.” It wasn’t just an image of course; it was a feeling, a complicated, dynamic one, yin and yang both, that promised as any image destined to launch a story should: a vulnerable kid, flesh and bone, but with a determination that belied his vulnerability–willing to have his knee so close to the scariest thing in the universe….with the promise of connection, that they might be “Kin.”

SFS: What do you think is the biggest threat to humanity’s future?

BM: In university I often gave lots of thought to this, had conversations with colleagues both there and elsewhere in higher education, was in the earthquake-policy consulting business for two years, researched epidemics for years for a story and a novel, knew the Cold War from having lived it with a NATO father, predicted accurately (as many of course did) what Roswell would turn out to be, and thought I knew (ah, the arrogance of professoring). A few years ago I gave up. It had all become a Zen lesson, sound of one hand, etc. I don’t think I’m capable–and I’m not sure anyone is, though there are many more capable and qualified than I–of assessing threat to humanity. I have a very good friend who does top-level concepting and writing (he’s published sf, too) for the world’s leading GIS company–GIS software being what’s being used by the planet to plan the next 50 years; and every time I think I see a clear, unambiguous threat (aside from another Yucatan meteorite), he complicates the matter so much that easy either-or views are impossible. As they say, “Either-or’s disappear when you know the full Context.”

The same thing happens when I have my occasional, enlightening talks with Dr. Greg Benford. If we know anything about human beings (and I speak here as the son of a cultural anthropologist and Early Man archeologist), it is that human beings are so remarkably adaptable and resilient that we continue as scientists and forecasters, even in the fields of evolutionary geneticists and Early Man archeologists, to underestimate what humanity has actually done to survive the past and what it is capable of doing in the future. The question, I suppose, becomes “At what point in adaptation and, say, technological evolution is humanity less ‘human’…and is that even a legitimate question–or one we can answer?” Modern human beings–Homo sapiens–have supposedly been around since the late Pleistocene (exact number of millennia currently under debate, of course, and constantly)…but does Homo sapiens define “humanity” and if so, how? We have also, evolutionists increasingly propose, been changing/evolving during that supposed static period. Is it perhaps our very ability to change–not merely adapt–as human beings that makes us human? Is this syllogistic or scientific? Decades ago scientists realized that porpoises could think abstract because they could learn to vary their behavior, i.e., porpoiseness was abstract thinking. At what point are we being simply romantic about what “being human “means, and at what point sober and scientific?

But even the romantic sometimes holds a larger truth–pointing to an element we haven’t yet, through science, been able to identify and articulate. My current mindset on all of this (and, yes, this is starting to sound like a bad, vague classroom monologue, I know) is probably best captured by a my alien-contact Golden-Age-pastiche-parable story that will be appearing in Asimov’s at some point. This is from it:

“In 2053, as we know, the Earth found itself facing “The Singularity,” that is, the prospect of the conversion, by collective human choice, of biologically discreet individuals into a machine consciousness-that humanity might be free of its biology (and therefore its suffering) and experience true harmony at last. T’Phu^Bleem^ had by now-through the very curiosity, bureaucratic diligence and insistence on insight that had brought him considerable attention in his profession–become one of the Galactic Commission’s members. The Commission had had little contact with Terra in the ninety-one intervening years. When word reached the Commission that Homo sapiens was about to relinquish its individual organisms for a cybernetic existence, T’Phu^Bleem^ found himself listening for days to his fellow Commissioners’ confusion, to their inability to perceive a solution for what might not have been a crisis at all, but a natural evolution of human beings into cells within a single electronic mind. Might “human culture” itself, he found himself wondering, now simply become an electronic one wherein the ideation of individuality worked no differently really (if individual identity is indeed simply the product of culture) than individuality had always worked for human beings with discreet biological foci? He had no idea. Arcturians and the other Galactic races had never faced such a decision. He was not sure, in any case, whether this Singularity was really a crisis, that is, something for a Commission to meddle in with good intentions, or something to be left alone even if the evolution of a species through its own technology, by its becoming that technology, left other more biological intact species feeling uneasy.”

SFS: What projects are you currently working on?

BM: Short stories–fantasy and science fiction, edgy and gentle, flash fiction and novellas. Couple of novels–one an expansion of “Kin.” Kin, by the way, has been optioned by filmmaker Marshall McAuley and his amazing team for an FX-driven short film (See the Facebook page for More Thna Kin). McAuley’s script for the short, by the way, is dynamite; the story itself is a gentle fable, while the script is an in-your-face, beautifully built, non-stop adventure–the kind of thing an excellent short film can do but few do. In the novel Kim goes off with an alien (but which, we ask?) on off-world adventures, much at stake for many worlds, psychological if not biological problems between the partners, and, yes, Kim does become what the alien in “Kin” senses he will.) I’m also working, because I love film and have in fact, as a fiction writer, been more influenced by it than readers may be aware (what goes around goes around, if the “Kin” short is any indication) on a spec screenplay (and matching novelette/novella)–one with designer Forever Kittens and purple poodles and songbirds that sing your favorite cheesy song and a secret urban jungle where you can, for a price, kill any creature you’d like to have made for you–angels, demons, elves, unicorns, Peter Pan, Snow White….

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