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A scene of a first contact between aliens and humans in Robert Sheckley's 1952 short story "Warrior Race".

First contact is a common theme in science fiction about the first meeting between humans and extraterrestrial life, or of any sentient species' first encounter with another one, given they are from different planets or natural satellites. It is closely related to the anthropological idea of first contact

Popularized be the 1897 book The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, the concept was commonly used throughout the 1950s and 60s, primarily as an allegory for Soviet infiltration and invasion. The 1960s American television series Star Trek introduced the concept of the "Prime Directive", a regulation intended to limit the negative consequences of first contact.

Although there are a variety of circumstances under which first contact can occur, including indirect detection of alien technology, it is often portrayed as the discovery of the physical presence of an extraterrestrial intelligence. As a plot device, first contact is frequently used to explore a variety of themes.[1]


Murray Leinster's 1945 novelette "First Contact" established the term first contact in science fiction,[1] although the term first appeared in Leinster's 1935 story "Proxima Centauri".[2]

The conceptual idea of humans encountering an extraterrestrial intelligence for the first time dates back to the second century AD, where it is presented in the novel A True Story by Lucian of Samosata.[3] The 1752 novel Le Micromégas by Voltaire depicts a visit of an alien from a planet circling Sirius to the Solar system. Micromegas, being 120,000 royal feet (38.9 km) tall, first arrives at Saturn, where he befriends a Saturnian. They both eventually reach the Earth, where using a magnifying glass, they discern humans, and eventually engage in philosophical disputes with them. While superficially it may be classified as an early example of science fiction, the aliens are used only as a technique to involve outsiders to comment on Western civilization, a trope popular at the times.[citation needed]

The first notable example of intelligent aliens invading the Earth is The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, in which Martians mount a global invasion of Earth.[4]

Throughout the 1950s, stories involving first contact were common in the United States, and typically involved conflict. Professor of Communication Victoria O'Donnell writes that these films "presented indirect expressions of anxiety about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust or a Communist invasion of America. These fears were expressed in various guises, such as aliens using mind control, monstrous mutants unleashed by radioactive fallout, radiation's terrible effects on human life, and scientists obsessed with dangerous experiments." Most films of this kind have an optimistic ending. She reviewed four major topics in these films: (1) Extraterrestrial travel, (2) alien invasion and infiltration, (3) mutants, metamorphosis, and resurrection of extinct species, and (4) near annihilation or the end of the Earth.[5]

The 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of the first works to portray first contact as an overall beneficial event.[6] While the character of Klaatu is primarily concerned with preventing conflicts spreading from Earth, the film warns of the dangers of nuclear war.[7][8] Based on the 1954 serialized novel, the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers depicts an alien infiltration, with the titular Body Snatchers overtaking the fiction town of Santa Mira. Similarly to The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers reflects contemporary fears in the United States, particularly the fear of communist infiltration and takeover.[9]

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke depicts a combination of positive and negative effects from first contact: while utopia is achieved across the planet, humanity becomes stagnant, with Earth under the constant oversight of the Overlords.[10] Stanisław Lem's 1961 novel Solaris depicts communication with an extraterrestrial intelligence as a futile endeavor,[11] a common theme in Lem's works.[12]

The original pilot episode for Star Trek, "The Cage", presented the issue of first contact.[13] As "The Cage" was never broadcast, "The Man Trap" was the first episode to portray first contact. The 21st episode, "Return of the Archons", introduced the Prime Directive, created by producer and screenwriter Gene L. Coon.[14] Since its creation, the Prime Directive has become a stable of Star Trek,[15] and the concept of a non-interference directive has become common throughout science fiction.[16]

The 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind depicts first contact as a long and laborious process, with communication only being achieved at the end of the film.[17] In contrast, the characters in Rendezvous with Rama never manage to communicate with the titular spacecraft.

In 1985, Carl Sagan published the novel Contact. The book deals primarily with the challenges inherent to determining first contact, as well as the potential responses to the discovery of an extraterrestrial intelligence.[18] In 1997, the book was made into a movie.

The 1996 novel The Sparrow starts with the discovery of an artificial radio signal, though it deals mainly with the issues of faith and actions taken following the discovery of an extraterrestrial intelligence. The Arrival (1996), Independence Day, and Star Trek: First Contact were released in 1996. The Arrival portrays both an indirect first contact through the discovery of a radio signal, as well as an alien infiltration similar to that of Invasion of the Body Snatchers;[19] Independence Day portrays an alien invasion similar in theme and tone to The War of the Worlds;[20] and Star Trek: First Contact portrays first contact as a beneficial and peaceful event that ultimately led to the creation of the United Federation of Planets.[21]

The 1994 video game XCOM: UFO Defense is a strategy game that depicts an alien invasion, although first contact technically occurs prior to the game's start.[22] The Halo and Mass Effect franchises both have novels that detail first contact events. Mass Effect: Andromeda has multiple first contacts, as it takes place in the Andromeda Galaxy.[23]

The Chinese novel The Three-Body Problem, first published in 2006 and translated into English in 2014,[24] presents first contact as being achieved through the reception of a radio signal. The Dark Forest, published in 2008, introduced the dark forest hypothesis based on Thomas Hobbes' description of the "natural condition of mankind",[25] although the underlying concept dates back to "First Contact".[26]

The 2016 film Arrival, based on the 1998 short story "Story of Your Life", depicts a global first contact, with 12 "pods" establishing themselves at various locations on Earth. With regard to first contact, the film focuses primarily on the linguistic challenges inherent in first contact, and the film's plot is driven by the concept of linguistic relativity and the various responses of the governments.[27]

The 2021 novel Project Hail Mary depicts an unintended first contact scenario when the protagonist, Ryland Grace, encounters an alien starship while on a scientific mission to Tau Ceti.[28]


Due to the broad definition of first contact, there are many variations of the methods that result in first contact and the nature of the subsequent interaction.[29]

Method of contact

Further information: Post-detection policy § issues, and Potential cultural impact of extraterrestrial contact § Contact scenarios and considerations

See also: Rio scale

The idea of an alien invasion is one of the earliest and most common portrayals of a first contact scenario, being popular since The War of the Worlds.[30] During the Cold War, films depicting alien invasions common. The depiction of the aliens tended to reflect the American conception of the Soviet Union at the time, with infiltration stories being a variation of the theme.[31]

A Bracewell probe is any form of probe of extraterrestrial origin, and such technology appears in first contact fiction. Initially hypothesized in 1960 by Ronald N. Bracewell, a Bracewell probe is a form of alien artifact that would permit real–time communication.[32] A Big Dumb Object is a common variation of the Bracewell probe, primarily referring to megastructures such as ringworlds,[33] but also relatively smaller objects that are either located on the surface of planets or natural satellites (such as the Monoliths in the Space Odyssey series), or transiting through the solar system (such as Rama in Rendezvous with Rama).[34][35]

A technosignature is any of a variety of detectable spectral signatures that indicate the presence or effects of technology.[36] An extraterrestrial radio signal is a specific form of technosignature. The most commonly looked for technosignature, the first search for them began in 1960 with Project Ozma.[37] The Wow! signal has been considered to be the most likely candidate for an extraterrestrial radio signal, although its cause remains undetermined.[38][39]

Notable examples

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An early example of the theme, H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds is a science fiction novel by English author H. G. Wells. It was written between 1895 and 1897,[40] and serialised in Pearson's Magazine in the UK and Cosmopolitan magazine in the US in 1897. The full novel was first published in hardcover in 1898 by William Heinemann. The War of the Worlds is one of the earliest stories to detail a conflict between humankind and an extraterrestrial race.[41] The novel is the first-person narrative of an unnamed protagonist in Surrey and his younger brother in London as southern England is invaded by Martians. It is one of the most commented-on works in the science fiction canon.[42]

The War of the Worlds has been both popular (having never been out of print) and influential, spawning numerous feature films, radio dramas, a record album, comic book adaptations, television series, and sequels or parallel stories by other authors. It was memorably dramatised in a 1938 radio programme, directed by and starring Orson Welles, that reportedly caused panic among listeners who did not know that the events were fictional.[43] The novel even influenced the work of scientists. Robert H. Goddard was inspired by the book, and helped develop both the liquid-fuelled rocket and multistage rocket, which resulted in the Apollo 11 Moon landing 71 years later.[44][45]

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Main article: The Day the Earth Stood Still

Based on the 1940 short story "Farewell to the Master",[46] The Day the Earth Stood Still depicts the arrival of a single alien, Klaatu, and a robot, Gort, in a flying saucer, which lands in Washington, D.C. Upon emerging from the flying saucer, Klaatu is shot by a soldier, after which he is taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. When he is told that he will be unable to address the leaders of the world simultaneously, he escapes the medical center and spends time among humans in order to understand their attitudes. After meeting with Professor Barnhardt, Klaatu informs him that the people of other planets are concerned that the violence of humans could spread, and are prepared to eliminate Earth if necessary. Klaatu then causes all non–essential electrical devices to cease operating. After being killed and revived, Klaatu warns humanity of the danger of continued hostilities.[47]












See also


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  2. ^ Leinster, Murray (21 March 1935). "Proxima Centauri". Astounding Stories. Street & Smith. p. 21. Retrieved 21 April 2024.
  3. ^ Fredericks, S. C. (1976). "Lucien's True History as SF". Science Fiction Studies. 3 (8). SF-TH Inc. ISBN 0-8398-2444-0. Retrieved 21 April 2024 – via DePauw University.
  4. ^ Flynn, John L. (2005). "Chapter Two: The Novel". War of the Worlds: From Wells to Spielberg (1st ed.). Galactic Books. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-976-94000-5. Retrieved 21 April 2024.
  5. ^ Victoria O'Donnell, Science Fiction Films and Cold War Anxiety
  6. ^ Etherden, Matthew (2005). ""The Day the Earth Stood Still": 1950's Sci-Fi, Religion and the Alien Messiah" (PDF). Journal of Religion and Film. 9 (2). University of Nebraska Omaha. Abstract. Retrieved 22 April 2024.
  7. ^ Kozlovic, Anton Karl (16 August 2021). "Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Interplanetary Emissary Klaatu Are Not Anti-Atomic: A Reassessment of the Filmic Evidence". Film, Television, and Media Studies in the Humanities. Humanities. 10 (4). MDPI (published 24 September 2021). There Is No Mention of Banning Atomic Energy or Weapons. doi:10.3390/h10040107.
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  9. ^ Sklar, Robert (4 January 2002). "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". In Carr, Jay (ed.). The A List: The National Society of Film Critics' 100 Essential Films (PDF). Hachette Books. p. 152. ISBN 978-0-306-81096-1. Retrieved 23 April 2024.
  10. ^ Du Bois, William (27 August 1953). "Childhood's End". The New York Times.
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  19. ^ Ebert, Roger (31 May 1996). "The Arrival". Retrieved 24 April 2024.
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  25. ^ Yu, Chao; Liu, Jiajun (10 April 2014). "The Dark Forest Rule: One Solution to the Fermi Paradox" (PDF). Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. 68. British Interplanetary Society: 142–144. Bibcode:2015JBIS...68..142Y. Retrieved 24 April 2024.
  26. ^ Stanway, Elizabeth (3 June 2023). "The Dark Forest". University of Warwick. Retrieved 24 April 2024.
  27. ^ Wilkinson, Alissa (24 November 2016). "Arrival is a stunning science fiction movie with deep implications for today". Retrieved 24 April 2024.
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  29. ^ Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, by Brooks Landon, p. 81
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  46. ^ Kozlovic (2002), abstract
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  48. ^ Ann Weinstone (July 1994). "Resisting Monsters: Notes on "Solaris"". Science Fiction Studies. 21 (2). SF-TH Inc: 173–190. JSTOR 4240332."Lem's critique of colonialism, as he broadly defines it,9 is articulated by Snow, one of the other scientists on the space station, who says in the book's most frequently quoted passage: We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don't want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. (§6:72)"
  49. ^ Wojciech Orliński, Co to są sepulki? Wszystko o Lemie [What are Sepulki? Everything about Lem], 2007, ISBN 8324007989, p. 54.
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