Is Anybody Out There?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday August 19, 2010

Editors Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern bring together 17 writers of speculative fiction for Is Anybody Out There?, an anthology of 15 stories dedicated to one of the great puzzles of this--or any--time. The head-scratcher is this: if the universe is so vast and so full of stars and planets, then why is there no credible evidence of alien life?

Paul McAuley sets out the conundrum in the book's introduction. Simply put, the problem is one of deep time and vast stellar numbers. Even if intelligent, technologically advanced forms of life are exceedingly rare--one in a million, say--there should still be plenty of alien races out there, and we should be hearing their transmissions or even receiving them as visitors. They might be zipping around the Milky Way or, more likely, crawling along in generation ships that take hundreds, maybe thousands, of years to get from star to star--but that's okay because the galaxy is old, and the universe far older still. An industrious alien race could colonize the entire galaxy in half a dozen million years: not so long at all on the scale of cosmological time.

On the other hand, life faces uncertainty and difficulty at every turn. If it's not an exploding star and a burst of galaxy-sterilizing gamma rays, it's a gas giant migrating from the outer reaches of a solar system and chucking smaller, terrestrial-type planets right out of orbit. Or else it's an asteroid wiping out a nascent civilization. Or else it's the hazards of technology itself, such as we face now: nuclear war, pollution, greenhouse gases. And that's assuming life even starts anywhere else to begin with: for all we know, there's not so much as a microbe out there. We very well may be utterly alone, and even if there is another alien intelligence or two--or "C to the 500,500th power," as one story in this anthology, James Morrow's "The Vampires of Paradox" has it--we might just as well be alone if they are located in other galaxies or lived and died millions of years in the past (or are still to come in the far future).

These 15 stories examine this most titillating of questions from a variety of angles. Some involve alien life being discovered, as in Jay Lake's "Permanent Fatal Errors," or, in the case of Paul Di Filippo's semi-comic and vastly amusing "Galaxy of Mirrors," seemingly emerging, full-blown, out of nowhere. Some of these stories only hint at the possibility of aliens, such as Kristine Kathryn Rusch's well-wrought "The Dark Man," Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn's wry tale "Report from the Field," and the very offbeat, piquant story "One Big Monkey," by Ray Vukcevich.

Others take the theme of alien life--or its absence--and work it into sci-fi in a classic mode, such as Yves Menard does with the Golden Era-worthy "Good News From Antares," or Felicity Shoulders and Leslie What do in "Rare Earth." Others use the question as a springboard to delve deeply into the human soul, itself a compendium of maddening paradoxes (Alex Irvine's "The Word He Was Looking For Was Hello") or Michael Arsenault's lover-in-the-grass dialogue "Residue."

What most of these stories do, aside from exploring some facet of the enigma and advancing one or more theories to account for it (are we living in a galactic, low-tech "wildlife preserve" for pre-spacefaring civilizations? Are we living in a holographic universe devised in an alien lab? Are we destined, ourselves, to be the one instance of life that seeds the galaxy?), is address--some subtly, some with overt relish--the equally troublesome question of communicating not with far-flung aliens, but with the person right next to us.

Is Anybody Out There? is a smart book dealing with a deceptively complex and important question--but doing so in a myriad of entertaining, and thought-provoking, ways.

Publisher: Daw Books. Publication Date: June, 2010. Pages: 312. Price: $7.99. Format: Mass market paperback original. ISBN: 978-0-756-406-196

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.