The five best First Contact novels

You won’t find simplistic and absurdly unlikely views of alien life like this except in some popular films and television, and certainly not in the books reviewed here. This image is from Star Trek: First Contact (1996) Directed by Jonathan Frakes. Shown from left: Alice Krige, Patrick Stewart. Credit: Hollywood Reporter

Since the earliest days of science fiction as an established genre, writers in the field have imagined what has come to be called First Contact with a capital F and a capital C. Most of the early speculation in the so-called Golden Era of Science Fiction (the 1930s and 40s) was laughable. But in more recent times most authors have sought to ground their work in the thinking of scientists rather than fantasists. The result has been a flurry of thought-provoking books and films that raise questions about human existence as well as the prospects for encountering intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

In fact, one remarkable writer himself has produced seventeen standalone novels exploring the concept of First Contact in all its many manifestations. (More books are on the way.) His name is Peter Cawdron. He’s a New Zealander-turned-Australian. I’m in the process of reading all the novels in his series and will report on them in a separate post in the near future. Meanwhile, I’m including below only [two] of the best examples of his work.

Below you’ll find two lists. In the first, I’m listing the five best First Contact novels I’ve read and reviewed. The second list includes all the novels I’ve read and reviewed here in this genre (with the exception of most of Cawdron’s). The books are arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names, and each is linked to my review.

The five best First Contact novels

Semiosis (Semiosis Duology #1) by Sue Burke

Published 2018. 326 pages ★★★★★ — Can plants think? These colonists on an alien world learn the answer the hard way.

Why is it, do you think, that animals are capable of thought, and plants aren’t? Or are they? Certainly, many aspects of plant behavior suggest conscious action. And at least one scientist, Daniel Chamovitz, director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University, “argues [that a plant] can see, smell and feel. It can mount a defense when under siege, and warn its neighbors of trouble on the way. A plant can even be said to have a memory.” And whether any of this means that plants can think is the subject of Chamovitz’s book, What a Plant Knows. The book was reviewed in 2012 in Scientific American. Now, author and translator Sue Burke takes the argument several steps further in her unique first contact story, Semiosis. Read more.

Dawn (Xenogenesis Trilogy #1) by Octavia E. Butler

Published 1987. 310 pages ★★★★★ — A science fiction novel that illuminates the human condition

A young woman named Lilith awakens from suspended animation into one of the most convincingly alien worlds in the genre. She is confined within a small, all-white room with neither windows nor a door. The light is bright and constant. At intervals, bowls of food extrude from one of the walls. At length, a disembodied voice speaks to her in English, growing silent when she asks a question it declines to answer. When the speaker finally is revealed, Lilith is repulsed. The creature that has materialized in the corner of the room is indescribably ugly to her eyes. This is how Dawn opens, and if anything the story grows stranger by the page. When Lilith finally begins to encounter other human beings, the sparks quickly begin to fly. After a slow start, the action builds to a crescendo, setting the scene for its sequels in the Xenogenesis Trilogy. Read more.

Wherever Seeds May Fall by Peter Cawdron

Published 2021. 517 pages ★★★★★ — One surprise after another in this brilliant First Contact novel

It seems unlikely to me that anyone, anywhere, has thought longer or harder about First Contact than Peter Cawdron. In his fifteenth standalone novel on the theme, the gifted Australian science fiction author poses yet one more solution to the Fermi Paradox. “In the summer of 1950,” Cawdron explains, “while sitting around a table having lunch, physicist Enrico Fermi casually asked his colleagues, ‘Where is everyone?‘ . . . He understood that, given the sheer size of the universe, there should be other intelligent species out there . . . so where were they?” In Wherever Seeds May Fall, Cawdron offers up a novel explanation for The Great Silence that’s sure to surprise. Get ready for humankind’s first encounter with extraterrestrial life. Read more.

Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Published 1973. 288 pages ★★★★★ — Arthur C. Clarke’s believable First Contact novel

Rendezvous With Rama is one of a handful of novels that’s most likely to be found on any list of science fiction classics. Though the book was published in 1973, it’s well worth reading (or rereading) today. The story successfully creates a profound sense of awe that reflects a truly imaginative view of how alien intelligence might manifest itself. Unlike the bug-eyed monsters of the old space operas, the First Contact with intelligence in Rendezvous With Rama is actually believable. Read more.

Tomorrow’s Kin (Yesterday’s Kin Trilogy #1) by Nancy Kress

Published 2017. 350 pages ★★★★★ — Hard science fiction doesn’t get much better than this

In most First Contact stories, human meets alien, and then something happens. Whether the aliens are evil or benign, the tale centers on whatever happens in their interaction. That’s not the case in Tomorrow’s Kin, the first volume in Nancy Kress’s engrossing Yesterday’s Kin Trilogy. The contact between Terrans and Denebs in the novel is obviously key to the story. But this is hard sci-fi about evolutionary biology. Science is central to the tale. And the book focuses squarely on the psychology of the Terrans involved — and mostly on the relationships within a single family. Read more.

All the best First Contact novels I’ve reviewed

Interference (Semiosis Duology #2) by Sue Burke — Humans, intelligent plants, brilliant insects, and that’s not all!

Neptune Crossing (Chaos Chronicles #1) by Jeffrey A. Carver — Chaos theory triggers an interplanetary adventure

3zekiel (First Contact #10) by Peter CawdronA thoughtful treatment of First Contact in this new sci-fi novel

Wherever Seeds May Fall by Peter CawdronOne surprise after another in this brilliant First Contact novel

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky ChambersAn excellent hard science fiction novella from Becky Chambers

Skywave (Rorschach Explorer #1) by K. Patrick Donoghue — A private space company threatens a decades-long government coverup

Axiom’s End (Noumena #1) by Lindsay Ellis — First Contact is old news in this sci-fi thriller

The Visitor: First Contact Hard Science Fiction by Tony Harmsworth — What happens after First Contact

Remnant Population by Elizabeth MoonAlien encounters of the strange kind in a captivating sci-fi novel

Transmission (Invasion Chronicles #1) by Morgan RiceA YA novel about first contact that’s . . . well, childish

Saturn Run by John Sandford and CteinFirst Contact: Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind

First Encounter by Jasper T. Scott — Hostile First Contact in this promising prequel to a new sci-fi series

Exigency by Michael Siemsen — Scientists explore a planet with two sentient species

The Last Astronaut by David Wellington — In a classic First Contact novel, astronauts meet . . . something very strange

Blind Lake by Robert Charles WilsonAn award-winning sci-fi novelist writes a disappointing book

Spin (Spin Trilogy #1) by Robert Charles Wilson — A Big History of the future in this popular visionary science fiction novel

I might add an excellent story that is only in part what might be called a First Contact novel: The Forge of God (Forge of God #1) by Greg Bear — Greg Bear’s powerful tale of interstellar conflict

For further reading

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