Thursday, September 8, 2011

Radio: First Contact (Dimension X)

This story marked something of a milestone in the treatment of aliens, and human interaction therewith. Typically in science fiction, intelligent alien races tended to fall into a few categories: older but decadent races (most typical of stories about Mars); younger and savage races (frequently seen on Venus); and slavering, rapacious monsters, come to conquer us (from just about everywhere else). In "First Contact," however, Leinster shows us an alien race just as sophisticated and reasonable as we are, with similar goals. Humans and aliens meet while both are engaged in peaceful exploration. They can't be sure of each other, but they can understand each other. They're even similar enough that, in the story, the aliens laugh at our dirty jokes. Moral: people are the same all over, even if they're aliens.

I can't help thinking that this has something to do with the specific period it comes from. "First Contact" originally appeared in the May 1945 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. World War II was about to end in Europe. Although the Soviet Union had been thought by many through the 1920's and 30's to be utterly inimical to the West, they had been the unlikely allies of the United States for several years. If there was any period that was right for the feeling that two peoples, no matter how alien to each other, could reach an understanding, this might have been it: when the Axis was all but beaten, and the Cold War had yet to begin. It was the same window of hope that gave birth to the United Nations.

Where I'm going with this is that if this is the point of the story, it helps to excuse the major failing of the story, which is that the aliens just aren't very... alien. In 1934, Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" appeared in Wonder Stories. It featured the memorably alien Tweel. He and a human learned to communicate, after a fashion, and work together. However, the human never did figure out some quirks of alien thinking, such as how the same object, including Tweel himself, could have a bewildering variety of different names at unpredictable times. By comparison, Leinster's aliens in this story might as well be from around the block... or, you know, from around the world.

Sorry about the occasional annoying popping. I tried out an anti-popping filter on it, but it didn't work.

Here's where I get to the spoileriffic stuff. "First Contact" is a classic story, and I enjoy it a lot, but frankly, I've never quite understood the logic of the ending. The story has the same standoff as the radio script, and for the same reason, but has a very different resolution: the two crews agree to destroy all records and disable all sensors that will allow either ship to follow the other, or find its home base. Then, to make sure neither crew cheats, they exchange ships. The two crews split up and go home.

Now, that makes some sense, in isolation. The problem is that, earlier in the story, Leinster emphasized how unlikely it would be for two spacefaring races to be contemporaries, technologically speaking. One would almost inevitably be far in advance of the other. So how is exchanging ships an answer? Isn't one race giving the other a golden opportunity to catch up? Granted, they don't seem to know yet, when they switch ships, which race is the more advanced, but should either be willing to take the chance?

Script writer Howard Rodman could have avoided this problem by changing either the situation or the solution. As it happened, he did both: the crews keep their own ships, and he never gives us a reason to think them anything but technological equals. Interestingly, he also makes the ending rather inconclusive, with the humans worried they've been had, and uncertain if it's safe to go home. This is quite a change from Leinster's ending, which cleanly cuts the story's Gordian knot. It's surprising to find a Dimension X adaptation with a more complex ending than the published story. Perhaps again, it was the zeitgeist of the real world creeping in: in 1951, reaching understanding with an "alien race" didn't seem quite so simple, trust quite so easy, the future quite so bright, as it had six years earlier.

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