Review: Aliens: Recent Encounters (ed. Alex Dally MacFarlane)

aliens_cover IMPORTANT NOTE: The first edition of this book (ISBN 9781607013914), at least, is missing the second half of “Seasons of the Ansarac” by Ursula Le Guin. You can read the missing part of this story here.

Aliens — realistically developed, biologically plausible, sentient species — are my absolute favourite element of science fiction. My dream anthology would be a hard-SF-only collection of stories about aliens: their biology, culture, and interactions with humans. Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013), edited by Alex Dally MacFarlane, mixes both hard and soft SF with a smattering of magical realism and mythology, so not every story was to my taste. However, it is still an excellent anthology, thematically strong, while providing lots of variety.

This is a reprint anthology containing 32 short stories, all originally published between 2000 and 2012 (hence the book’s subtitle). The editor has done a good job of representing a number of nationalities with her author choices, and the gender balance is good too, with 21 stories by women, 10 by men, and one “neutrois” (neutral-gendered) author. There are a few really big names (i.e.: all the ones on the front cover) but a whole bunch of relative unknowns as well.

The selection of stories is mostly exceptional. These stories provide a huge number of approaches to the idea of humans interacting with aliens, and every couple of stories there’d be another great idea that blew my mind. Some of the most noteworthy inclusions, for me, were:

  • “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” by Ken Liu – A short piece in the form of a few explanatory passages about how different alien species store information. Solid with ideas, my only complaint is that Liu didn’t think up another ten species to flesh this story out with. (The final story in this collection, “A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel” by Yoon Ha Lee, is almost exactly the same idea in the same format, but about various ways and reasons for travelling rather than storing information. It’s just as good, and it also could have been longer.)
  • “Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy” by Catherynne M Valente – A history of war and planetary colonisation told through a wine tasting session. The wines themselves are alien, despite being made from Earth grapes, and you’ll find out why. Sounds delicious, though.
  • “Seasons of the Ansarac” by Ursula K Le Guin – A brilliant piece from this master of anthropological SF, about an alien culture whose life cycle has evolved around its mass migrations, and the fragility of the culture when it comes into contact with other races. Touching and bittersweet. I went and ordered her collection Changing Planes as soon as I finished this story.
  • “Carthago Delenda Est” by Genevieve Valentine – At first I didn’t get the ending, but when I dug back through this layered, complex story I realised how clever it is. Humanity is just one of many species forced to put war aside and coexist in the prolonged wait for an unprecedented galactic event. The story focuses on the turmoil and rivalry between the leaders of several factions, many of whom are clones.
  • “The Beekeeper” by Jamie Barras – In a universe where technology, including spaceships, is grown, a scientific team returns to a world that had been previously seeded with a garden to grow such things, as well as homunculi to tend the garden. Of course, the team runs into danger. This story had a killer twist that had me grinning as I read the final pages, then immediately go look Barras up online to find out what else he’d written.
  • “Noumenon” by Robert Reed – An episode set in Reed’s Great Ship universe (Marrow et al), this story has me wanting to read the novels and other stories in that setting. Reed seems to like playing with the concept of worlds within worlds, and he brings a technological twist to that idea in this story. Keep on going through the seemingly unrelated sections about an alien creature, it all ties together in the end.
  • “Honey Bear” by Sofia Samatar – What starts off as a simple enough story about family strife turns creepy and weird when you figure out what’s going on. A very dark story which explores ways our lives might be forced to change when aliens take over earth. It incorporates some elements from faerie mythology, but don’t expect Tinkerbell. (There are a couple of other great, similarly unsettling stories about cooperation between humans and aliens in this anthology: “muo-ka’s Child” by Indrapramit Das, and “Jagannath” by Karin Tidbeck.)
  • “Knacksack Poems” by Eleanor Arnason – No humans at all in this story! Just an excellent fable-like recount of a poet’s adventures in a somewhat medieval setting. The SF twist? These creatures are much like the Tines in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, in that they are composed of multiple organisms and share a group mind. This story was funny and engrossing.
  • “My Mother, Dancing” by Nancy Kress – This story is set in a far future when Fermi (and his famous paradox about the lack of alien life in the universe) is now the basis of a religion. It tells of the interactions between human missionaries spreading eukaryotic life throughout the universe, and some of their creations, who have a unique problem that might be too much for the humans to comprehend.

There are a number of other stories I really liked (the majority of the remaining 20) but I won’t describe every single story in this review. There are, though, some stories I wasn’t greatly enthused about.

Sadly, one of them was the contribution by Alastair Reynolds. Reynolds is one of my very favourite SF authors but I felt that his story in this anthology, “For the Ages”, was rather lacklustre. He has other short stories that are far more suited to the alien theme, considering that this story doesn’t even feature aliens directly, but rather tackles the idea of how to send a message to hypothetical aliens in the future.

I also wasn’t captivated by Caitlín R Kiernan’s “I am the Abyss, I am the Light”, which includes a lot of alien biology but whose main character isn’t very sympathetic in wanting to eschew her humanity; nor did “The Forgotten Ones” by Karin Lowachee interest me, as it seemed to be rather heavy-handedly trying to Say Something Important about the effects of colonialism. “Shallot” by Samantha Henderson and “Test of Fire” by Pervin Saket both relied pretty heavily on allusions of the literary and mythological variety, respectively, so maybe it’s my fault for not really understanding them, but I didn’t get much out of them either.

The story that made me roll my eyes and go “so what?” the most was “Honorary Earthling” by Nisi Shawl. Oh yes, I’m sure it’s a very important story about race in America and yada yada yada, but the postmodern style (incorporating transcripts, articles, blog posts and one-sided conversations) did absolutely nothing for me and I struggled to find any kind of science fiction aspect to the story at all. It seemed to be much more about ghosts, although there was a throwaway line about aliens, but that just wasn’t enough to warrant its inclusion in this collection (in my opinion).

Those few less-than-great stories aside, there is so much here that is worth the anthology’s price. For any fan of aliens in science fiction, you can’t go wrong.

(4 stars)

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