This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Fiction

Perhaps it was some sort of strange precognitive cultural memory of the future, but the cliches, it turned out, were all true. Well, almost all true. The aliens did come in large flying saucers that could hover silently and move silently at physics-defying speeds. They did make mysterious crop circles and abduct and probe hundreds of unfortunates — except this time, they were taken from and returned to (disoriented and with memory gaps, but otherwise unharmed) busy public areas, in broad daylight, in full view of hundreds of smartphones. Those who had been taken in previous years and decades, from deserted highways or remote farms, were at once ecstatic and depressed. Now everybody agreed they’d been telling the truth all along, but nobody thought they were special, or even uniquely insane, anymore.

After the first two weeks, after they were done with their opaque but uncannily unsurprising exploratory activities, the aliens continued to live up the cliches. They did head for important cultural and political sites worldwide in their saucers. Precisely on cue, they did hover mysteriously over those sites for several days. They did take over all the satellites, much as the movies had predicted, and they did vaporize a handful of the most iconic monuments (all deserted, fortunately; security forces around the world managed to not fumble their cameos, and cleared perimeters on schedule). And the saucers did shoot energy beams of an unknown type to vaporize the handful of misguided humans who ventured too close. When it was all over, the overall toll turned out to be fewer than a dozen dead, and fewer than hundred injured. Half of those who died, and all of those injured, were victims of accidents caused by their own panicked retreats. Only six died of being zapped by the alien energy beams.

The first saucer to land did, in fact, land on the White House lawn, much to the chagrin of the Chinese Prime Minister and all the Bitcoin maximalists. And four little green men did walk down the ramp, in long, flowing robes. It was all broadcast live on all the hijacked frequencies, and streamed to all the commandeered screens, again exactly as expected.

And one of the aliens did say to the leader of the Contact team, in a synthesized, robotic voice, “Take me to your leader.”

The President later reported that the mind meld had not been painful as such, or even uncomfortable, but it had definitely felt… rude, and apathetic; “like a visit to the DMV,” was how he put it. But he was unable to clearly describe what they’d done to, or seen in, his mind, or what he’d sensed in theirs. All the world saw of the closest encounter was the President and an alien on the White House lawn, hands on each other’s temples, foreheads touching, for several minutes. The other three aliens hung back and watched, as did the dozen or so humans.

And then… nothing.

The aliens returned to their saucer. The ramp retracted, and the saucer took off. All the saucers around the world left at the same time (it was later revealed that their departures appeared to have been synchronized to the nanosecond). The satellites returned to normal operations. There were no more abductions or crop circles.

A few days later, NASA reported that all the saucers had left low earth orbit, moving at solar system escape velocities, apparently headed towards the galactic core.

Months later, the President, after many sessions of hypnotherapy, and dozens of hours of fMRI and EEG studies, claimed he was able to remember one thing clearly from the mind-meld session: A clear sense of what felt like dismissal in the last few seconds. He was firm and clear about it and rejected all suggestions of what he might have felt. It was dismissal.

He did not offer an interpretation, or elaborate, or speculate. He announced he would not be running for re-election, undermining one class of theories and spawning another. When his term ended the following year, he declined all book deals, and retreated from public life. Those who met him after he left office reported that he seemed mildly tired and depressed, but content with a life of gardening and cooking in his final years. “I just want to rest easy,” he was reported as saying to his wife. The phrase turned into a meme, overlaid on a classic picture of him in his garden, bending over a rose bush.

The internet, of course, refused to rest easy.

For years the Contact discourse raged online. Every scrap of information that was available to the public was analyzed by tens of thousands around the world, in every conceivable way. Every possible theory of the case was endlessly discussed. Predictions were made about if, and when, the aliens would return. Returnists beefed among themselves, and with the Non-Returnists, for years.

Dark rumors circulated: about suppressed information; about secret deals brokered between governments; about big companies having acquired access to alien technological secrets deciphered by the NSA. But dozens of hacks and leaks revealed nothing to substantiate any of the theories. The few seemingly explosive revelations that emerged turned out to all be fabrications, but each spawned a devoted cadre of believers. And no unusual or unexpected new technologies emerged from anywhere in the decades that followed.

The dozen or so White House staffers and Contact team members who had seen the aliens up close turned into minor celebrities, as did many of the more charismatic abductees around the world. Several landed book deals, and all the resulting books were uniformly disappointing, adding no new information to the discourse. “Contact lit,” as it came to be called, was a strangely vacuous and short-lived cottage industry.

For a while, what came to be known as #TrojanMania took over, and researchers spent hundreds of thousands of hours scouring important codebases and infrastructure sites for signs of suspicious alien artifacts. An international consortium conducted a careful survey of near space, looking for left-behind probes, outposts, and communication relays.

None of it led anywhere. Nothing new was uncovered. As best as anyone could tell, the aliens had not left behind anything of themselves. They had simply stopped by, then packed up and left.

For years, the dramatic videos were played and replayed endlessly on television. Particularly dramatic clips on YouTube gathered hundreds of millions of views and sparked media careers, but a long tail of less dramatic ones languished in obscurity. The vast corpus of testimonials from those who had been somewhat closer to events than average suffered a similar fate — a few dozen led to fame and fortune, most languished in obscurity.

But nobody was able to find anything of significance beneath the mountain of material. There were only the highlights of the drama — the hovering saucers, the aliens walking down the ramp, the moment when the words take me to your leader were uttered. All told, about three hours of audio and video footage — less than 0.1% of what was available — accounted for the vast majority of circulating consumption.

Only machine learning researchers, armed with their algorithms, touched double-digit percentages of the material. But they didn’t find anything either.

A few gravitated to what they felt was the most obvious explanation — we had been visited, evaluated, judged, and ghosted. Occam’s razor, they argued, suggested that humanity had simply been dismissed as uninteresting. The brief drama of Contact had been all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

That came to be known as Oumuamua theory, after the strangely inconsequential 2019 encounter with an interstellar rock.

But most rejected Oumuamua theory. There had to be more to it, they argued.

Some began to suspect that the whole thing had been an elaborate hoax. The whole cliched B-movie facade with nothing underneath, they argued, meant it was a show put on by somebody. Somebody human. Russians, Chinese, and Americans all pointed at each other, as did the rest of the world. Predictably, every theory acquired an anti-Semitic variant.

But a hoax to what end? others asked. And what about the otherworldly physics of hovering, movement, monument vaporization and energy beams? Surely any human actor with access to those kinds of capabilities would do more with it than simply put on B-movie theatrics and just… quit?

Another theory, the SimDualist theory, grew popular for a while — that it was both real and theater. The aliens, the SimDualists argued, had put on a show that precisely hewed to contemporary least-common-denominator pulp notions of what Contact ought to look like. Perhaps out of a misguided desire to put us at ease. Or as a joke. Or to distract us while they did other invisible things that had not yet been detected (this last variant of the theory, known as Dark SimDualism, led to the emergence of a subculture of people calling themselves the Glitchists, who were convinced they would find traces of what they called “Real Contact” if they looked hard enough; but decades later, the subculture ran out of steam, having discovered no compelling glitches, and no evidence of “Real Contact”).

So even for the SimDualists, the question remained, why? Why go to the trouble of putting on a show to no apparent end.

And then, slowly, the discourse began to die down. The recycled conversations, the endlessly rewatched clips, it all grew tiresome and stale. There were only questions; no answers. Historic events had unfolded, but with no discernible significance. There was only the memory of a rather tawdry spectacle. There had been a grammar and syntax to the dramatic events, perhaps even a vocabulary and an aesthetic, but there had been, connoisseurs of the discourse admitted, no story to any of it. There had been no meaningful causes, and no significant consequences. Just “history outside of history, past the end of history,” as one rather smug academic put it in a widely cited paper.

That was a popular idea but not strictly accurate. There was one significant and much theorized consequence: Hollywood and other film industries around the world stopped making science fiction movies and shows.

Rapidly and decisively, the market for the genre collapsed. Not just the subgenre focused on space and alien life; all of it. A determinedly realist and phenomenological mood descended on both literary and popular fiction. The academics called it post-Contact anti-speculative realism, or antispec for short.

The products of the antispec mood did not do well. Estimates vary, but industry watchers agree that fiction markets, on both page and screen, shrank by approximately 20-30% over the following decade, and stayed there.

A decade went by, and then another. An entire generation grew up, with no personal memory of Contact, but harboring a growing suspicion that the adults were spinning strange mythologies for no good reason. That the supposedly real history of Contact was something like a mass psychosis.

Then another generation came of age. And another.

Among the more sophisticated members of the third post-Contact generation, the historic events came to be regarded as a late-modern religious mythology sparked by the anxieties of climate change and the advent of the Anthropocene. The clearly uninspired and derivative structure of the Contact mythos was offered as evidence of its non-historicity. The old media archives of the event all came to be regarded as evidence of a rather poorly produced bit of global performance art. Certainly there were loose ends, but it was all within the realm of plausible explanation once you acknowledged the mass delusions that had clearly been at work. The whole thing was more embarrassing than intriguing.

Contact was clearly not just a religion but an ineptly constructed one. It made total sense that so few adherents remained a century later. Attendance at Contact anniversary observances began to drop. Between the first and third post-Contact generations, annual surveys found, belief in the literal historicity of Contact fell from 57% to 3%.

The last of those who had lived through Contact died a hundred and thirty years later.

A few years after that, there was a renaissance in speculative fiction. It began approximately a century and half after Contact. Wonderfully imaginative new works began to be composed and performed in all media, including works focused on space exploration and the possibility of alien life which, critics agreed, were the most psychologically astute works of speculative fiction ever crafted.

Humanity was alone once again.

Series Navigation<< The RetireeThe Map >>

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. This might just be your best work yet, Venkat. Great stuff!

  2. Ravi Daithankar says

    Great stuff! Reads like the first short story in a book titled Folktales for Existentialists.

  3. This was phenomenal — scratched exactly the itch I didn’t even know needed scratching

  4. I do like the idea of a mystery novel where the mystery prevails despite everyone has witnessed, archived and social-mediated it. Unfortunately you don’t really want to tell it but interpret and theorize about it. Annoyed by your readers ( I understand they are a burden ), you exhaust the idea all by yourself: ‘no labor division necessary, I’ve written, read, commented, interpreted and labeled my fiction all alone!’ The comical stage of the “pleasure of the text”.

  5. The President reminds me of Diocletian when asked if he would return to rule the Empire said, “if you could see my cabbages you would understand the impossibility of the suggestion.”