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An early approach to the topic, H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds

First contact is a common science fiction theme about the first meeting between humans and extraterrestrial life, or of any sentient race's first encounter with another one.

The theme allows authors to explore such topics such as xenophobia, transcendentalism, and basic linguistics by adapting the anthropological topic of first contact to extraterrestrial cultures.

Contents

Overview

Murray Leinster's 1945 novelette "First Contact" established the term "first contact" in science fiction, although the theme had previously appeared in e.g. H. G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895), The War of the Worlds (1898) and The First Men in the Moon (1901).

There have been entire series devoted to this theme. One classic series is the "interstellar trader" series by Andre Norton. More modern treatments, using radio rather than spaceships, include The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt, "Signal from Space" by Will Eisner, and Contact by Carl Sagan. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye was written to be, in Niven's words, "the epitome of first contact novels". Here it is humanity which plays the role of the visiting aliens, as the religious, technological, political, psychological, military, cultural and biological implications of first contact are explored.

The Star Trek television series explored the theme in depth, and introduced the concept of the Prime Directive: a law forbidding first contact (or covert interference) by the peoples of the Federation (humanity and its allies) with any races not sufficiently advanced for such an encounter (i.e. capable of interstellar travel). There is also the movie, Star Trek: First Contact, which depicts the human race's first contact with an alien culture, the Vulcan race.

By contrast, in the works of Iain M. Banks, the Contact division of the galactic civilization calling itself The Culture (which features in the majority of Banks' science fiction) frequently manipulates less advanced civilizations, steering them towards peaceful progress, especially those which may become aggressive or dangerous, under the pretence of maintaining the balance of galactic power; a notable exception being the short story The State of the Art, in which the Culture decides not to contact Earth in order to use it as a control against which to measure their manipulations of other societies. Novels such as The Player of Games and Look to Windward delve into the psychology of first inter-species contact in considerable depth. In the novel Excession, Banks coins the phrase Outside Context Problem in relation to first contact.

The novel The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov eerily explores simultaneously the potential unity of all races, and the possibility of conflict that is inherent in all first contacts: even as members of different races understand each other, their disparate ways may endanger both their worlds, even the fabric of their respective universes. This gap between individuals and their respective societies is characteristic of the First Contact plot of E.T. Other explorations of the theme in popular culture include encounters with predatory or semi-sentient races as in Alien and Independence Day.

Examples of the mutual inscrutability and the potentially unbridgeable gaps between races which - by their very natures - are just too different to bond or even to accept each other, include Stephen Baxter's Xeelee Sequence concept of the dark matter photino birds, the god-like Firstborn from Arthur C. Clarke's Time Odyssey series, and Stanisław Lem's planet Solaris and the events of the novel Fiasco. In other cases, such as Greg Bear's The Forge of God and Anvil of Stars, or Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix, aliens are presented as falling into a highly diverse spectrum, some easily relating with humans, others too alien for meaningful communication.

Peter Watts's Hugo-nominated Blindsight (2006) is one of the latest works to explore the theme of first contact.

Some other works of science fiction, such as Asimov's Foundation series and Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, have no intelligent life other than humanity, and thus no first contacts.

In other fiction

Many stories about the old American Old West featured a first contact between English colonists and Native Americans.

Further reading

  • "Encyclopedia of Extraterrestrial Encounters" by Ronald Story (2001) ISBN 0-451-20424-7 (It was the result of a collaborative Extraterrestrial Encyclopedia Project (ETEP); excerpts online)

See also

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