What is some good science fiction like this?
June 10, 2015 8:03 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in good science fiction in any format (book, film, comics, etc.) that explores that idea that we are not alone in the universe, but wildly mismatched with everybody or nearly every else in terms of civilization stages, kinds of technology, perception, etc.

I was discussing with my girlfriend the idea that the likelihood of being anywhere near technologically or even physically compatible with alien life is very slim. Here on Earth, for the sake of description, we've had "intelligent life" for 250,000 of the 3.5 billion years of life, and have been space-faring for less than a century.

If, say, a civilization were separated from us by 500 million years they might be as advanced from us as we are from ants, and thus their actions indifferentiable to us from properties of nature. Or if they were only 100,000 years out from us, we'd still be cave-apes in their eyes.

All of this, of course, would be assuming carbon-based life, physical life as opposed to intelligent systems, and inhabiting intersecting aspects of reality.

And as a bonus extra-specific criteria: Given the extreme unlikelihood of finding an "equal" civilization in such a universe, what would happen to two or more such civilizations who did? Or, I guess, what fiction has addressed this even more specific question?
posted by cmoj to Media & Arts (44 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
David Brin's Uplift series matches this pretty much perfectly. Startide Rising and Uplift War are the two books to read.
posted by Nevin at 8:13 AM on June 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

James Alan Gardner's Expendable universe is ruled over by the League of Peoples, which are never seen because they're so fantastically more advanced than humanity (and the other known species).

Greg Costikyan's First Contract is about how Earth suddenly finds itself the galactic equivalent of a developing country.
posted by Etrigan at 8:13 AM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

How about Blindsight? (also available in printed format if you prefer that)
posted by curious_yellow at 8:14 AM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's just a short story but "The Road Not Taken" by Harry Turtledove had an interesting take on this.
posted by Captain_Science at 8:15 AM on June 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Seconding the Uplift Series, there's a lot of this in there.

Also, some of the Culture series deals with this in both directions, "The State of the Art" is about The Culture looking at Earth while they are way ahead of us, and The Hydrogen Sonata has to do with civilizations that have "Sublimed" which is entering the next phase of existence, way ahead of even The Culture.
posted by hobgadling at 8:20 AM on June 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Steven Baxter deals with this but with a twist - it explores alternate Earths (and in the third book, also Mars) in which different species evolved rather than humans, some of which created quite advanced civilizations, but all on different timelines.
posted by Mchelly at 8:25 AM on June 10, 2015

Highly recommend Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought series, which deals with exactly the things you're interested in.

The books split the galaxy up into concentric volumes that allow different levels of development - Earth is in the Slow Zone (biological intelligence only, no AI, no FTL), various more advanced civilisations are in the Beyond (AI, FTL, antigravity tech and so on) and various superintelligent / sublimed beings are in the Transcend and spend their time doing things that are completely incomprehensible to everyone else.
posted by inire at 8:33 AM on June 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

You might find interesting the sections of Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home which deal with the "Mind" which shares the Earth with the post-collapse society.

Also, I think Iain Banks's novel The Algebraist is interesting on this - the Dwellers and Clouders.

There's some old John Varley short stories that deal with symbiotic relationships between humans and these sort of space-faring plants - I think one of them is "Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance" in The Persistence of Vision.

Oh, and hey, you really ought to read Lem's novel Eden. It's so weird and boring and a totally different experience from anything else on this topic, with a truly interesting encounter with aliens. It's not so much that the aliens and the humans are "equal" or one is "ahead" of the other - it's that they are so different that these things cease to mean much, despite the fact that the humans puzzle out the nature of a terrible struggle within the alien society.
posted by Frowner at 8:33 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Really, a lot of Lem is like Eden, Solaris and The Invincible both come to mind.
posted by Gygesringtone at 8:40 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End is probably one of most influential books on the idea of mismatched development levels, and uplifitng in particular, with Brin and Banks later. It's also a great read, a Retro Hugo winner.
posted by bonehead at 8:47 AM on June 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series is also about humanity expanding into the local system and finding out the reason for the Drake Equation oddness.
posted by nickggully at 8:52 AM on June 10, 2015

Reynolds' Pushing Ice also deals with an unfathomably advanced alien race in an interesting way, and is a bit more accessible than Revelation Space (although I love all his work).
posted by something something at 9:10 AM on June 10, 2015

2nding the Culture books by Iain M. Banks.
They are almost all about the interactions and implications of mismatched civilizations clashing.
They are also amazing.
posted by Sleddog_Afterburn at 9:11 AM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding Pushing Ice. Very clever book.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:29 AM on June 10, 2015

In the television show Farscape, lots of the humanoid aliens being just better, in scattered subtle and not-so-subtle ways (intelligence, physiology, even eyesight) is a common theme.
posted by zeek321 at 9:36 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Nthing the David Brin Uplift series. There are six books in the series. Start with Startide Rising, move to Uplift War. Go back to Sundiver. It's the weakest of the lot. The remaining three books are long but worth reading.
posted by zarq at 9:37 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Karl Schroeder's books "Permanence" and "Ventus," are about thematically about mismatched races. "Permanence" is set in the universe which was occupied by advanced intelligent aliens that came and went before mankind did, but for a reason I can honestly say I've never encountered in any other SF book or discussion. "Ventus" is about a medieval world which is unable to advance for reasons I can't allude to, but which -- spoiler here -- exists among the worlds of an advanced interstellar human empire.

David Brin's non-Uplift* book "Existence" is a contact story set a few decades into our future and features the discovery of alien machines that have arrived on Earth a long-ass time ago, stones containing digitized aliens from far-distance, and probably long-dead, races. It also has some very interesting ideas on the future of unbiquitous bandwidth, sur-/sousveillance

I've got more Lem on this: the contact story "Fiasco" is not a perfect fit, nor is "His Master's Voice," about an alien signal from space.

Re: the excellent Childhood's End, it's going to be made into a TV series coming in the next year.

*Existence integrates a short story called "Afficionado" which was originaly in Brin's website as a kind of origin story for the Uplift Institute which features in 6 Uplift books. Most of the story's still there, but the outcome is different in Existence.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:44 AM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

On the skiffy network though. Not hopeful.
posted by bonehead at 9:49 AM on June 10, 2015

Totally the book Solaris, so great.
posted by johngoren at 9:56 AM on June 10, 2015

Oh, and Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and William Gibson's short story "Hinterlands.

In Roadside Picnic, aliens have left....an area full of something, their debris, their trash, their discards, and it all has enormous and mysterious power by human standards. Humans go in to search for things and come out, or not.

"Hinterlands" is about a method that is discovered for certain astronauts to enter alien space and return with artifacts, but unfortunately without either their sanity or the will to live. Or really, it's about the people who are assigned to prep the astronauts and attempt futilely to keep them alive on their return.
posted by Frowner at 10:06 AM on June 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

I really enjoyed The Black Cloud (1959) by astronomer Fred Hoyle.

SPOILER: I particularly enjoyed the second half which involved interaction between humans and the much more intelligent life form.
posted by pjenks at 10:07 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, and for a fun read, what about Out of the Deeps/The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham? We never actually see the aliens but they are roughly "equal" to humanity...just very different.

It's actually a wonderfully eerie novel about postwar Britain.

I have only read the US version, which has a slightly different/bleaker ending than the UK version, apparently.
posted by Frowner at 10:20 AM on June 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Back in the 80s & 90s Julian May wrote six books collectively called the Saga of Pliocene Exile.

They tell about how a one-way time travel device is invented which sends people back six million years. It turns out that there are already two other races there, similar to elves and dwarves, and the human time-travellers are drawn into their conflict. Those two races are actually aliens, with telepathy, telekinesis, and other mental skills, and they were brought to Earth via a member of a third race, their Ship.

I read them all at least once, and some several times, though they are not without their flaws.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:31 AM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed Constellation Games, read it right after Ready Player One, and it is basically first contact of Earth by a huge traveling group of different cultures. The primary interface the main characters use to explore culture? Video games that are sometimes millions of years old.
posted by th3ph17 at 10:40 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I can't really give you specifics without spoiling the storyline, but are you open to video games? If so, Mass Effect and its sequels might be up your alley.
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:15 AM on June 10, 2015

You don't even need to have space aliens at vastly different technology levels. I remember a discussion (perhaps here, perhaps on reddit) about explaining gold farming in video games to someone from the 19th century.

Oh, hey. I just found the thing I was thinking about. From MeFi's own Charlies Stross. I got a couple of details wrong, but it's still amusing. Doesn't really answer your question, however.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:29 AM on June 10, 2015

Came in to say Brin's Uplift and Constellation Games, which are both also fun to read!
posted by Andrhia at 11:32 AM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

You might want to check out Greg Egan. A lot of his sci-fi is set in the distant future, where humanity has uploaded itself to exist as pure AI. "Glory" is about making contact with a more primitive species that hasn't reached that level of advancement. The novel Diaspora approaches it from the other direction, and deals with (among other things) relics of a civilization that's many millions of years more advanced and older still.
posted by teraflop at 12:10 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Definitely Peter Watts' Blindsight, which is probably the most realistically cynical first-contact book I've ever read. Less of a technology gap, more like a perception gap.

Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic as well. Inscrutable aliens make a brief pit stop on Earth and leave us scratching our heads at (and squabbling over) the stuff they left behind.

Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep features humans making contact with both (very interesting) medieval-tech aliens and Singularity-level AI abominations.
posted by neckro23 at 12:29 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have been reading a whole lot of anthropological sci-fi and first contact stories lately, and they frequently deal with these questions.

About humans encountering aliens of equal intelligence but very different culture:
- Ring of Swords, by Elanor Arnason
- The Sparrow, by Mary Russell Doria
- lots by Ursula K. Le Guin, who is perhaps the best-known writer of anthropological scifi. Check out the Hainish Cycle; The Left Hand of Darkness is a classic.

About humans encountering advanced aliens:
- the Xenogenesis trilogy by Octavia Butler (the first book is Dawn)
- "The Story of Your Life", a beautiful and Nebula Award-winning novella by Ted Chiang (collected in Stories of Your Life and Others, which is well worth reading in its entirety)

Can't explain what it's about because spoilers, but trust me, it's relevant:
- the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer (the first book is Annihilation)

For a different approach: try the Hugo Award-winning short story "Spar", by Kij Johnson (available free online, and rather NSFW).
posted by ourobouros at 1:00 PM on June 10, 2015

House of Reeds
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:25 PM on June 10, 2015

The works of Sheri S. Tepper are almost entirely about this subject.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 2:09 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

John Ringo's "Troy Rising" trilogy, beginning with "Live Free or Die," is about an interstellar community of alien races. Aliens drop in and establish an FTL gate of some kind in our solar system, and then present their invoice in the form of bureaucratic conquest, and begin looting the planet. Not everyone takes kindly to that. A New Hampshire libertarian, in particular, decides that Earth can buy their way out of their indenture if they can just find the right commodity that the aliens don't know they need.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:47 PM on June 10, 2015

This is a common theme in science fiction, and there's a gawdawful lot of material that touches on this. Here's just a few I haven't seen above:

John Scalzi's novella "The God Engines"

Greg Bear's novels The Forge of God and the sequel, Anvil of Stars

Terry Carr's short story "The Dance of the Changer and the Three"

H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos

John Varley's The Ophiuchi Hotline (and other "8 worlds" works)

Mick Farren's Their Master's War

Christopher Anvil's Pandora's Planet

Stephen Baxter's Xeelee books

Frederik Pohl's The World at the End of Time and also probably his Gateway books

Oh - a personal favorite: William Barton's When Heaven Fell. Actually, several of Barton's works qualify and there are probably literally thousands more but I have to start dinner.
posted by doctor tough love at 4:22 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

One last one: someone already mentioned Greg Egan's Diaspora - which contains a section that I've seen published independently as a short story called "Wang's Carpets" - which concerns what I think is probably about the most alien alien race anyone's ever written about (small spoiler: they live in n-dimensional frequency space).
posted by doctor tough love at 4:44 PM on June 10, 2015

The Three Body Problem is this and so much more.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:37 PM on June 10, 2015

Following up on Captain_Science, Harry Turtledove wrote a second short story in "The Road Not Taken" universe. The (set much later) sequel is Herbig-Haro.
posted by fings at 6:51 PM on June 10, 2015

Nthing Three Body Problem (which is not necessarily a recommendation for the book; I found it frustrating in the way a bad Neil Stephenson book is frustrating, but it is on point for your question).

Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg seems appropriate.
posted by Lexica at 8:43 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Doesn't anybody read Stephen Baxter? His Manifold series is about a highly advanced alien group trying to show humanity its future. Amazing books.
posted by irisclara at 9:48 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I, too, thought of David Brin, but his short story "The Crystal Spheres".
It is only short, so don't read any synopsis, but it is available in the collection "River of Time", or as a free podcast online.
posted by Elysum at 2:09 AM on June 11, 2015

Age of Miracles by John Brunner fills the bill.
posted by notbuddha at 10:16 AM on June 11, 2015

The New World kickstarter is going on right now! It is a comics anthology consisting of sci-fi or fantasy stories about culture clash. I'm not involved in its creation in any way so I don't know if it contains stories related specifically to differing technology levels, but I trust the people involved to put out some exciting stories.
posted by mismatched at 2:17 PM on June 11, 2015

Answer Came There None by James White, which is only a short story, from the excellent collection Monsters and Medics.
posted by anaelith at 7:05 PM on June 12, 2015

Another Lem: his short story "The New Cosmogony," in the anthology A Perfect Vacuum, is about this.

Mildly spoilery synopsis:

He asserts that the solution to the Fermi paradox is that previous civilizations have become advanced enough to modify the laws of physics to prevent contact between other civilizations.
posted by glass origami robot at 4:13 PM on June 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older To seal or not to seal (my driveway)   |   Help me become a zen commuter! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.