The 2020 Oscar nominations are woefully light on the science fiction side, seeing mostly contributions from mammoth franchises like Star Wars and The Avengers in categories like Best Original Score, Sound Editing, and Visual Effects.
Science fiction movies don't always get the credit they deserve, but in the 2017 award season, the film Arrival—a movie about a linguist (Amy Adams) who attempts to communicate with aliens who have landed on Earth— was nominated for eight Oscars. While the flick only took home the award for Best Sound Editing, the film went on to win the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation at the Nebula Awards, and the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. Arrival's past success has us thinking about other stories involving alien contact and messages from outer space.
Based on "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, Arrival is as much about language and understanding those who are different from you as it is about first contact and outer space. Though we're not sure how far off alien communication in real life is, be prepared by reading these eight books.
All Flesh Is Grass
The isolated little town of Millville starts to feel even smaller when a strange invisible force field traps the inhabitants within the community limits.
Panic sweeps through the community until, through a chain of unusual events, down on his luck real estate agent Brad Carter stumbles upon the source of their confinement: aliens.
Through this wild chance, Brad becomes the reluctant liaison for human-alien relations. Though even as Brad learns about the alien’s grand schemes, the people of Millville aren’t too happy to see Brad working so closely with the enemy.
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Taking on the issue of foreign contact from the perspective of an alien, Mr. Spaceman follows Desi, an extraterrestrial who has been watching earth from outer space for decades.
With the help of Desi’s empathetic powers which allow him to hear thoughts and memories, he has studied human beings in all their intriguing and puzzling ways.
At the very end of the year 2000, he transports a casino-bound bus onto his ship, making first contact with the group of twelve humans before he embarks on his ultimate mission: descending to Earth’s surface to proclaim the existence of alien life. Filled to the brim with exciting surprises and unpredictable twists, Robert Olen Butler’s book is heartfelt, witty, and endearing down to its core.
Those Gentle Voices
George Alec Effinger’s compelling novel Those Gentle Voices begins in 1998, when humanity discovers that intelligent life inhabiting the far-off star Wolf 359 has been sending signals to Earth.
Nearly thirty years later, mankind deploys a manned probe to explore and investigate the extraterrestrial life. With the human race set out on an ambitious journey, is there an even more incredible benefit to their exploration besides the satisfaction of their curiosity? As the probe lands on the planet called Jennings’ World, a story of conspiracy, discovery, and the human condition unfolds across the page.
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In this dystopian futuristic version of Earth in 2054, humanity is on the cusp of entering World War III and is facing the threat of extinction thanks to global warming and a fascist federal government led by a television-star President. Yikes.
But everything changes when Professor Aurora Bell hears a communication from somewhere out there saying, “We’re coming.” Is it a warning of an impending intergalactic space war, or reassurance that help is on the way?
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Who knew that in a dystopian future world, Earth’s only chance of salvation would come from ... a poet? But then again, that’s the power of language.
In this Nebula Award-winning novel from Samuel R. Delany, Rydra Wong is the Earth’s last resort when an indecipherable communication from outer space comes in. Rydra must use her multilingual powers of expression to decode the message, and hope for the best—even if it means switching sides to save humanity.
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Time and Again
What’s better than receiving outer space communication through the airwaves? Receiving it hand-delivered. Asher Sutton returns to Earth after having vanished 20 years prior somewhere near the star system 61 Cyngi.
Asher wrote down what he found there in a book, which he finds upon his arrival back on Earth—now dated in the future. But being in possession of this book could have deadly consequences for him.
With underlying themes of protecting the androids that serve, and are abused by, humans, this time-travel classic is chock-full of intrigue.
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This delightfully brilliant book by Leonard Richardson follows Ariel Blum, a near-thirty computer science grad who makes his living writing tired and trite children’s video games. To make matters worse, his love life is at a standstill because of his hidden feelings for his best friend, Jenny Gallegos. Slogged down by life, Ariel escapes into the release of replaying the video games of his childhood. Basically, he never learned how to grow up.
But when the aliens come, Ariel discovers a sudden purpose.
He starts to translate alien video games for human use—and in the process starts to understand the strange extraterrestrial race. Though he’s caught between the machinations of both the aliens and his own human government, Ariel may be the only one who can save the future of his species. But first, he’ll have to decide to act like an adult.
Tucked away in northern Minnesota is the Blind Lake federal research installation, where scientists have been watching the daily routines of a strange alien life in the far reaches of space. Utilizing a technology they have, at best, a flimsy grasp on, these scientists can do nothing more than look at the creatures that bear a startling resemblance to lobsters. Even if they could understand the language the aliens speak, the scientists have no way of making real contact.
When a sudden and unexplained military cordon cuts the Blind Lake facility off from the rest of the world, scientists like Nerissa Iverson and Raymond Scutter—a recently divorced couple—continue their difficult work. As Nerissa and Ray argue about the futility of trying to grasp the alien’s way of life, signs point to the fact that the alien’s might be aware of the eyes tracking their movements. With the military’s cordon growing smaller and smaller—and with Ray’s behavior shifting to a dangerous hostility—Nerissa hopes a breakthrough comes soon.
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Tucked away in an outpost in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Project scientists spent decades on a search for extraterrestrial intelligence, listening for any signal of communication from beyond the stars with their “Little Ear” radio telescope.
Finally, in the year 2025—after half a century of fruitless efforts—scientists receive a message from the star Capella. Project Director Robert MacDonald is faced with two complicated questions: how do they decipher the strange alien communication, and if they figure it out, should Earth send back a response?
Communication between star systems is a long and arduous process, and a lot can change from the time a message is sent. What purpose do the beings from Capella’s unstable star system have in reaching out? And what could this all possibly mean for the personal lives of the scientists searching for ways to build contact between worlds?
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Written by acclaimed astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan, Contact is a fascinating story that centers around communication with an advanced civilization light years away.
When a radio signal reaches Earth, it becomes clear that alien life exists out in the cosmos—a concept that felt impossible, until it was proven otherwise. When scientists translate the message, they’re faced with a terrifying opportunity. Contained in the extraterrestrial communication are the schematics for a machine that would make it possible for humans to venture out into the stars.
The race that sent the message and machine blueprints have been keeping an eye on Earth for quite a while. They are eager to meet mankind face to face. However, once humanity ventures out to greet the creatures across the universe, they may be at the mercy of this strange race’s judgement.
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This phenomenal science fiction novel by Nnedi Okorafor weaves multiple narratives into a thrilling and striking story which draws from Nigerian mythology and superheroic tales.
A gigantic, strange object falls from the sky and lands with a crash into the ocean of Lagos—the most populous city of Nigeria. Three unsuspecting people were strolling along Bar Beach when the object hits Earth: Adaora—a marine biologist, Anthony—a famous African rapper, and Agu—a troubled soldier. Now the three of them must dash to save not only their beloved country, but the world.
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2001: A Space Odyssey
What you might not know about this book is that it was neither adapted into a film, nor is it the novelization of a film. Director Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove) and the book’s author, Arthur C. Clarke, met to discuss the story, which would be published in book form and seen on the big screen in 1964.
There are differences to the two visions, but in the book a monolith—which is said to be what inspired the development of intelligent life 3 million years B.C.—is found on the moon. The strange object sends a piercing radio transmission to one of Saturn’s moons, Japetus, and an expedition is sent to investigate. In this classic novel, the need for information reveals the limitations of humanity’s life on Earth, and perhaps, even the meaning of it all.
The Three-Body Problem
English readers are in for a treat with this recently translated novel from China’s most popular science fiction writer, Liu Cixin. Set during the Cultural Revolution that took place between 1966 and 1976, the government houses a dark secret—the hope for communication with extraterrestrial life.
Unfortunately, the aliens were listening, and, on the brink of extinction themselves, they make plans to invade Earth. Surprisingly, not everyone is so against their coming, and society quickly divides into two camps: Those who welcome the visitors, and those who are ready to fight against invasion.
The Hercules Text
In Jack McDevitt’s debut novel, a pulse from a star becomes irregular. The star in question, Althea, is known to have an extremely regular pulse—with near-perfect intervals.
Scientists believe it must be a code—a communication from beyond. What they discover is an ancient text, which has humanity questioning its very existence, from the beginnings of civilization to the present day. The implications of what contact with extraterrestrial beings would mean for life on Earth are examined at length in this non-traditional first contact novel.
One of DeLillo’s first novels, Ratner’s Star follows the life of a precocious young boy named Billy who is sent to live in an underground bunker with scientists attempting to make contact with extraterrestrial life.
But the real drama unfolds between Billy and his colleagues, each of whom struggle with the inability to relate to their fellow humans. There’s more to this novel than meets the eye. It’s a hilarious, slightly sad look at the spiral that one can descend down when attempting to decipher a message from outer space while living in isolation.
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The Lives of Tao
Wesley Chu’s highly acclaimed The Lives of Tao follows the story of Roen, an out of shape IT guy who wakes up one day with the voice of an alien life form named Tao in his brain. And it only gets weirder.
As it turns out, two opposing alien factions have been at war. And now it’s up to Roen to act as emissary for Tao’s mission on Earth. It’s a fun, “world-colliding” book that will have you questioning all future voices that enter your own head.
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Featured still of "Arrival" via Paramount Pictures