‘Last And First Contacts’ is a short story collection by Stephen Baxter. It collects nine stories which have been previously published in various anthologies and one original story. ‘Imaginings’, by the way, is a series of story collections of British authors containing previously uncollected stories and at least one story chosen by the author for a first publication.
So in this collection it’s all about ‘Last And First Contacts’. The stories themselves are enclosed by a short introduction by Ian Whates, describing his association with Stephen Baxter and an afterword by the author himself, in which he elaborates a bit about each story.
‘Erstkontakt’ (German for ‘first contact’) is a first contact story, fortunately for the universe, taking place at a location in space and time where it has no real consequences on our history. This previously unpublished story is fun to read because it showcases how to breathe life into characters with just a few words.
‘In The Abyss of Time’, too, uses its characters quite effectively on this journey to the end of the universe and all time and an encounter with the remains of all civilisations the universe has ever seen.
‘Halo Ghosts’ tells us about what and whom the first men reaching the halo of a comet encounter there. The story is more about presenting an interesting idea then about characters.
‘Tempest 43’ is a really good story: It has a great idea at its core. What could a real AI be like and how could it come into being. It establishes a plausible and interesting world and it paints believable characters. The world is so interesting, in fact, that I would like to visit it again in more detail.
‘The Children Of Time’ is once again an idea-driven story with not so much regard for its characters, showing us the far future development of the Earth in five steps and how mankind adapts again and again.
‘The Pacific Mystery’, my personal favourite of the bunch, is set in an alternate timeline where WWII has been won by the Germans and the Pacific Ocean has never been crossed. A fact which led to the Germans winning in the end. It tells the story of a German expedition in the 1950s to unravel the Pacific mystery from the viewpoint of Bliss Stirling, a British journalist on board the aerial battleship. Through her diary entries we get to know her and her world, whose geometric shape is central to a story which in the end becomes almost Lovecraftian. Could we get a novel out of this one too, please?
‘No More Stories’ is a story about exploring human relationships and living as a human in a future where life on Earth has taken an unexpected turn. Just the glimpse of a development based on stromatolites. These are the oldest fossils to be found on Earth, consisting of cemented layers of biofilms of microorganisms.
In ‘Dreamers’ Lake’, we get a look at the last days of possibly self-aware life on an alien planet before it will be destroyed by the impact of a rogue worldlet. Some engaging characters and another idea concerning stromatolites. Another universe I would like to see expanded in a novel.
‘The Long Road’ is a short vignette of three pages about the development of a street and its environment from the past to a not too distant future.
‘Last Contact’ is a very humane story about the unravelling of the universe in the near future and the last contact between a mother and her daughter, a physicist who decides to spend her last moments with her mother and not watching the equipment observing the end of the world.
All in all, ‘Last And First Contacts’ is a collection showing that Stephen Baxter is not only a master of the long form but of the short form as well. Some of his stories are really, really good, some are not quite as good, but all are worth reading. This book doesn’t show a development, the stories being chosen by Stephen Baxter purely because of a common theme. Most of the stories have been published around 2006, the exceptions being ‘Halo Ghosts’, in this form published 2000, and ‘Erstkontakt’, published 2012.
I like the character-driven stories more than the purely idea-driven, but that is just me. Each of the stories collected here has at least an interesting idea at its core and the collection as a whole serves well as an introduction to the writings of an excellent Science Fiction author.
(pub: Newcon Press. 174 page signed limited edition hardback. Price: £19.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-907069-40-6)
check out website: www.newconpress.com