“How would first contact—on earth, in space, on another planet—transform our understandings of technology, philosophy, and what it means to be human? What kind of cognitive dissonance would society experience, if we discovered a previously unrecognized sentience on Earth?”
Life Beyond Us is an anthology of fifty-four original science fiction stories and science essays compiled by the European Astrobiology Institute, a consortium of European institutions devoted to research, education, and outreach activities in the field of astrobiology, i.e., the study of life in the universe. This anthology is the brainchild of over sixty contributors from across the globe, including some of the world’s top authorities in astrobiology, astrophysics, and aeronautical engineering, as well as experts in science philosophy and linguistics.
Life Beyond Us features twenty-seven short stories, each followed by a professional essay explaining the scientific underpinnings of the story. Over its nearly 600 pages, Life Beyond Us covers a wide range of topics in astrobiology, including the environmental conditions that could foster life, the possible forms of microscopic and macroscopic organisms, and the social consequences of humans making first contact with alien life.
Currently, the only known life in the universe is on our home planet of Earth. How do we extrapolate this knowledge from a single data point to address the potential of life elsewhere in the cosmos? If extraterrestrial life exists, what forms could it take? And how can we study life on another world without contaminating it with organisms from our own planet? If we do discover life elsewhere, what are the ethical implications of engaging with it? How can we even communicate with extraterrestrial life if it does not use the same medium for communication as humans, viz., sound and visual cues. These questions are made especially difficult since there is no universally agreed upon definition of life itself. Life Beyond Us does an admirable job of addressing all these questions and many others.
Life Beyond Us is compiled by a trio of prolific science fiction editors: Julie Nováková, Lucas K. Law, and Susan Forest. The short stories are written by a diverse range of contributors from around the globe, including both amateur authors and well-established writers such as World Fantasy Award winner Tobias S. Buckell and Julie E. Czerneda, a science fiction veteran with twenty-three published novels already under her belt.
Each short story is followed by a companion science essay. The essays are all accessible and authoritative, complete with citations to relevant papers published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The references are up-to-date, including articles published as recently as last year. The science essays are all written in an approachable fashion, similar in style to articles published in Scientific American, clearly explaining the scientific principles of the preceding story for a general audience. I found the essays to be of uniformly excellent quality across the anthology.
The short stories themselves are more inconsistent. Some are five-star quality, with engaging characters and well-constructed storylines, including many unexpected plot twists. But several of the other stories serve as thinly veiled vehicles for discussing aspects of science. Nevertheless, a common feature among all the short stories is that they are rooted in realistic science, making them both believable and instructive.
Overall, Life Beyond Us is an outstanding collection emphasizing the hard science behind science fiction. The authors clearly recognize the importance of science fiction in stimulating readers’ imagination and fostering an interest in scientific disciplines. This is important for both the field of astrobiology and more broadly for recruiting the next generation of students across STEM disciplines. Personally, I would love to see more anthologies in a similar vein as Life Beyond Us focusing on other areas of science such as quantum physics or artificial intelligence.
The team at the European Astrobiology Institute is to be commended for this comprehensive anthology, which was clearly a labor of love for everyone involved. While the stories focus on life beyond Earth, they also help us to gain an appreciation for the beauty and complexity of life on this pale blue dot we call home.