It's one of the chief signifiers of science fiction, the other, the alien, but in literary sf at least, it's a signifier that's fallen out of favour. There are still plenty of aliens in turning up in TV and film sf, and some even escape the cliches of messiah, seemingly unstoppable menace (until they catch a cold or get 419'd), or comedy sidekick. But in literary sf, at least on this side of the Atlantic, where we don't have a tradition of military sf and the need for ravening hordes of easy targets, not so much. Oh, there have been a few, of course. Even some good ones, such as the bleakly inimical gene machines in Peter Watts' Blindsight
, or the cruel and elegantly wasted aristocrats in Gwyneth Jones's Spirit
. But on the whole, they've fallen out of fashion. My first three novels are a case in point. In Four Hundred Billion Stars
, aliens were a tangible presence; a puzzle to be confronted and solved. In Secret Harmonies
(aka Of The Fall
, in the US), they were admonitory presences that may or may not have been intelligent, and died if human beings hung around them for too long. And in Eternal Light
, they'd quit the universe, become as untouchable and about as understandable as angels.
After that, I more or less gave up on the alien business for the next fifteen years, but now I'm giving it serious thought again. It started with a short story, 'Dust', and grew from there into what's more of a scenario than any kind of future history. Just suppose we get one of the things we always thought we'd get in the future, back when the future was still a good place to be travelling towards. Suppose we get easy travel to other planets, right now. Suppose it's a gift from aliens who want to give us a helping hand. It isn't much of a gift - a few cold and dusty and barely habitable planets littered with ancient and mostly useless artifacts, but hey. What do we do with it? How would it change us? Would it change us?
I've been writing a few stories to explore the edges of this frame, but now I'm beginning to think that, after the next novel, I need to go a bit deeper. I need to take a good look at those aliens. What do they want? What are they? Not monsters from our ids, or distorted reflections of ourselves (or of our pets), that's for sure. Maybe in the end they're what they've always been - an articulation of the inhumanness of the universe. Or maybe they are their own selves, just as we are. I think it might be fun to find out.
Meanwhile, just to remind you, you can find one of those stories in my new ebook, City of the Dead.