The best first-contact novels for science fiction fans and the uninitiated

Nick DiChario Author Of A Small and Remarkable Life
By Nick DiChario

The Books I Picked & Why


By Carl Sagan

Book cover of Contact

Why this book?

Carl Sagan was a planetary scientist I adored in my youth for popularizing science and firmly believing that life exists outside our solar system. Contact, published in 1985, is the one and only novel he wrote in his career. It's a compelling story about what a very realistic first-contact experience might look like if we earthlings were to discover a signal originating from far beyond our solar system. Who could have sent it? And what could they want? Set in contemporary times, and filled with science-loving, nerdy characters, the book struck a chord with a wide swath of readers (not just sci-fi fans) to become an international bestseller. It would eventually hit the big screen with a film starring Jodie Foster. But read the book first!

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By Frederik Pohl

Book cover of Gateway

Why this book?

Published in 1977, this is one of the first science fiction novels I fell head-over-heels in love with when I started exploring the genre. I'm surprised at how well the novel stands up today. Gateway is a space station abandoned long ago by a technologically superior race of aliens called the Heechee, who leave behind their galaxy-hopping spaceships for us to marvel over. As it turns out, we learn just enough about these ships to make us dangerous. Pohl's story is about luck (good and bad), the divide between the rich and the poor, and the fragility of the human heart. While the novel is beloved by science fiction fans the world over, the prose is extremely accessible to all readers, and it would be a great place to start for anyone who wants to dip a toe into the genre.

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Roadside Picnic: Volume 16

By Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Olena Bormashenko

Book cover of Roadside Picnic: Volume 16

Why this book?

This is a terrifically inventive novel first published in 1972, written by two Russian brothers, and translated into many languages since then. I love the premise: One day, alien visitors swing by Earth just long enough to dump a bunch of garbage in different locations around the globe. A kind of weirdo economy crops up in the wastelands they leave behind, where people prospect among the strange and sometimes lethal alien objects, searching for treasures, looking for tiny miracles, and hoping to make their dreams come true. The book is clever, high on satire, and a commentary equally as much about Soviet Russia as the oddities of human nature, making it a wonderful experience for readers of all kinds. (The 1979 film Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, is based loosely on this book.)

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The Martian Chronicles

By Ray Bradbury

Book cover of The Martian Chronicles

Why this book?

This is one of my favorite books of any genre, anywhere, any time. Bradbury was a marvelous writer with an unstoppable imagination whose short stories appeared regularly in science fiction publications, mystery magazines, and places such as The Saturday Evening Post, Harper's, and The New Yorker. In The Martian Chronicles, he tells the tale of the rise and fall of human civilization and our attempts to colonize Mars and make nice with the Martians. Like many science fiction stories published in the 1950s, Bradbury touches on themes of nuclear annihilation and the dangers of militarism, but he does it through short vignettes, on a very personal level, where each chapter is a story unto itself. It's a timeless book that will resonate deeply and may hang with you for a lifetime as it has for me. (After you read the book, check out the miniseries, starring Rock Hudson, from 1980.)

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Star Maker

By Olaf Stapledon

Book cover of Star Maker

Why this book?

I decided I couldn't write a list like this without at least one classic. I could have recommended H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds (1898), the mother of all first contacts, but just about everyone already knows the story, even non-sci-fi folks. Instead, I'll recommend Olaf Stapledon, an early 20th Century British philosopher, who isn't satisfied with just one first contact. How about thousands? In Star Maker, published in 1937, he travels the galaxies telepathically, discovering intelligent life everywhere, strangely familiar and unfamiliar beings, as he searches for the ultimate creator, the Star Maker. The scope of this book is as sprawling as the ideas and the lifeforms he reveals during his journey. It might not be for everyone, but it's a philosophical and intellectual challenge for those willing to take it on. You won't find a novel written like this nowadays. You have to read it to believe it.

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