Home > Books > Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern

Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern

Always one to start off these reviews with a slightly different view of the world, I recall a poem called “Antigonish” by William Hughes Mearns, the first verse of which is:

Last night I saw upon the stair

A little man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away. . .

It’s a pleasing paradox as, self-evidently, if he is not there, he cannot go away. This is something we can all smile about as absurd and, for a brief moment, it holds our attention. Then, as is always the way with these things, we give up thinking about absences and focus on those who are present.

In this rough and ready way, I am highlighting the problem with the theme selected by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern for their new anthology Is Anybody Out There? They invited authors to dally with the Fermi Paradox. Put simply, if there are so many civilisations out there, why have we seen no sign of them? So the challenge to the authors is to make the absence of aliens somehow entertaining. Whereas Mearns reached a satisfactory outcome in a few words, we are to wade through more than 300 pages explaining why there are no little men on the stair today.

We start off with “The Word He Was looking For Was Hello” by Alex Irvine which, truth be told, I found tedious. “Residue” by Michael Arsenault is a pleasing conversation between a couple lying out on the grass, looking up at the night sky. As a piece of writing, it comes in well up the scale of skill, and it holds interest as a moment of affection, perhaps amounting to love. I suppose it’s tangentially science fiction because the editors have included it in this anthology. “Good News From Antares” by Yves Meynard is somewhat weird as a writer at a convention has a Sagan moment in an armchair which transports him dreamlike into a meeting with an alien character from one of his story sequences. While “Report From the Field” by Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn works hard to sustain a joke rather in the style of William Tenn. It’s a brave effort to spin out a thin idea over this length.

“Permanent Fatal Errors” by Jay Lake is one of these referential stories depending for part of its effect on the readers picking up all the in-jokes. The idea of where aliens might be hiding is quite entertaining in a story of mutiny in the depths of space, but the point of the story — that some answers are in themselves errors — is somewhat laboured. Similarly, “The Vampires of Paradox” by James Morrow is not a bad idea thrashed to death to make it fill the pages. One or two explorations of paradoxes might have held my interest, but this just seemed interminable. I dare not comment on “One Big Monkey”. Definitely not my kind of story!

The few good stories are “Galaxy of Mirrors” by Paul di Filippo, a rousing tale of boredom and its inevitable descent into mere disinterest, followed by complete loss of interest in continuing life. “Where Two or Three” by Sheila Finch, is a rather touching story of a dying astronaut’s relationship with a young girl. It manages to blend interesting character development with the unknowable, seducing us into suspending disbelief long enough to get to the end. I would like music to be a key to understanding the universe so, in a way, the plot appeals to my prejudices. “Graffiti in the Library of Babel” by David Langford is a sophisticated piece which suggests a novel way of communicating and different possible motives for the communication. In a way, this starts a trend where the editors cheat on their theme because aliens are shown to exist, but I forgave them because this and the other stories are good enough on their own merits.

The best of the bunch is “The Dark Man” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch which has another “real” alien periodically appearing in Rome. It’s a beautifully balanced piece of writing which blends a journalist’s scepticism and determination to debunk paranormal claims, with a real sense of mystery. “The Taste of Night” by Pat Cadigan is another pleasing idea which has us able to see into different dimensions if certain types of tumor affect the brain. It’s nicely done because the symptoms as presented are those ascribed to those suffering seizures, and the results are nicely ambiguous with agents of “authority” naturally characterising talk of aliens as evidence of mental disorder. “Timmy, Come Home” by Matthew Hughes is an elegant rehash of an old idea in which an alien, possibly a child, has accidentally been trapped in a human body and really would like to call home and get out of this Hell. “A Waterfall of Lights” by Ian Watson comes up with a unique way for AIs to communicate with us. Kudos to the Old Master for remaining so creative and giving us such a fun ride. “Rare Earth” by Felicity Shoulders and Leslie What completes the list of good eggs with a story somewhat like those YA stories I read decades ago of salmon returning to the river where they spawned. This has just enough contemporary reality to keep the interest in the “aliens” going.

So, on balance, I would look to pick this up secondhand. Although there are some very good stories, the overall standard is disappointing. I think the editors bit off more than they could chew with the theme, and then felt obliged to take some weaker stories to make up the numbers.

For a review of another anthology edited by Nick Gevers, see Other Earths.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. November 7, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: