The Blue Sphere, and Other Tales of First Contact
Ranks...with "Rendezvous with Rama"
$14.95; 325 pages
pub. by Lakeside Press, Cleveland
Book Review by James McGee, New York Times
Boris Iglov moved to suburban Washington from his native Russia in 1980, at age 3. As a youth he regularly visited the Air & Space Museum, where his passion for post-Sputnik flight blossomed. When
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Annex
opened near Washington Dulles International Airport in 2003 he went there so often he was invited to become a docent. "As a kid my passion was space, the planets, the universe," he says. Though he majored in business administration (go figure) Iglov began writing science fiction as a freshman at Georgetown. This was SF of the old-fashioned type -- space and spaceships, other-world colonies, the stuff of
Not deep, but not all Buck Rogers either.
Iglov hit mainstream with The Blue Sphere, a novella published in Space Fiction Magazine 5 years ago. Its theme: human reaction and behavior when aliens make their presence known in a rather subtle way. Do we even believe the signs of first contact, and if so, does it lead to any fundamental change in philosphy or religion or politics? He won the Gartner prize for "Sphere", and people began to see him as perhaps the next Asimov or
Heinlein. He became a staple at Sci Fi cons, while keeping his day (and current) job as director of the Kennedy Space Center museum and public attractions. Two more novellas followed, all with a similar theme of 'first contact'. They contain less science than sociology, psychology and philosophy, though each describes in detail the method by which "they" contact "us." The 3 novellas, plus a 4th previously-unpublished work, constitute this book.
The blue sphere, if you haven't guessed it by now, is the earth. It first shows up as a detailed holographic image in front of the giant radio telescope at Green Bank, West Virginia. This telescope is part of the SETI
(Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) network. Diverse SETI instruments throughout the world send electromagnetic transmissions to distant star systems, and receive them as well. Searching the skies for signs of other-world intelligence has been on-going for decades. So far - no surprise here - we've only picked up space static. Various communication languages have been tried for sending messages, such as binary code and prime numbers, the latter proposed by
Carl Sagan. Sagan, a brilliant astronomer who died in 1996, was author of
Contact, made into a popular movie with Jodie Foster.
The chances of intelligent life in our galaxy receiving and then responding to earth messages is infinitesimal, at least in a single lifetime. That doesn't keep scientists from trying -- and hoping. One night a 2 ft. wide blue sphere appears suspended in the air just at the point where the radio telescope waves focus to shoot messages into space. Visually the hologram looks like the earth - you can make out the continents. And it rotates, just like earth. And it shows the clouds and storms. The first astronomers to examine the sphere have an epiphany - it is the earth, in real time! And not just half, as may be seen any point out in space, but the whole sphere. Is this a hoax beamed by foreign-controlled satellites? (It would take more than one.) After all, hologram technology has been around for decades, and beaming images from human-made and -controlled satellites is not, prima facie, impossible. Predictably, science gurus weigh in on the nightly talk shows. (Why can't that chatter be sent to outer space? But I digress.)
With more investigation it becomes increasingly clear that the blue sphere represents a truly advanced technology, at least to people who view the evidence objectively. That leaves out a wide band doubters. Just as Sagan's "contact" was an elaborate hoax, many see the sphere as a giant publicity stunt. Iglov masterfully blends the science and psychology to draw the reader in until the denouement. The sphere morphs into something definitely not an earthly hoax. In the end, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose,
Perhaps as to be expected in a sci-fi novella, characters are only superficially developed. There's the West Virginia head of SETI, the government skeptic, the president -- but as a science fiction work it ranks right up there with Arthur C. Clarke's
Rendezvous with Rama.
The second novella has a similar theme (first contact) but the "first contact" is much more in your face. There's no argument that the 1/2 mile high 50 sq-yard slab of metal planted overnight into an Iowa corn field is alien. It was not there at sundown, the night turns dark and stormy, and it's fist glimpsed by farmers who call (who else?) the local sheriff. By mid morning a 25-square mile area around the slab is secured by the U.S Army, CNN is broadcasting non-stop and billions of people are glued to the TV. To watch - what? Nothing is happening and everyone is pontificating. Helicopter views show a flat top, with no entrance into the slab. The brave helicopter pilots land on the top and the world holds its collective breath. But there's no way in - if there is even an inside. There is also no radio or sound waves or radiation coming from the slab. It's all pretty benign, except that the force behind the slab may not be. Is it a a message from God? From Alpha Centauri? From another galaxy altogether? It's whatever you want it to be, only the slab's not talking. At least not in that fateful first day, when opinions form and solidify. And there are skeptics who think the whole thing is a mirage, not unlike the
moon landing conspiracy theorists. Bumper stickers appear proclaiming
Don't believe Iowa: you can
The metal skin is silvery, sort of like titanium but stronger, and only when a tiny fleck is removed for analysis - not without some effort - is the obvious confirmed. It's not of this earth. The premise is fascinating. The aliens have sent a talisman -- or are they inside and the metal is their spaceship? Or is the slab itself the intelligence? All very intriguing, but how to resolve the story? One thing you should know about Iglov's tales -- no one is going to wake up and say it's all a dream. What you see is real in real time, and people have to deal with it. How they do so is Iglov's story.
Not all alien visitations start off benignly. In the 3rd novella -- "No Place to Visit" -- the first contact is not friendly to organic species. Are the microbes sent to earth out to destroy us or just to collect information? If the latter, couldn't the aliens just send out a questionnaire? Or, why not just tap into our smart phones? But here I'm thinking like a human, not an alien, and who knows how they think? Alien contact in popular media is usually fixated on humanoids like the cute ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, spaceships (War of the Worlds,
The Day the Earth Stood Still, Independence Day) or monsters (Aliens). That's good for movies, but Iglov posits first contact could be far more subtle. After all, if they get here at all they must be a lot smarter than us. Put another way, perhaps they have us all figured out and aren't going to take any chance of being zapped by our primitive weapons.
The 4th novella -- "Bulldozer" -- is the most unsettling. The first three stories relate to a first contact made by something tangible: a 2-foot hologram, a 1/2 mile high metal slab, a microscopic bit of molecular engineering. In Bulldozer the first sign is a communication picked up by radio astronomers -- a broadcast message of sorts. Absent the satire, it is remindful of Doug Adams'
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe, in which the message about earth's imminent destruction "has been posted on [a distant planet] for the last 50 years." Funny. But what if there was a similar message to earth, not in a gruff voiceover but from high energy pulses we read as binary code. "Warning! Leave Now! Your planet has been condemned!" Not funny. But is it real? And what does "now" mean anyway? In geologic time it could be 1 million years and in insect time, 1 second. All countries have a common enemy, or so it seems, and every reason to put aside differences. What ensues after first contact, and why unity is so hard to come by, make up Iglov's story.
In these novellas I found it interesting that not a single 'popular culture' alien appears: no pointy ears, no little green men, no giant lizards. This is the thinking man's (and woman's) First Contact; it may be subtle, it may be deadly, it may be gargantuan, but it likely won't be an unidentified flying object. This book is not about UFO's. It's about real first contact, and how humans react, ideas fascinating to contemplate. One thing for sure: after reading this book I am in no hurry to meet intelligent life from other planets.
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