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February 2, 2009 3:16 PM   Subscribe

First contact and apocalyptic sci-fi recommendations please.

I am a big fan of first contact science fiction, first contact being the moment wherein the human species – generally the protagonists – make contact with extraterrestrial intelligences or artefacts. I’m thinking along the lines of Sagan’s Contact, most of Stanislaw Lem’s work (The Invincible, Solaris, His Master’s Voice and the wondrous Fiasco), but particularly Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, Pohl’s Gateway, Budrys’ Rogue Moon and Bear’s Eon.

I find the latter sorts of stories particularly thrilling. An abandoned BDO (Big Dumb Object) filled with mysteries and terrors, which must be explored and scientifically understood. They are equal parts creepy and fascinating.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be an intelligence or an artefact. Baxter’s Moonseed was remarkable, and that was basically about a kind of dirt.

And for me, apocalyptic sci-fi (I’m thinking Footfall, The Forge of God, Blood Music, etc.) is great because it’s fun to watch the human race get wiped out, or nearly so. I know this is technically two questions but I figure science fiction aficionados would be happy to share their favourites in both genres.

So I guess I’m just after suggestions along those lines: hard (preferably) sci-fi about humankind’s first experience with a mysterious alien force, be it hostile, neutral, friendly, or simply extinct; and hard (preferably) sci-fi about humankind being taken to the very brink of continued existence.
posted by turgid dahlia to Media & Arts (43 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Most of Niven's 'Known Space' stories cover this territory. 'Protector' is an interesting twist on first-contact and 'Ringworld' is pretty standard Niven-"let's go exploring!" fare. I like Niven less and less as times goes on but he is still pretty much canon in my view of sci fi.
posted by GuyZero at 3:25 PM on February 2, 2009

Octavia Butler's Dawn trilogy would fit the bill.
posted by dirtmonster at 3:26 PM on February 2, 2009

A little obscure (and frankly not all that great except for the premise) is David Gerrold's (of Star Trek fame) series 'The War with the Chtorr'. Heinlein-esque storytelling but a neat concept of an environmental invasion (think terraforming) rather than ships of troops landing. It is currently unfinished if Wikipedia is correct.
posted by elendil71 at 3:29 PM on February 2, 2009

I think a good first contact series is Timothy Zahn's Conquerors trilogy. Conqueror's Pride is the first one.

Ok, so it's mostly humans running into a seemingly inscrutable alien race instead of some impenetrable artifact or intelligence, but it has a pretty interesting twist.

Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep is maybe more what you're looking for. The sequel, A Deepness in the Sky, is also really good.
posted by sevenless at 3:31 PM on February 2, 2009

If you haven't read Anathem by Neal Stephenson yet you really should, it's a first contact book with a hint of the apocalyptic.

I also enjoyed Spin by Robert Charles Wilson which covers very similar ground.
posted by Bango Skank at 3:34 PM on February 2, 2009

A Mote in God's Eye is a good space-opera style first-contact story.
posted by dolface at 3:39 PM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Familiar with the Vinge "Deep" books (awesome) and Ringworld (also awesome), but these others are sounding great, keep 'em coming!
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:40 PM on February 2, 2009

First contact: Gregory Benford's In the Ocean of Night (and its sequels, if you liked this one and want to go on, get pretty apocalyptic)

Apocalyptic: Thomas Disch's The Genocides; Niven & Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer; Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids; Gore Vidal's Kalki
posted by Iosephus at 3:49 PM on February 2, 2009

The Time Odyssey series by Arthur C. Clarke is pretty much the obvious. Also Childhood's End by the same author is excellent.
posted by kampken at 3:53 PM on February 2, 2009

Engines of God by Jack McDevitt has quite a lot of both things that you seek. So does Fade-Out by Patrick Tilley. Marrow is quite interesting. Oh, and you will probably enjoy The Ophiuchi Hotline.
posted by WPW at 3:56 PM on February 2, 2009

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood, definitely falls into the post-apocalyptic genre. Fantastic book.
posted by 8dot3 at 4:04 PM on February 2, 2009

Ken MacLeod's Learning the World (thought the ending fals short of apocalypse).
posted by bad grammar at 4:40 PM on February 2, 2009

Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos is pretty apocalyptic in tone, albeit on a galactic scale (and a very good and involving read, in my opinion). I've read the first two myself, and I've just found out that there's another two as result of answering this question, so thanks for that!
posted by Chairboy at 4:40 PM on February 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

The trilogy Titan, Wizard, and Demon by John Varley is an oldie but goodie. Basically, a huge ... thing ... orbiting Saturn (if I recall correctly) turns out to be a sentient world, with sentient creatures living inside it. Humans pay a visit. Problem is, the world is so old it's going senile and cracking at the seams. Sometimes weird and creepy, probably just your cup of tea!
posted by Quietgal at 4:40 PM on February 2, 2009

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell is about first contact. Not your traditional SciFi, but really good.
posted by gemmy at 5:20 PM on February 2, 2009 [4 favorites]

previous askme, loads of suggestions :
posted by radiosilents at 5:27 PM on February 2, 2009

If you like a little humor in your scifi, you may enjoy First Contract by Greg Costikyan.
posted by nightchrome at 5:48 PM on February 2, 2009

Ok, if you've already read Vinge's stuff here are couple more I remembered. Steven Baxter's Time Ships is a pretty interesting "sequel" to "The Time Machine" that's pretty apocalyptic; also his Manifold: Time. That one's sort of along the lines of Childhood's End. Well, maybe really sort of.

Another first contact one that's good-- in Star Trek's "they're human so the prime directive doesn't count" subgenre-- is David Brin's Glory Season. I suppose some of his Uplift novels are sort of Rama-esque first contact, and a little bit apocalyptic at the end of the second trilogy, but not that much. I suppose Earth might fit too.
posted by sevenless at 5:57 PM on February 2, 2009

Check out Blindsight: it takes the standard question of "how alien would alien intelligence really be?" and runs with it, leading to a sort of psychological apocalypse (not to give too much away). Not only is it very well written, but the whole novel is available free on the author's site.

Michael Flynn's Eifelheim is a more traditional first contact story, but in an unusual setting -- mid-14th century Germany. I'll also second the recommendations for Spin and Childhood's End. If you're in the mood for a 5-minute read, maybe try this.
posted by teraflop at 6:01 PM on February 2, 2009

I'll second Mote in God's Eye - that's one of the best science fiction books ever, not just one of the best "first contact" books ever. Mote has a mediocre sequel, too - fine in it's own right but disappointing (especially the slow first half) compared to the first book. The rest of these suggestions are also good books, but you have to start with one, and it should probably be "Mote".

Vinge's "Tatja Grimm's World" was excellent, although less fantastic than his "Deep" books; it probably qualifies as "first contact" nearly as much as they do.

Niven & Pournelle's "Lucifer's Hammer" (mentioned for completeness, though if you've read Footfall I'm sure you've read this too...)

Heinlein's "The Puppet Masters" might count in both categories at once

Turtledove's "World War" series was a fun read if the premise isn't too silly for you
posted by roystgnr at 6:32 PM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Phillip Mann's Eye of the Queen.
posted by media_itoku at 6:43 PM on February 2, 2009

Robert Charles Wilson is always enjoyable.
Try Blind Lake.
posted by archaic at 6:52 PM on February 2, 2009

Seconding "Childhood's End" by Clarke.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:19 PM on February 2, 2009

Seconding The Sparrow and it's sequel "Children of God." Really good.
posted by mkim at 7:40 PM on February 2, 2009

If you like Lem, you should try Olaf Stapledon (if you can get past the somewhat pompous language), who Lem greatly admired. Especially "Last and First Men" and "Star Maker".

Greg Egan's "Diaspora" is also good.

I enjoyed Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud, though I haven't read it since I was a teenager.

Eliazier Yudowski is writing an entertaining first contact science fiction story on his blog at; there are a few too many internet in-jokes and not much character development, but otherwise I found it entertaining and thought-provoking.

For a neat little pre-science fiction story, try Voltaire's Micromegas, though certainly not "hard SF" by our time's standards, but more like Lem's fantastic fables (Star Diaries, Cyberiad).
posted by Schmucko at 7:59 PM on February 2, 2009

OMIGOD - how did this thread miss Engine Summer by John Crowley? You want post-apocalyptic with AWESOME ideas innit? Get thee to a bookstore son. Your life will change from reading this book.

Also: A Canticle For Lebowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. Post-nuclear remains of Catholicism trying to remember itself, anyone? Bunker bishops? Awesome.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 8:04 PM on February 2, 2009

I've read loads of the post-apocalytic novels here and love all of them, but if I'm not reading "Lucifer's Hammer" I love Stephen King's "The Stand". Of course, it's far more spiritual/metaphysical than hard SF, but it's still a gripping story to me.
posted by lhauser at 8:14 PM on February 2, 2009

Nthing Childhood's End by Clarke for First Contact

Try the Night's Dawn Trilogy (link has possible plot spoilers) by Peter F. Hamilton for Near Apocalyptic
posted by schyler523 at 8:35 PM on February 2, 2009

Story of Your Life is an interesting first contact short story by Ted Chiang.

Oh, and chairboy...I actually enjoyed the Endymion books even more than the Hyperion ones, so you're in for a treat.
posted by JaredSeth at 8:40 PM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pushing Ice is 'truckers in spaaaace' exploring a BDO. Good stuff, I enjoyed it a lot.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:08 AM on February 3, 2009

Seconding Neal Stephenson's fantastic Anathem for a tale of first contact and the birth of a new world, plus all sorts of musings on time, space, language, humanity, culture, science, mathematics &c and such forth in the intricately woven and infinitely considered Stephenson style.
posted by Philby at 4:45 AM on February 3, 2009

Spindrift by Allen Steele and Cavalcade by Alison Sinclair both fit into the mysterious object category.
posted by cardboard at 5:16 AM on February 3, 2009

If you like Greg Bear then you might enjoy his "Darwin's Radio".
posted by sevenyearlurk at 10:09 AM on February 3, 2009

For first contact I would heartily recommend Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. We humans, true to our nature, come out blasting when first confronted with the unwknown, which leads to the title. Haldeman's a Vietnam war veteran and physicist, so his perspective, aside from being in the black humor vein, is well informed.

As to apocalypse, Clifford Simaks City speaks of a future long from now where dogs have come to rule the planet, assisted by robots, which have become fairly autonomous, and humans are a dimly remembered memory. Especially memorable is the story having to do with the exploration of Jupiter, which leads to us abandoning earth. Simak's one of those old sci-fi writers (this was originally published around the 40's) whose production has aged well.
posted by subajestad at 12:47 PM on February 3, 2009

I enjoyed A Call To Arms by Alan Dean Foster for first contact. First contact by a group of different species of aliens that need our help!
posted by chugg at 2:50 PM on February 3, 2009

Thinking about it, Ken Macleod plays cleverly (and quite entertainingly in my opinion) with first contact and humanity's eventual relationships with a number of different alien species in the Engines of Light trilogy.
posted by Chairboy at 3:34 PM on February 3, 2009

Damn, I love this thread...
posted by Chairboy at 3:36 PM on February 3, 2009

I really liked the original 1950's version of "The Day the Earth Stood Still"
posted by AZNsupermarket at 4:03 PM on February 3, 2009

First Contact: nthing Childhood's End

Apocalyptic: Feed by M.T. Anderson, and the Mortal Engines series by Philip Reeve. These are YA fiction, but great books and easy reads. Oh, and The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner.
posted by symbollocks at 8:05 AM on February 4, 2009

While it's not science fiction, I just finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which is a different type of apocalypse novel. The book really is beautiful as it follows a man and his son as they struggle to survive. Highly recommended.
posted by sambosambo at 3:20 AM on February 5, 2009

Response by poster: Too much excellent stuff in here to mark any as 'Best', and it looks like I've got some fun reading ahead of me, thank you kindly Mefites!
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:15 PM on February 5, 2009

Second suggestion of Blindsight, above.

As far as Cormac McCarthy's The Road, it's only good if you enjoy the journey, not really the destination. Kind of like a Neal Stephenson novel without the analogies, but with extra soul crushing awfulness.

Heck, Niven's The Mote in God's Eye was also pretty darn awesome as far as being the first book I can think of that based an alien race's psychology after it's physiology.

Save Blindsight and Mote in God's Eye, aliens always seem to be humans that haven't met other humans, and that look funny. Thanks, Star Trek.
posted by talldean at 8:15 AM on February 6, 2009

Frederic Brown has a short story in his collection that is right up you alley, and I do recommend the rest of the stories too.
posted by mearls at 3:54 PM on August 18, 2009

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