The Human and the Alien: An Exploration of First Contact Stories

Discovering intelligent life in the cosmos has been a long-anticipated moment for humanity and fertile ground for fantastic stories since the dawn of science fiction. Nineteenth-century speculative fiction writers such as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells envisioned discovering life on the Moon or the invasion of Earth by Martians. From these early stories, encounters between humans and alien species (often described as “first contact” stories) have served as a vehicle for the exploration of possible futures and a reflection upon humanity’s place both on Earth and in the cosmos.

Within the context of science fiction, first contact can be thought of as an event in which two intelligent species encounter each other for the first time. Sometimes this encounter is peaceful or friendly and is about establishing communications or sharing knowledge. Other times the first contact scenario begins with a hostile act, like a war or invasion. Many of the themes found in these stories have parallels with historical examples of European explorers and colonizers encountering indigenous peoples in sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, or Oceania.

There are many ways in which humans and aliens could engage in first contact. This exhibit will explore some of the forms that these types of stories can take and what messages they may have for us here on Earth. Each display case focuses on a single theme or type of human-alien encounter with examples pulled from the Eaton Collection. However, it is rare that a book is limited to a single theme, so many of the examples in this exhibit will be present in more than one category.

View the exhibit Monday through Friday in Special Collections & University Archives from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.