Theme anthologies can go one of two ways. Either they work really well or they end up feeling like the writers had to stretch themselves too much to create a story that worked for the theme. Is Anybody Out There? focused on the Fermi Paradoxes is decidedly in the camp of the former with a couple virtuosos in the short game truly standing out and a few others not working for me as they seemed a bit disorienting.
Paul McAuley starts things off well with an introduction for those not in the know about the Fermi Paradox with a grand overview and a bit of history and known theories. The paradox boils down to "Where are they?" The Universe is so big and that old if there is intelligent life out there why haven't they found us or we found them yet? Quite an intriguing idea for writers to sink their teeth into. This is ground that has been trod on before, but certainly never with such a diverse covering of new, established, and often fringe theories.
Mike Resnick & Lezli Robyn, "Report From the Field" A very quirky tale done in field report style from an alien determining if Earth is ready for inclusion in Galactic Community.
This story had me chortling left and right like few other writer can do and the only funny story in the bunch. In many ways humor is more difficult to relay in written form than something dramatic or action oriented. Resnick and Robyn excel at the funny asides as well as the satirical while this particular alien sees us at an skewed angle from viewing our television, movies, and documentaries trying to make sense of what they selected. There are perfect examples of humanity's absurd and violent side, which make me question our place in the cosmos and the fact that if there is life out there we'd probably just screw up first contact.
Jay Lake's "Permanent Fatal Errors" takes us on a space voyage with a crew of altered human immortals who are guinea pigs for longer interstellar missions. Only who among the crew actually wants to achieve the objectives of this mission?
Told from the point of view of the lowest member of the crew who sees himself as a baby next to the rest of the very old and intelligent crew as he tries to make his way through their murky machinations. An astrological anomaly confounds the crew and a conspiracy is afoot, but just who is doing what? Lake certainly shows his suspenseful flair as there is something out there. And it wants to be found. The story definitely felt unfinished though, but some nice turns more than kept my attention.
David Langford's "Graffiti in the Library of Babel" is a most unusual first contact story. Someone or something has been marking up an important world database with odd notations. What do they want?
An intelligence has downloaded our history and science and are trying to communicate with us through it. This reminded me a lot of a Robert J. Sawyer story in the making with some very nice dialogue. I couldn't connect with any character though, but the situation grabbed me from the first page as the character tries to write back somehow.
In Kristine Kathryn Rusch's "The Dark Man" a shadow shaped like a man shows up every decade or so on the steps of a very old Cathedral in Italy.
Rusch's background as a mystery writer shines through this tale told in a very different tact than the rest as an investigative reporter takes on paranormal events to find out the truth behind them, but she has finally found a case she can't explain away as a hoax. Rusch takes the idea of a classic conspiracy and twists it into Sci-Fi spectacularly. This was my second favorite story of the bunch.
Pat Cadigan, "The Taste of Night" delves into the mental contact aspects of alien communication with people supposedly suffering mental illness and one of my favorite disorders synesthesia. If you don't know what synesthesia is than go read the wiki as I'd love to see more stories working it in.
Synesthesia causes the senses to get crossed and people associate colors with certain numbers, words, or even days of the week. What if people who had this ability were able to be contacted by aliens? Would we believe them or just call them mad? A really well done story all around. Wonderful psychology angle questions the sanity of people and how we could be missing something right in front of us.
Ian Watson's "A Waterfall of Lights" again takes the tact of alien contact through our minds, but gives it a good twist.
If there are aliens they could have died out millions of years ago, but what if they left a legacy behind that was still out there? What would they look like? A surprisingly good story from a writer new to me despite having been around for decades. The story is very similar to the work Robert Charles Wilson has been doing with his Spin books, which is probably why I like it so much. The ending was left hanging quite a bit, but watch out for those eyes.
James Morrow, "The Vampires of Paradox" put us in present times with a religious order that is keeping a terrible event at bay by contemplating logic paradoxes along the lines of "if a tree falls in the woods with no one around does it make a sound?" The paradoxes mentioned are further reaching though and even more mind-bending.
No one does philosophical conundrums as well as Morrow and his stripes are still more than up to the task but ends up feeling a bit of heavy handed at times. Still it fits the given setting and style. Morrow is still a master of short fiction and this was by far the strongest story of the lot and was rightly chosen to end the anthology. The inclusion of this story along makes the book worth picking up. This could also be seen as the best paradox lecture you've ever attended. I could definitely see it being referenced in some logic classes.
Is Anybody Out There? is great cross section of Fermi Paradox ideas packed with wonder. Wonders of science. Of confounding mysteries. Of what could be's. Of what should be that is well worth dipping into. A few stories left me indifferent or just plain lost, but the Morrow, Rusch, and Watson's stories more than make this volume worth grabbing.