Recommend a particular type of science fiction story
January 2, 2014 4:48 PM   Subscribe

Looking for recommendations on a specific type of scifi fiction, be it movies or books.

Off the top of my head, here's a few examples. We've seen the following vaguely similar scifi movies: Contact, Solaris (2002 version, we're going to watch the 1972 version real soon) and Enemy Mine. All three have a particular theme of communication between humans and alien lifeforms. Contact and Enemy Mine were successful, Solaris was not, in our opinion

What other fiction in whatever medium successfully explores this theme in your opinion? By successfully, I mean the story really digs into differences between humans and aliens and how those differences are either overcome or are not due.

posted by sock, the puppet to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Obligatory answer in every first contact rec thread but my God they are so good and they really delve into this: The Sparrow and the sequel, Children of God.
posted by WidgetAlley at 4:51 PM on January 2, 2014 [12 favorites]

Also, Embassytown, by China Mieville. What's fascinating is that he creates a language that in no way resembles human language. Well, not in NO way, but his inventiveness is stellar.

But yes, The Sparrow is fantastic and in some ways Children of God is even better.
posted by janey47 at 5:00 PM on January 2, 2014 [9 favorites]

Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life.
posted by j.edwards at 5:01 PM on January 2, 2014 [7 favorites]

Peter Watts' Blindsight is really all about communication, and communication with aliens. The whole book's available under Creative Commons here, too.
posted by emmtee at 5:06 PM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Anathem by Neal Stephenson deals with this concept a bit. And is just an amazing book.
posted by Muttoneer at 5:07 PM on January 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

Cj Cherryh, Doris Lessing and Ursula K. Le Guin have all written about this subject explicitly - to a more or lesser amount of "scifi".

What's interesting is that these are all authors who are women. They're able to write books about experiencing an "other", or to describe an other. Is it because they are experiencing a culture that is predominantly "other" to them - in that Western society has been male-orientated at the point they were writing?
posted by The River Ivel at 5:08 PM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also really enjoyed the Sparrow but thought the sequel was disappointing.

Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead might be a good fit.

The Star Trek episode Darmok.
posted by biffa at 5:10 PM on January 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

So this is my favorite theme in all of science fiction. Here are my suggestions:
  • Alien Earth by Megan Lindholm. Out of print, but it's totally an unrecognized gem (when he read it, my husband asked why it hadn't received a Hugo). It's about the intersection of several alien cultures and humanity.
  • The Lilith's Brood series by Octavia Butler. The best alien invasion series ever; Dawn is the only book I've ever read that really, really captures the feeling of interacting with an alien lifeform.
  • Alien Nation: Day of Descent. A weird suggestion, I know. Generally, I'd recommend the Alien Nation TV series for this, but this entry in the novelization series that followed is a surprisingly sophisticated science fictional story of first contact between humans and refugee aliens.
  • Alien Invasions and Other Inconveniences by Brian Yanksy. A YA alien invasion story with Vonnegut-esque humor and nicely backgrounded alien culturebuilding.
If you can find a copy of the novelization of Enemy Mine by David Gerrold (NOT the original short by Barry Longyear, which isn't half as good), it's worth picking up a copy, too.

I'd also recommend the recent TV series Defiance, which feels, in many ways, like a spiritual successor to Alien Nation. It's not perfect, but the species-building is still nicely done.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:15 PM on January 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

Read the book Solaris.
I liked the older movie, but be prepared it's a bit of a slog, and many people do not like it.

Glory Season by David Brin (perhaps Sundiver by him as well as well as the Uplift books)

posted by edgeways at 5:17 PM on January 2, 2014

Native Tongue by Suzette Hadin Elgin is a great novel about alien linguists. It reveals as much about human society as it does about the aliens. I highly reccomend it and the other two books of the series.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 5:31 PM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I haven't read it in forever, but Arnason's _Ring of Swords_?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:43 PM on January 2, 2014

"All Seated on the Ground," is an unusual alien contact story. Aliens visit Earth, right around Christmas, and then they stop moving and don't talk to anyone. Experts are brought in. It's a short story by Connie Willis (found in her "The Best of Connie Willis" compendium of short fiction), and so it's part SF, part manners comedy like so many of her works. Also, Christmas!

"Solaris" author Stanislaw Lem, a Pole, has two other books featuring contact with outlandishly cryptic aliens: "Fiasco" and "His Master's Voice." Both are excellent books, but they're not what you're looking for. (...yet, hopefully.) I do recommend "Solaris" as I recommend these, but get the 2003 Bill Johnston translation; the original translation to English was Polish -> French -> English, while Johnston's is directly to English.

Also, I strongly second Mieville's "Embassytown." It's a book about language, ultimately, and a language barrier that's so fundamental it seems insurmountable.
posted by Sunburnt at 5:47 PM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

District 9
posted by bottlebrushtree at 5:55 PM on January 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh! Oh! Leonard Richardson's Constellation Games. And you can totally just read it for free online, too.
posted by Sokka shot first at 5:57 PM on January 2, 2014

Drop Dead, a short story by Clifford Simak.
posted by Behemoth at 6:15 PM on January 2, 2014

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis
posted by Comet Bug at 6:35 PM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Grass by Sheri Tepper is a nice fat epic that deals with the relationship between aristocratic families and the indigenous ... fauna ... of a remote planet. It's a great story, and like The Sparrow weaves a lot of philosophical and religious themes into the plot.

For some classic sci-fi, check out The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.
posted by kanewai at 6:42 PM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I liked Damocles.
posted by rtha at 6:45 PM on January 2, 2014

I'm not completely sold on The Mote in God's Eye but it's sort of a classic of the genre.

Pandora's Star and the other books in that series also do this (though there's a lot of other stuff going on).
posted by mskyle at 6:49 PM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

C.J. Cherry's Foreigner series is about this in exhausting (in a good way) detail. The entire sequence focuses on communication, politics, and relations between a human and a non-human race and the difficulty in working together when confronted with misleading similarities and hidden differences in psychology and emotion. The books are underappreciated classics of first(kinda) contact as I am concerned.

Cherryh needs to be made a grandmaster and it's a crime that it hasn't happened already.
posted by Justinian at 7:14 PM on January 2, 2014

Oh, the clever bit of the worldbuilding is that Cherryh has reversed the traditional human/alien roles. Humans are the technologically superior but numerically overmatched interlopers who find themselves stranded on a world with a technologically inferior but intellectually curious and capable native population.
posted by Justinian at 7:18 PM on January 2, 2014

Signal boost for Lilith's Brood. Dawn is amazing and haunting.
posted by EvaDestruction at 7:21 PM on January 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's been a while since I've read it, but Whipping Star by Frank Herbert fits this bill.
posted by Gorgik at 7:41 PM on January 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm happy to third Lilith's Brood! The aliens in these books are so interestingly alien!
posted by hollyanderbody at 7:43 PM on January 2, 2014

Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and sequels deal with this and are good books in general.
posted by adamrice at 7:54 PM on January 2, 2014

Fourthing Lilith's Brood. Seriously.

Clarke's Childhood's End might work for you too.
posted by duffell at 8:51 PM on January 2, 2014

Sheri Tepper's Arbai trilogy (Grass, Raising the Stones, and Sideshow) is about meeting and communicating with a very alien intelligence.

I read this trilogy out of order, accidentally, so this may not be the first one: The Color of Distance.

The Shessel in Sarah Zettel's Reclamation are pretty alien, although it's not first contact.

Oh, hey — Janet Kagan's Hellspark is all about encounters with aliens and whether they're intelligent.
posted by Lexica at 9:02 PM on January 2, 2014

The elephant in the room for these contact stories has to be Arthur Clarke's short story, The Sentinel, and the follow-on, Kubrick/Clarke's 2001. But I love Rendezvous with Rama. Dated by today's standards, but still phenomenally good.

I'd second Anathem, mentioned above, but if you really want to consider different modes of perception and the communication difficulties that might result, "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang (also mentioned above) is a must-read.

Or consider almost anything by Iain M. Banks: for a very different twist on the usual theme, Inversions is a good one. (Yes, there are aliens in the story, but most of the characters are not aware of that.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 9:08 PM on January 2, 2014

So many great suggestions here!

I'm here to add Katie Waitman's The Merro Tree. It's on the more fantastic side of sci-fi, but it does delve into human/alien relationships and cultural adaptations.

From a slightly different perspective, there are The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Tevis and Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein - they feature aliens who manage to integrate into Earth culture somewhat, to various results.
posted by batmonkey at 12:11 AM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Samuel R. Delaney- Babel 17
James Tiptree- Up the Walls of the World
Ursula Le Guin- Vaster than Empires and More Slow (short story)
posted by Coaticass at 3:24 AM on January 3, 2014

The short story "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum is both very good and interesting as a particularly early example of this kind of story.

Ursula Le Guin and C. J. Cherryh have already been mentioned, but a couple of books by them I would particularly recommend have not yet been singled out -- The Left Hand of Darkness by Le Guin and The Pride of Chanur (and sequels) by Cherryh. The Chanur books are told entirely from the point of view of (one species of) the aliens.

The Wess'har books by Karen Traviss explore this theme, but while the first one (City of Pearl) is excellent, the series bogs down a bit later on.
posted by kyrademon at 5:53 AM on January 3, 2014

Midnight does this quite well, I think. One thing I like about it is that the alien entity, whatever it is, might be malevolent or just a tabula rasa that imitates, emulates and learns with astonishing speed and efficiency.
posted by rjs at 5:55 AM on January 3, 2014

I've always thought David Brin's Uplift saga, 'Sundiver', 'Startide Rising' and 'The Uplift War', tackle this well.
posted by h00py at 6:30 AM on January 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mary Gentle: Golden Witchbreed. Looks to be cheap for Kindle right now; you can also get it and the sequel Ancient Light combined together into one huge book Orthe.

I've recommended this before: Ammonite by Nicolas Griffith.

A Woman of the Iron People, Eleanor Arnason.

I enjoyed The Sparrow and Children of God also (but SO SAD).
posted by maryrussell at 8:08 AM on January 3, 2014

I found The Sparrow annoyingly unreadable; my suggestion would be The Mote In God's Eye as well as Heinlein's Red Planet. The original might be Murray Leinster's First Contact.
posted by Rash at 8:30 AM on January 3, 2014

Also try White Queen by Gwyneth Jones. It's all about trying to figure out what exactly aliens want, and assuming/misunderstanding motives. I thought it was a well-done exploration of colonialism, too. North Wind and Phoenix Cafe are the sequels.
posted by lillygog at 11:07 AM on January 3, 2014

Stanley Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" (from 1934).

Ditto Constellation Games, Blindsight, Native Tongue, the first half of Stranger in a Strange Land, Pride of Chanur, Dawn, "Story of Your Life". (The Left Hand of Darkness is a very good book, but it wouldn't have occurred to me as a recommendation for this, since I'd count everyone in it as human.)

A hesitant ditto of The Mote in God's Eye, which I recall as having been a decent first contact novel, but I read it a long time ago and have thoroughly soured on Niven and Pournelle since... but if I were ever to try rereading one, it'd be Mote.

I also found The Sparrow to be a bad book (and not a particularly interesting take on first contact.)

John Crowley's Beasts is a good novel about humans relating to non-humans, though the non-humans aren't alien.

A Fire Upon the Deep is an interesting book in many ways, but the aliens' alien-ness ultimately feels superficial -- they seem very much like humans. (Yes, yes, I know that a degree of that is inevitable, but I think the books recommended above do it much better.)
posted by Zed at 11:10 AM on January 3, 2014

Thirding "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum. Quite an alien alien.
posted by Fibognocchi at 9:43 PM on January 3, 2014

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