The existence, and equally, the non-existence of alien contact has been a topic of discussion amongst the scientific community for some time now. Perhaps more in the 20th than the 21st century, the likes of Enrico Fermi, Frank Drake, and sponsors of radio antennas scanning the skies for alien life worked with the assumption it’s possible humanity is not alone. Implementing this search in a wonderful, unheralded novella called New Light on the Drake Equation (2001), Ian Macleod gives his take on the astronomer’s formula. The title apt, a fresh perspective is constantly in the making.
Wikipedia states: “The Drake equation is a probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.” Believing in the probability, Tom Kelly has devoted his life to the astronomy, radio physics, and mathematics associated with building and working with Search-for-extraterrestrial-intelligence (SETI) devices and computing. Culminating in a thin yet existent hope, and a lot of empty liquor bottles, his seventy years on Earth have brought him to the quiet mountains of France where he has set up a large radio antenna on a plateau. As patient as a man can be, Kelly’s life passes by one drink and false computer alarm at a time. Old age giving him time to reflect upon his younger days, it’s a surprise visit, however, from a former girlfriend that sets his mind moving in a new direction.
New Light on the Drake Equation is a remarkably humanist view of the potential for alien contact. This statement two-edged, the near-future society arising around Kelly (e.g. biomodifications and nano-enhancements) serves to hint at one meaning, while the persistence of vision serves to (potentially) define another. Kelly’s past as important as his future, Macleod portrays the humbled man in detail, the prose vibrant yet smooth. A grand contrast playing out between Kelly and his former girlfriend, it is the in situ relationship and its aftermath wherein the major development of the novella occurs. Fully relevant to the changing state of society, I’m agog the story did not receive better treatment when it was released. Then again, it’s possible the fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants society developing around Kelly and us may be the underlying reason.
Another element of the novella, though certainly not a pronounced element, is its references to sci-fi of the past. Never overdone or included in wink-wink fashion, Macleod utilizes the more well-known names (Wells, A.C. Clarke, Varley, etc.) to place the novella in dialogue with genre-past, as well as the society those writers themselves were in dialogue with. Again, it is not an overt paean to genre like Jo Walton’s Among Others, for example; every page does not contain a bright-eyed reference to Asimov or Heinlein. Rather, light homage is incorporated into the storyline through Kelly’s interests to add a gentle yet additional layer to the text that will be quietly appreciated by genre fans.
In the end, New Light on the Drake Equation is a personal story, social commentary, and contextualization of science fiction in the real world—in more ways than one. A high quality novella about one man’s search for extra-terrestrial life in the galaxy, Macleod does a superb job of blending the relevant bits of Kelly’s personal life into society’s evolution with prose that moves fully and with purpose. The resulting juxtapositions can be spun numerous ways, giving the novella a couple layers of quality sub-text.
(A side note: I notice Ian Macleod’s production of fiction has tailed off as of late, and I can’t help but hope it’s not because of a decline in sales. He produced seven novels and three collections in the first decade of the 21st century, but only one novel and collection as of May 2014. Macleod one of the unheralded greats of our generation, it would be a pity were he to stop writing. A substantial cut above most other genre writers, his attention to prose, willingness to place a humanist agenda over entertainment, finely crafted stories, and grounded perspective in existence would be a shame to lose. In other words, please read this as a strong recommendation to go out and read some of Macleod’s work. It rewards.)