Astronomers recently discovered a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our solar system. The planet appears to be roughly Earth-sized, and orbits the star at a distance that makes liquid water possible.
While we don’t know much about our newly-spotted neighbor, discoveries like this always excite me. Partly because I’m a huge nerd, but partly because I’m a librarian. Let me explain.
You probably know that the Dewey Decimal system organizes books by assigning a number to each subject, starting with “general knowledge” in the 000s and going all the way up to history in the 900s. What you may not know is that way at the end of the Dewey range is a number that isn’t really used yet: 999 – The History of Extraterrestrial Worlds.
See, the thing about history, as the Dewey Decimal system defines it, is that it can only be created by thinking beings. As far as librarians are concerned, everything that’s ever happened on every planet besides Earth is some combination of astronomy, geology, meteorology, and robotics.
That’s going to change when one of two things happens: either humans will set foot on Mars, and start creating history there, or astronomers will find evidence of intelligence on other planet. There will be a flood of books by scientists, scholars, pundits and crackpots, all trying to fit this astonishing new development into the context of the human story, all trying to figure out what it means for our future and our definition of what it means to be human.
Alone among all the turmoil, the librarians will know just what to do.
We’ve been waiting for this.
With that in mind, here are some of the best books I’ve read about first contact with aliens:
Contact by Carl Sagan
Well, clearly. Armed with all the science and philosophy he picked up working with the Voyager Project and teaching the world about the universe in Cosmos, Sagan created a science fiction novel that is incredibly imaginative and at the same time consistently believable.
Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi
The good news: aliens are here, and they’re friendly. The bad news: they’re hideously ugly and smell like rotting fish. They know that before they land on the White House lawn, they’re going to need some advice on how to present themselves to humanity in the most positive light possible. And who better to spin an unfortunate image than a legendary Hollywood agent?
Earth Unaware by Orson Scott Card
In Card’s classic novel Ender’s Game, humanity is going on the offensive after barely surviving two wars against an implacable, inscrutable alien enemy. In the first book of a new trilogy, Card is going back and telling the story of those two wars, starting with the everyday struggles of a family of miners living on a spaceship in the asteroid belt.
Saturn Run by John Sandford
When an unknown object is spotted heading toward Saturn and decelerating in a way no natural object could, humanity realizes that they are not alone. Now the race is on, as the United States and China push human technology to the breaking point in a race to reach Saturn and claim the alien object for themselves. A good old-fashioned hard science fiction story with a political twist.
A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias
When intelligent life is discovered living in an extraterrestrial ocean under a kilometer of ice, you can expect common ground to be a little hard to find. Things start off fine: as long as humans don’t disturb the local habitat of the aquatic Illmatarans, they’re free to explore and study as they wish. However, the strange murder of a famous explorer at the hands of the aliens leads to mounting tensions that threaten to break out into war.