Searching the Skies :: Marty Halpern on ’Alien Contact’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday January 14, 2012

Marty Halpern has twice come close to winning the World Fantasy Award for his work as an editor with the esteemed Golden Gryphon Press. His touch has graced not only the anthologies that Golden Gryphon brought out, but also books from Tachyon Publications, Night Shade Books, and Ace Books.

Daw Books brought out the Halpern and Nick Gevers-edited "Is Anybody Out There?" last year. The anthology, boasting work from top speculative fiction writers like Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Paul Di Filippo, Mike Resnick, and Lezlie Robyn, explored the Fermi paradox: namely, if life is at all common in the galaxy, how is it that we've never picked up an alien signal or had visitors from other solar systems?

That book gave readers an entertaining and illuminating collection of possible answers to what is, for scientists and philosophers, a perplexing and troubling question. "Is Anybody Out There?" also set the stage for Halpern's newest project, "Alien Contact," recently published by Night Shade Books.

The new anthology is--if you'll excuse the pun--a stellar collection of 26 stories that are truly cosmic in reach of imagination and breadth of tone. Adam-Troy Castro's "Sunday Night Yams at Minnie and Earl's" is a touching tale about friendship involving frontier lunar colonists and the hospitality they enjoy from a kindly, older midwestern couple--an impossible hospitality, given that Minnie and Earl have a tidy little house on the exposed surface of the Moon. Clearly, they are aliens, but is that the important thing?

Neil Gaiman's "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" riffs on the suspicion that every adolescent boy has that women are another species entirely, but beneath the story's jaunty prose are deeper suggestions for the sorts of life that might lie beyond. Similar meditations inform Ernest Hogan's "Guerrilla Mural of a Siren's Song." Telepathy, incomprehensible forms of alien life, whole different ways of seeing the cosmos--stories such as these are explorations of inner space, for all that they concern themselves with the outer reaches of the universe.

George Alec Effinger's "The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything" is a new take on the first contact story. What if the aliens are both benign and overwhelming... not with the violence of invaders, but with the incessant corrections and tutorials of the highly opinionated and the self-involved? If the classic alien story holds a mirror up to humanity, isn't it time for well-meaning but insufferable busybodies to get their due? Effinger's story is an absolute gem, one of many the book contains.

Another humorous story is Cory Doctorow's "To Go Boldly," a snarky jab at shows like "Star Trek" that envisions--none too probably--a future in which human beings and their alien allies sail around the cosmos in comfort. Doctorow's story points out the extravagant wastefulness of such a means of interstellar exploration, but also delineates the underlying hubris of bringing one's cappuccino along to the stars.

Hubris and humiliation are paired artfully in Mike Resnick's "The 43 Antarean Dynasties," which transposes an ugly strain of tourism from Earth's present-day third-world countries to outer space, as a native of Antares (reduced to offering guided tours to bored and condescending Earthlings) offers up a boiled-down history of his race, while the nuances of a rich culture, now in collapse, remain lost in the dust and rubble at the tourists' feet.

Nancy Kress and her husband Jack Skillingstead both have stories here, aptly sequenced so that appear next to one another. Kress' entry, "Laws of Survival," turns the alien contact story on its head by asking a deceptively simple question: What if the aliens, when they come, are less interested in human beings than in some other form of terrestrial life? Skillingstead, meantime, injects a crafty does of quantum physics into his story about an alien that has been captured by the military: Can the prisoner, by manipulating various probable streams of causality, forge a reality in which he survives his encounter with human beings? And can the human beings who have him in their charge live with the results?

Marty Halpern corresponded with EDGE recently for an interview via email in which he discussed the process of putting together themed anthologies.

EDGE: You reached out for suggestions for what 'first contact' stories to include in the collection, but ultimately you made the final choice. The result is a book that offers funny stories, poignant stories, tragic stories... Was that a difficult balance to achieve?

Marty Halpern: I asked for input on stories because I'm not able to read everything, and I knew there had to be some great stories out there that I simply wasn't aware of. Bottom line, each story had to be an exceptional story with a unique take on the "first contact" theme. I had no difficulty initially selecting stories; in fact, I still ended up with far too many of them! (I easily have enough stories for a follow-up volume--hint, hint.) Then, to narrow down the list further, I considered content, points of view, tone, etc. Hopefully, the end result is an anthology that will appeal to all readers.

EDGE: As a follow-up to last year's "Is Anybody Out There?" (which you co-edited with Nick Gevers for Daw Books), "Alien Contact" is a logical theme. Both books pose big philosophical questions. "Is Anybody Out There?" examined the paradox of why, if there is alien intelligence in the galaxy (as, mathematically, there ought to be) no extraterrestrial race has yet, to our knowledge, paid Earth a visit. Do you have a personal opinion on the best explanation for this conundrum?

Marty Halpern: There are others who are far more qualified to respond to this question than I am... I would have to agree with Paul Davies, whose book "The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was published nearly simultaneously with "Is Anybody Out There?" Davies states that focusing on radio signals for 50 years of the SETI project has been to no avail; we need to start thinking out of the box. One suggestion Davies makes is that ET might use biological organisms as a means of sending information, so we should dispatch retroviruses that would insert DNA into any found DNA-based organism. Coincidentally, the British edition of "The Eerie Silence" from Allen Lane Publishers is subtitled "Are We Alone in the Universe?"

EDGE: As for first contact situations, which of the stories in the new book would you say are most likely to correspond to how first contact with an alien race is likely to happen--if it ever does?

Marty Halpern: The beauty of fiction is its ability to extrapolate, to extend the imagination in a myriad of creative ways. But that aside, I think there are four stories in particular that answer your question: Molly Gloss's "Lambing Season," Ursula K. Le Guin's "First Contact with the Gorgonids," Elizabeth Moon's "If Nudity Offends You," and "Jack Skillingstead's "What You Are About to See."

The Elizabeth Moon story is characteristic of aliens who might live among us, hiding in plain sight. In Molly Gloss's story, an alien's contact with Earth (but not necessarily Earth's inhabitants) on a few occasions is nothing more than a crossroads in transit to somewhere else. Ursula K. Le Guin's Gorgonids currently inhabit the outback, and are little more than a tourist attraction to our protagonist. And lastly, in Jack Skillingstead's "What You Are About to See," we have a lone alien who is a captive of the American military. So I'm thinking that aliens may choose to live among us without our knowledge, or have so little interest in us that Earth is little more than a stopover. Then again, once the military gets their hands on such a subject....

EDGE: The idea of intelligent life on other planets is deeply compelling...but why? What makes it so fascinating, in your opinion? Why should we care? Is this a subject people should take seriously? Do books like Alien Contact help us, as George Zebrowski once put it, "rehearse for the future"?

Marty Halpern: Personally, I don't believe alien contact is something we can "rehearse" for. We can read everything written--fiction and nonfiction --and watch every movie made on alien contact, but the shock of real, true contact would be all encompassing and beyond our present comprehension. Forget the discovery of the atom, or DNA, or.... the discovery that we are not alone in the universe would be the most human-defining moment in the history (and future) of this planet.

EDGE: Even assuming aliens exist, and we were to encounter them, could we even conceptualize the universe in the same terms? Could we ever manage to talk to aliens who have evolved in a completely different manner, and maybe in very different environmental conditions? (To be sure, that's a question this new book addresses, also....)

Marty Halpern: As you state in your parenthetical note, in nearly all of the stories in "Alien Contact"--regardless of how diverse the alien species is--there is always common ground for communication. I believe that communication in some form will be successful if both cultures are willing to set aside "ego" and "self"--and fear--for the sake of the greater good, the greater whole.

EDGE: Any occasion to reprint stories by the likes of George Alec Effinger, or Nancy Kress, or Bruce McAllister must be a joyous one. Do you ever conceptualize anthologies based on themes you know great writers have addressed in their writing? Is putting together a good anthology sort of like playing Scrabble ("If I gather stories on theme X, I know I can use stories by writers Y, Z, and N... Triple word score!")?

Marty Halpern: While putting together "Is Anybody Out There?" a few of the authors I contacted said they had already written what they felt were their ultimate, or best, alien contact stories, and they simply weren't inclined to write another. So this got me thinking about all the alien contact stories of, say, the past 30 or so years, and how wonderful it would be to gather them together under one cover--and hopefully bring these stories to the attention of an entirely new group of readers.

The problem I had was that many of these authors had more than one great alien contact story, and I had the difficult task of having to select just one story from each author. But you are correct in that an anthologist associates a theme with specific writers; occasionally, however, the strength and quality of the writing actually suggests a potential theme. By the way, I like your Scrabble analogy.

EDGE: The collection includes a story by a well-known anti-gay writer, as well as one whose remarks on a blog got her disinvited as Guest of Honor from a convention a couple of years ago because some people saw her remarks as bigoted. When it comes to publishing a story by a writer who has generated such controversy, do you simply ignore his politics and rely on the quality of his work? Or do you have to weigh the political against the artistic when making your choices?

Marty Halpern: This is a very difficult question--and a difficult issue.

I hope that I can separate the art from the artist's belief system. Do I not read H. P. Lovecraft because he was a racist? Do I not go to the theatre to see an award-nominated movie because of the director's, or one of the actor's, racist comments? Do I not watch a football game because I disagree with a player's conservative religious fervor?

In fact, I had to consider just this sort of question when I was selecting stories for this anthology because two of the authors in particular had had a rather contentious year due to personal comments that they had made. I decided to include these stories because of their quality, and what that quality would add to the anthology as a whole. If a reader, unfamiliar with an author's personal baggage, enjoys the story enough to seek out other work--a quick Google search will bring some of this controversy to light. and then it's up to the reader to decide in favor of creativity or controversy.

I sent a copy of "Is Anybody Out There?" to a reviewer who had promised me a review on a well known, highly visible website. But when no review was forthcoming I contacted this individual only to learn that she would not be reviewing the book. Evidently when she prepared to read the book, she discovered that one of the stories was written by an author whose sexual politics she strongly (and that's probably not a strong enough word, either) disagreed with. And I thought how sad this was, that she was missing out on the experience of reading 14 other stories (by 15 other authors) because of the personal beliefs of one writer. Very few reviews mention every single story and author. Couldn't she have just skipped this story, without comment, and read and reviewed the rest of the book? I did find another reviewer who reviewed the anthology for that very same website, but the review appeared more than a month late.

I would like to add, too, that separating (or not separating) the art from the artist is still a personal matter, and as a close friend of mine recently suggested, best done on a case by case basis. I might include a racist author's short story in my anthology, but that doesn't mean I would necessarily recommend this author as a convention's Guest of Honor.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.