In an anthology of stories, a major goal is to get the pieces into dialogue with each other. Usually this does not happen directly. Rather, the stories most often come to the anthology fully formed, so any dialogue between them comes from how they are structured in relation to each other. In this respect, an anthology of stories is like a bouquet of flowers: they highlight or complement each other in how they are arranged. That means in most anthologies, much depends on the reader bringing those pieces into dialogue with each other. Whatever conversation takes place between the stories happens in the reading experience.
But there’s another type of anthology that pursues a rarer, more dynamic dialogue, in which pieces are actually written in response to each other. That’s the type of dialogue fostered by editors Julie Nováková, Lucas K. Law, and Susan Forest in the recent anthology Life Beyond Us: each original story is followed by a short essay written by a research scientist in direct response to the story. For instance, “Titan of Chaos”—a noir adventure by G. David Nordley involving a submarine trapped in the throat of a giant worm on Saturn’s largest moon—is followed by an essay by Fabian Klenner, an astrobiologist at Freie Universität Berlin, which explains what the search for life in the methane seas of Titan might actually entail. These essays, complete with references, provide framing for the theme of the volume: the search for life beyond Earth.
This approach no doubt took significant coordination by the editors in recruiting experts, pairing them with stories, and soliciting response essays. Nováková, Law, and Forest should be congratulated for guiding, structuring, and getting such a conversation onto the page—a surprisingly rare feat considering how often science fiction is lauded as a tool for science outreach and communication. The execution is not flawless (with some essays it’s unclear how the science relates to the story, or it seems the expert who was asked to write the essay struggled to find some point of connection), but on the whole it’s a unique and engaging format that allows the reader to peer over the shoulders of scientists as they read and interpret original works of fiction.
Another strength of the anthology is the international representation it achieves, featuring authors and experts from Australia, Brazil, the Caribbean, Spain, China, and Niger, as well as North America and Europe. This international representation (no doubt reflecting the network of the European Astrobiology Institute, which sponsored the work) makes it feel as though the search for life throughout the universe—and the task of imagining what its discovery would mean—is indeed a universal human task transcending contemporary divisions. In this respect, the anthology seems timely and relevant, showing the work that the ideas of science fiction can do.
The design of the book itself is lovely too, especially the illustrated motifs appearing at the start of each story and highlighting each section break throughout. That said, the inclusion of nearly thirty stories—each with an explanatory essay, along with a foreword, introduction, and two afterwords—push the volume up to nearly six hundred pages and make it feel a bit overlong. Furthermore, despite the success of the book’s goal of putting readers, writers, and scientists in dialogue using stories, the anthology does not seem to hang together as strongly as it might have in terms of theme. Most of these stories do in fact examine what it would be like to encounter or communicate with life “beyond us”; others, however—like the haunting “The Dog Star Killer” by Renan Bernardo, the surreal “Human Beans” by Eugen Bacon, or the whimsical “The Mirrored Symphony” by D. A. Xiaolin Spires—either don’t seem upon a first read to contain alien life at all or treat the encounter in an offhand fashion difficult to square with the scientific approach of the rest of the stories.
There are, though, many excellent pieces in this work, including B. Zelkovich’s “The Lament of Kivu Lacus,” about a terminally ill patient and the creatures she’s studying in Titan’s seas; “Heavy Lies” by Rich Larson, a deeply affecting story about a dying insectoid civilization; “Cyclic Amplification, Meaning Family,” by Bogi Takács, about communicating with a fungal-like entity through infection (and which is twinned with the very excellent response essay “The Science of Xenolinguistics” by Sheri Wells-Jensen); and “Forever the Forest” by Simone Heller, a love story about a sentient tree and the astronaut who crash-lands in its forest. Two stories in the collection especially stood out: “The Secret History of the Greatest Discovery” by Valentin D. Ivanov and “Defective” by Peter Watts. Each story is at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of style, tone, and the technology involved—but each does an excellent job of illustrating the merits of an anthology like this.
Valentin D. Ivanov’s piece “The Secret History of the Greatest Discovery,” which he translated from Bulgarian and for which he provides the accompanying essay, tells the story of Mariana Kaloyanova, a teenager attending an astronomy summer camp in an eastern European country. Over the course of a few summers she makes friends, considers her future, and learns how to visually measure and correct the light curves of variable stars. This is a hands-on account of visual astronomy—no CCD cameras or computers. By chance, Kaloyanova discovers a star with a strange pattern of variation, and she goes on to build a career in astronomy so that she can much later add this star to a list to be investigated more rigorously. The story stands out because of its striking contrast: in the midst of pieces featuring the expected levels of advanced technology, Ivanov offers kids at a telescope learning Argelander’s method for visually estimating variable star magnitudes and discussions around picnic tables about making data plots. It’s a heartfelt piece from the experience of a working astronomer, and it rings true.
The technology, setting, and even tone are worlds away from my other favorite piece in this collection, “Defective” by Peter Watts, which offers a more challenging, cynical view of humanity’s connection with alien life. Watts’s story focuses on Ondrej Bohaty, an exolinguist who has succeeded in communicating with various nonhuman species on Earth, including the last surviving killer whale, reshaping his own mind to do so. “Presumably you’d like me to share the secret of my success,” Bohaty relays at one point. “It’s simple: I succeed through surrender. I’ve given up on reshaping nonhuman worldviews into human containers. I reshape myself instead” (p. 430). The correlating fear, however, is that when a true extraterrestrial intelligence is detected and Bohaty is brought in to make contact, he may not have sufficient empathy or loyalty to his own species. This sense of Bohaty’s alienation is strong throughout the piece.
The stakes are high: the nonhuman intelligence with which Bohaty needs to connect is on a completely different scale than our own terrestrial cousins. Higher-dimensional beings called the Agni seem to be launching probes through space, trying to warp into Earth’s sun. No one knows what they want or whether this process will destroy our star. Against the Agni, humanity has become like so many ants trying to react to footsteps coming closer and closer. Bohaty, however, becomes convinced that the Agni are refugees simply looking for a new home. In the midst of this, he realizes his attempts to communicate are simply Plan B for humanity’s primary response: stopping the approaching Agni with a black hole gun.
We built a gun that fires black holes. We did it in less than six years. We never pulled off anything close to that when we were trying to fix the messes we made.” (p. 432)
Watts’s story takes the premise of the anthology—detecting nonhuman life—to its most extreme conclusion: what happens when the human race comes together to decide to defend itself by destroying that life? Bohaty isn’t convinced this is necessary, and he’s tired of humanity’s record of destroying the other life around it, but there’s no way to prove the Agni are benign. Would you risk the possible extinction of humanity just to prevent humanity from extinguishing yet another nonhuman intelligence? That’s the choice Bohaty is forced to make. This short, poignant story cuts like a knife.
The story’s response essay, a primer on detecting life by spectroscopy by Joanna Piotrowska, a PhD student in astrophysics, is technically proficient and succinct but somewhat out of keeping with the dramatic stakes of the story it follows. Watts’s piece leaves the anthology with a ringing question, however: we’re so fixated on detecting life “beyond us,” which almost always (and for most of the stories in this anthology) means life beyond Earth. But what if that life is here already, and we’re just continually distracted because we’re looking for reflections of ourselves and our own technologies beyond our planet? Is keeping our eyes peeled for stars fluctuating in a sequence of primes really the best way to contact life beyond us, as in Ivanov’s piece … or might learning how to talk to whales be the best option—while there are still whales to talk to?