People roll their eyes at books about aliens as most of them only have enough imagination to picture bug eyed monsters invading the planet with ray guns. Personally, I think science fiction books about aliens are some of the most imaginative and fascinating stories out there. I'm not going to argue that you do get lazy writers who just use the usual tropes and run with them, but there are also a few that really manage to capture the essence of first contact with a species that is utterly alien to our way of thinking. These are the ones that I think are the absolute best and I will try my best to explain why.
I'll start with my absolute favorite, which is "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. It is a novella that you can find in the second volume of the Starlight series or in "Stories of Your Life and Others." The story recently got a movie adaptation from one of my all time favorite directors, Denis Villeneuve, who called it Arrival. The pace of this story is a lot slower than what people expect from books that involve aliens, but reading about how humans are trying to figure out how to communicate with extraterrestrial beings in order to discern whether their arrival is peaceful or not is riveting stuff. There is also a lot of very deep stuff happening in the tale, which I'm not going to spoil because I don't want to rob anyone of the feeling you get when the penny finally drops.
The next book is one from Ben Bova, which is titled "Jupiter." It is part of his Grand Tour series and it is about a young astrophysicist who has to spend a mandatory four years on a space station near Jupiter as part of his public service. His orders are to spy on the other scientists who are onboard the station as there are rumors about the discovery of life in the liquid ocean in Jupiter's core. This book is a great example of humans encountering aliens in a way that is completely plausible. The focus is more on human drama, but it really is a terrific book.
The Forge of God by Greg Bear is another favorite of mine and unlike the typical alien invasion books where humans fight back valiantly, in this one our planet is just annihilated by an overwhelmingly powerful foe. Some humans are rescued from the destruction by another alien race, which is where things get really interesting. This book was followed by one called "Anvil of Stars" and both of them come highly recommended if you want to read a slightly different take on the usual alien invasion trope.
I'll finish things off with Eater by Gregory Benford. Be warned, this is a hard science fiction novel, but trust me that if you commit to this one you will not be able to stop reading. It explores the question that what if the aliens heading in our direction are not little green men in space ships, but a massive cosmic being in the shape of a black hole. This is terrifying enough, but when this black hole actually starts sending messages to Earth that it would like to converse, things become even freakier. I'm not going to say more, but the title of this book should be a good indication of what is to come.
There has already been so many great suggestions, so I'll just add a couple of quick ones. The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God by Mary Doria Russell are about the discovery of intelligent life near Alpha Centauri. Humanity eventually narrows the source of the music down to a planet called Rakhat and the crew that is sent over to investigate is organized by the Society of Jesus. They obviously include a Jesuit priest in the mission and I'm sure everyone can guess what happens next.
Staying with the theme of missionaries, there is The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. Once again a missionary is sent off to a new planet in order to spread the gospel to the aliens who reside there.
Lilith's Brood is another good book about aliens and first contact. It is also the only book that I know about where the aliens actually want to interbreed with humans in an effort to form a whole new species.
I also have a weak spot for books with aliens and to me movies or television shows just can't compare in this regard. Whenever I see aliens in movies or television shows they inevitably look human-like because they are basically people in makeup and costumes or fake as well because they are CGI. There are some notable exceptions, such as the xenomorphs from the Alien movies, but for the rest I think books are the best, especially if authors have vivid enough descriptions so you can paint your own mental pictures.
My favorite books about aliens are from the Known Space series by Larry Niven and his novella, Neutron Star, in particular. In the story he describes the most bizarre and improbably race of aliens ever, Pierson's Puppeteers. These aliens only have three fit, two in the front and one in the back and two snake like heads that sprout from their bodies. Each of these two heads only have one eye, but their actual brains are in their bodies and not these heads. Since they don't have any form of hands or arms (they have hooves on their feet), they have to use their mouths instead. To help them with this, their lips are rubbery and have knobs that they use like fingers. Oh, and to top it all off, they communicate with what sounds like orchestral music, but can also speak to humans after contact was made. I could go on and on about these fascinating aliens, but I would suggest reading the books to find out more about them.
The funniest book of this type that I have ever read is one called Quotzl by Alan Dean Foster. The aliens in this book basically look similar to our rabbits, but because they own world is heavily overpopulated, they have been sent out on colony ships to other worlds. Eventually they arrive on our planet, but try their best to avoid any and all contact with the violent humans that reside here. Instead, they set up a secret colony in the Rocky Mountains. I read this book when I was quite young (I believe it came out in the late eighties), so to my eyes the aliens were quite cute and lovable. But, when I recently re-read the book I found that the aliens were not quite as innocent as they seem. They have managed to overcome their violent tendencies, but their intentions with us earthlings are not entirely benevolent. Quotzl is well worth a read if you want a chuckle.
Oh, and I can't believe that nobody has mentioned it yet, but I would consider 2001 A Space Odyssey to fit into this category as well. In the story the aliens have made contact with our ancestors millions of years ago already and were directly responsible for them developing tools. So what this basically means is that it was contact with aliens that caused humanity to become intelligent.
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