Books about communicating with aliens

So, Martha Wells has a post up at Five books about exploring and communicating with alien cultures.

What a great topic, right? I mean, it instantly catches MY eye, for sure.

Martha Wells picked these five titles:

Leviathan’s Deep by Jayge Carr. I read this several times years ago. I really loved it and I’m sure I still have my copy. Now I really want to re-read it. It’s from the pov of one of the aliens — their world has more or less been conquered by humans, and we see everything from their perspective. Carr flipped gender roles for her species, but imo she did cheat a bit. But maybe not. Anyway, well worth checking it out if you’ve never read it and you’re into alien species and the interface between humans and aliens.

Survivor by Octavia E Butler. If I remember correctly, this was not one of Butler’s personal favorites and she refused to re-issue it. On the other hand, I loved it and read it to pieces. It has a problematical relationship in it . . . but this is Butler, who managed to pull it off. At least imo.

The Pride of Chanur by CJC. Of course. You could hardly leave that one out of a list of this kind. Space opera adventure! With complicated politics and some of the best aliens anywhere in SF.

Hellspark by Janet Kagan. Yes! So pleased to see this book get a mention. As a murder mystery, not the very most mysterious imo. But as a novel about communication and the interface between humans and aliens, it’s hard to beat. Two different kinds of aliens, if you count the AI, who is super charming and one of the best characters in the story.


Uhura’s Song by Janet Kagan. I agree again. This is a wonderful Star Trek tie-in novel, one of my very very favorites, and the communication-with-aliens aspect is certainly central to the story. Not only does Kagan do a good job capturing the feel of the standard Star Trek characters, which I could never do, but she also introduces a wonderful new one-off character just for this book.

I should mention that Kagan’s third book — these were unfortunately the only three she ever wrote as far as I know — Mirabile, a set of linked novellas, is also a lot of fun, although only sorta-kinda believable from a genetics standpoint.

Anyway, then Wells finishes off with:

A Judgment of Dragons by Phyllis Gotlieb. I have never read this one, but considering the company it’s keeping, plainly I must rectify this immediately. It’s not available on Kindle, but it is in paper, so whatever, that’s my TBR shelves are for.

Okay! Moving on from Wells’ suggestions, let me add to this list:

Cuckoo’s Egg by CJC. If you are interested in alien species and human-alien communication, this is a must-read standalone short novel.

The Faded Sun trilogy by CJC. I’m not so sure mri are THAT alien. One might have written that book and made them a human population and I’m not sure it would have changed anything much. But, still, they’re supposed to be alien. Plus there are the regul.

The Foreigner series by CJC. Hello? Communication? Between humans and aliens? This is that.

Okay, okay, who besides Cherryh? How about —

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. Breq is not human. This series counts.

Chess With a Dragon by David Gerrold. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I remember liking this book quite a bit.

Spacepaw by Gordon Dickson. I was never a huge Dickson fan, but I liked this one and thought the aliens — bear-like — were surprisingly well done.

Startide Rising by David Brin. Dolphins are alien.

Okay, anybody else have one I missed? Toss it in the comments, please!

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18 thoughts on “Books about communicating with aliens”

  1. (oops)
    …isn’t human but she’s part of a human culture.

    Since you mentioned Butler, her Xenogenesis trilogy comes to mind, though I didn’t actually enjoy reading it.

    Brin’s The Uplift War is an even better example than Startide Rising, since there’s genuinely alien tymbrimi in major roles as well as the uplifted chimps.

    You would think that Larry Niven would have done more with this notion, but I think it’s a subordinate theme when it shows up — e.g. Protector isn’t really about communicating with the Pak, who don’t have much of a culture anyway; Ringworld focuses a lot more on the physical setting than the aliens and semi-humans. The Mote in God’s Eye is an example, though.

  2. Ooh! Yes! Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy — which I liked a lot — definitely counts. I’m sure you’re right about The Uplift War; I think I tend to conflate the two books and feel like they were all one big work. I agree about Niven and . . . in fact I’m not sure I ever read The Mote in God’s Eye.

    I dunno. Breq is pretty darn nonhuman. Suppose she was a single very long-lived alien who had been living in a human society for a couple hundred years and was part of society; wouldn’t she still count as an alien?

  3. If there were hundreds of other aliens just like her, with a recognized and important place in the society? No, I’m standing my ground on this one. There’s a lot of culture clash in the book, but both Radch (sp?) and non-R are human.

    Continuing to play off your list, Uhura’s Song reminds me of John M. Ford’s The Final Reflection.

  4. David Brin’s second Uplift Trilogy (starting with BRIGHTNESS REEF) has even more interesting aliens, including a bunch of kids from different alien species who hang around together.

  5. Ooh, Faded Sun is wonderful. So is 40,000 in Gehenna. So is Downbelow Station. So is Chanur. I still bounce off Foreigner.

    And yes Mote in God’s Eye. Best by far of that specific genre.

    How about Ursula LeGuin?

  6. Oh, how could I forget: Eleanor Arnason is another like LeGuin: not-quite-human aliens visited by anthropologists. Very, very good.

  7. Connie Willis Short Stories: “Spice Pogrom” and “All Seated on the Ground.”

  8. The first one that comes to mind for me is The Sparrow by Maria Dora Russel – Jesuits making first contact with an alien culture.

    Future Boston by David Alexander Smith is pretty uneven, but had some neat bits about alien cultures & human misunderstandings with them. You’re never supposed to agree to any tests The Bishop proposes, for example, because if you fail & he determines you to be nonsentient he gets to eat you.

  9. Whoa, THE SPARROW. That is intense. Also, a warning to anybody who hasn’t read it: you must also read the sequel, CHILDREN OF GOD, because the first book leave you in a terrible place. Also, another warning, the second-worst thing I’ve ever seen in fiction happens in the first book.

    FUTURE BOSTON sounds a bit like CHESS WITH A DRAGON, possibly.

    Pete, thanks, I’ll look up Arnason.

    I *almost* bounced off 40,000 IN GEHENNA. Not quite, but nearly. But it certainly is yet another Cherryh book that fits the theme.

    Cheryl, for me the second Uplift trilogy got . . . a bit too baroque, or something.

  10. THE SPARROW was pretty brutal, but I liked its themes on the dangers of trusting blindly in fate or faith, and on the dangers of making assumptions about a foreign culture based. Can’t read books like that all the time, though :)

  11. I had to read 40,000 in GEHENNA inside out. Skimmed to something that caught my interest, went back and forward from there till I’d gotten through the whole thing for the first time.

    Never got to the aliens in SPARROW, put it down around the time they went to space as I realized I didn’t care.

    Agree that Breq isn’t alien. Autistic in a weird way maybe.

    Trying hard to think of non-CJC suggestions. :-)

    In a science fantasy setting there’s Ansen Dibble’s CIRCLE, CRESCENT, STAR (first of a trilogy in English, 2 more published in Dutch, but ending with #3 works) in which a lot pivots around the telempathic Valde, natives ‘uplifted’ to sentience, but who don’t speak, except for the ones who serve as warriors for the humans as part of a massive social engineering effort (we find that out in book 3). They’re different and have to learn to ‘breath-talk’ when they come to serve. Humans don’t really understand them, and they don’t get humans.

    Too bad Tolkien never wrote HOW the elves woke up the ENts and taught them speech.

    Oh, Sherri Tepper’s AFTER LONG SILENCE has people figuring out that the rocks on the planet are intelligent. Also another sort – of mammalian species whose name I forget. One of the last Tepper books I enjoyed.

  12. After looking at the bookshelves: EIFELHEIM by Michael Flynn. in 1347 or so, aliens land in the Black Forest.
    That part is interesting. THe modern parts not so much, except the end.

  13. I haven’t read except two or three series about alien contact, and no one’s mentioned them! I never realized how woefully under-read I am in this area.

    Anne McCaffrey’s Acorna or Freedom? Although all very human-esque aliens. (Does Pern count? They couldn’t communicate with thread, but the dragons, although semi-engineered, are still alien… I just had to mention it.)

    And Card’s Ender’s series is pretty definitive alien-contact for me.

  14. Mona, following book bloggers has made it clear to me that I’m woefully under-read in every area, and probably always will be! It would be horrifying, except that at least I know I’ll never run out of books to read.

    I do agree that Speaker for the Dead definitely counts. I’ve heard that Eifelheim is a very impressive work but that Michael Flynn tends to write tragedies, so that makes me hesitant to try his.

    After Long Silence sounds really interesting.

  15. Of course, there is Andre Norton, but there is a certain sameness to her books.

  16. Eifelheim… well, yeah, it’s sad. The Black Death, ya know ? The modern part saves it from being unremittingly sad, IMO, and … I think I’m reaching for ‘wasteful’, the way RIVER OF SOULS was a wasted tragedy.

    FWIW while I could put down the Connie Willis Black Death novel when I first read it, I also then started picking holes in it, and can not reread it. I still like Eifelheim.

    oh, no, the aliens didn’t get the Black Death. they had their own issues.

    Andre Norton did do aliens, didn’t she complete with communicatio nissues, such as in WARLOCK. i’d forgotten because what I tend to remember of her work features the aliens that have been part of the galactic community for donkey’s’ years, so everyone communicates just fine.

  17. Andre Norton did do this, I think, especially with animal-human communication. But it’s been a long time since I read any of hers. I think her work is good for kids but I’m not sure it holds up as well as some once you’re older.

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