Skyward Inn, within the high walls of the Western Protectorate, is a place of safety, where people come together to tell stories of the time before the war with Qita. But safety from what? Qita surrendered without complaint when Earth invaded and innkeepers Jem and Isley, veterans from either side, have regrets but few scars.
However, their peace is disturbed when a visitor known to Isley comes to the inn asking for help, bringing reminders of an unnerving past and triggering an uncertain future. Did humanity really win the war?
An unsettling strange yet evocative piece of literary fiction, Skyward Inn will lure you in like a warm pub on a winter’s day… only to shock you with immense body horror and surprising twists…
In our latest author guest blog, Skyward Inn author Aliya Whiteley writes about alien interaction, first contact, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Mars Attacks!
So much talking, so little understanding. That’s an old complaint, but it certainly finds relevance in the digital age, where it feels like so many of us are all talking at once – and for what purpose? Is real communication ever achieved?
If that’s a question we ask ourselves about humanity, it can’t come as any surprise to find it also intrigues many science fiction writers when it comes to describing human/alien interaction. There’s something so satisfying about addressing it in a novel, which is surely an (always doomed?) attempt to create perfect communication. The writer tries to put their thoughts and images directly into the head of the reader; it’s a weirdness worthy of an alien race, when you think about it.
I don’t know if we could ever achieve complete understanding with creatures from another planet, or even between everyone on this planet, but that goal inspires me. And inspiration also comes from the thoughts and images that other creators have planted in my mind. Cinematic and literary, written and visual, here’s a look at some of the works that have really communicated with me over the years.
We’re Over Here!
That moment of intense wonder, of world-shaking fear. The attempt to reach out across an unimaginable divide to find something in common.
I’m obsessed with stories of first contact. There’s something so striking about the images it conjures, so perhaps it’s no surprise that so many tales on the subject have also made great films, with Arrival (based on Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life) and Carl Sagans’s Contact coming strongly to mind.
My own first contact with the idea of the first contact was purely cinematic; Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind captured my imagination, and led to a lot of mashed-potato shaping at the dinner table for a while. Music was used so beautifully as the key to understanding, and that’s certainly an idea that has shaped my own first contact novel, Skyward Inn. Forms of communication can vary wildly in this genre. In fact, the more unlikely the form, the better, because these stories are not about aliens at all. They’re about the internal journey of the protagonist to find a way to communicate, and achieve an inner peace. Spielberg’s hero is the perfect example of this; he can’t get his own family to understand his need. But when he reaches the aliens, he achieves a whole new level of communication with them – something humanity could not offer. The aliens are only a way to complete a human journey.
Such stories are not guaranteed a happy ending, but that doesn’t matter. The journey is everything. Sometimes the distances are geographically vast, and the relationships we make on the way are all-important, such as in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. And sometimes the distance is indescribable, inexplicable. Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, or the Strugasky brothers’ Roadside Picnic come to mind. Recently, MT Hill’s The Breach tied together urban exploration, abandoned spaces, with a first contact story as atmospheric as it is surprising. But I think my favourite might be Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. After travelling through space so far, a crew finds an intelligence that is not interested in anything but their past. It is a blank mirror into which they must stare. It’s a wonderful subversion of first contact, turning it into enforced proximity with those you left behind. We can’t escape being human, after all.
Yes, We’re Still Here
Alas, the excitement of a new relationship always wears off. Things settle down, and everyone has to learn to get along day by day, or light year by light year if we’re talking about interplanetary differences. How can many creatures from many planets manage to communicate effectively? Some authors solve it easily, without fuss – Doctor Who’s TARDIS will translate everything, or the Babel fish will do the hard work for you in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novel; simply pop it in your ear, and off you go. You have to wonder how much gets translated accurately by these devices…
Beyond instant and wishful solutions, there are real linguistic challenges to long-term communication that are inextricably linked to issues of land, culture and identity. China Mieville’s Embassytown gives us a colonised city where nearly all non-indigenous life forms are incapable of speaking the layered, demanding language at all. It plays with the connection between thought and intention, making it a must-read for those interested in linguistics.
If a group of aliens adopts a human language (before even dealing with the question of which one!), are they always subjugated by the demands of that language, or could they use it to their own advantage? The question of whether a human/alien relationship could ever be equal lies behind a trilogy of books that has been a huge influence on me – Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series. The alien Oankali cultivate a relationship with humanity for their own benefit, effectively grooming them to accept a close bond. They speak our language softly, with great care, like parents talking to children. Generations pass in the Xenogenesis trilogy before we can begin to decide whether the human/alien relationship has a chance of attaining equality.
I love books that find revelation in the passage of time, and stories that explore the growth of human colonists to new planets can do this so well. Sue Burke’s Semiosis described an arrival on planets in which every ounce of understanding must be painstakingly achieved. The goal here is not in the short-term moment of first landing, but through the centuries, as settlers reproduce, and each generation must overcome new challenges before they can feel they’ve achieved a perfect communion with their home.
We’re Learning to Live Together (or are we?)
If long-term integration of many cultures, alien and human, were to be the goal, how could that be achieved? I think this is one of the hardest questions that a writer can attempt to answer. If there are no easy solutions in life, how can there be any on the page, or onscreen?
Ursula Le Guin will always be one of my favourite writers for addressing this in a focussed way that disarms you with its honesty. Both The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, for instance, have many things to say about this subject, and her approach could be said to be an answer in itself – if we strive for truthfulness in all our dealings, maybe that will overcome each barrier, one by one. It’s a difficult path to walk.
Iain M Banks offers a different approach. His Culture novels suggest a future in which one artificially created language has been adopted by all worlds within his multi-planetary society so that no one world has a native advantage over another. I love those books for showing how interacting in different languages can change civilizations over time, and fundamentally underpin the society they become. If humans and aliens agreed to speak an entirely new language in negotiations, we can only begin to imagine how that might transform us all.
Such a step would require levels of good faith worthy of Le Guin, and my mind keep returning to a different vision of first contact: the film Mars Attacks! As the aliens land, and it becomes painfully clear that their only intention is to destroy humanity, they master only one concept in communication designed to make the job much easier. They lie. ‘We Come in Peace!’ their translation unit announces, as they start to disintegrate everyone they can find. Is it just me, or is that approach very… human?