The following review appears in Vector issue 277 (Autumn 2014).

AliensAs Alex Dally MacFarlane notes in her introduction to this anthology, the concept of extra-terrestrial life raises questions which have been a perennial source of fascination for writers: “What will we encounter? Will we be able to encounter it at all?” And, of course, since alien life remains undiscovered, it becomes a blank canvas that writers can fill however they wish. In Aliens: Recent Encounters, MacFarlane has assembled thirty-two recent tales (the earliest are from 2002) which take a variety of approaches to the subject.

In ‘Sun Dogs‘, Brooke Bolander imagines Laika on her involuntary mission in space, where she meets some strange fiery dog-creatures who can give her whatever she wants, which the humans (whom Laika calls “whitecoats”) never could or would. ‘Sun Dogs’ is very much a story that stands or falls on its ability to create and sustain a convincing narrative viewpoint for Laika. Happily, it succeeds: Bolander’s third-person narration is a combination of persuasively non-human terminology and perception (“The world through the window is black and empty, marked with tiny faraway gleams that might be the eyes of unknown animals”), and detail that emphasises instinct and feeling. The ending, too, is satisfying, because in retrospect it fits right in.

The Four Generations of Chang E‘ by Zen Cho is a drily humorous tale of diaspora experience. We begin as Chang E has won a lottery to leave Earth for the moon, which has been colonised by aliens. We then follow three successive generations of her daughters (also named Chang E) as they react to, and are changed by, the world in which they find themselves: from wanting to fit in with the Moonites, through to a point where Earth is itself an alien place. There are some sharp lines, especially around attitudes to the native moon rabbits, which are discovered to be sentient (“The entire hall smelled of rabbit food. You worried other people would smell it on you.”); but the complex emotions of the ending are perhaps most powerful of all.

Interestingly inverting the idea of encounter, Genevieve Valentine’s ‘Carthago Delenda Est‘ is set four hundred years after a message was picked up from a planet in the Oort cloud, which caused any number of worlds to send delegations. The ambassadors have been cloned and reincarnated ever since, waiting for the unknown alien to show up. There’s a nicely wry tone to Valentine’s writing (on the number of delegates: “You wonder how amazing the message must be, to get them all up off their asses”), which fits in with the rather absurd nature of what she’s depicting: a whole existence created, entire lives lived, for an event that might never happen.

Though some reach into the depths of space, other stories in the anthology remain earthbound. For example, ‘Lambing Season‘ by Molly Gloss is a resolutely – almost stiflingly – down-to-earth tale of encounter. Delia spends six months of the year tending her flock of sheep on the mountain, with only her two dogs for company. This year, a strange craft falls from the sky; Delia investigates, and comes across a person who looks rather like a dog. Then she goes back to her sheep. Gloss’s prose evokes the vastness of the landscape that Delia inhabits, and the hard nature of her farming life; the focus on the quotidian rather than the extraordinary gives ‘Lambing Season’ a highly distinctive feel.

Courtney, the narrator of Elizabeth Bear’s ‘The Death of Terrestrial Radio’ grew up feeling estranged from other people, but with a yearning to talk to aliens. Eventually, they talked to us – or rather they transmitted a jumble of old Earth broadcasts back at us. Courtney is the astronomer who pinpointed the source of the ‘Echoes’, but it’s not so much a cause for celebration as for rueing the impossible distances that must be crossed in the universe. She reflects: “I can’t decide if knowing they were out there and that they reached out in friendship with a map and the sound of their voices, is worse than imagining they were never there at all.” All the vistas of space fall back into the story of a woman facing up to the possibility that her life’s work may have been for nothing.

There’s a bitter irony to the title of Nisi Shawl’s ‘Honorary Earthling‘, an irony which is only underlined by its inclusion in an alien-themed anthology. The story takes the form of monologues by various African American characters, who are all either talking to – or are themselves – a figure from urban legend, such as a phantom hitchhiker or doppelganger; these are then paired with related extracts of ‘found’ reportage. As a whole, these monologues show just how much their narrators – and others like them – still feel that they’re treated as outsiders (“Aren’t we lucky Seattle lets dogs ride the bus? I don’t think they’d understand if someone were to tell them they couldn’t”). Besides being a fine piece of work, ‘Honorary Earthling’ illustrates just how widely this anthology ranges.

Ken Liu’s ‘The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species‘ is, as its title suggests, a tour how various alien races pass on their knowledge to each other. There’s some wonderfully evocative imagery here, as Liu imagines radically contrasting modes of existence: from mechanical creatures whose experience becomes etched into their stone brains by shifting channels of water, to beings of energy who see the vast structures of the universe as books to be read. That diversity of life is echoed in all the different kinds of stories in MacFarlane’s anthology.