Oscar Sunday is nearly upon us. And while science fiction movies don't always get the credit they deserve, this year Arrival—the science fiction film about a linguist (Amy Adams) who attempts to communicate with aliens who have landed on Earth—has secured eight nominations (including Best Picture).
While we're not sure what this year's Academy Awards will bring, Arrival's nominations have 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.
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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?
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.
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.
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