A human discovers an alien device on an ancient starship. Gloved hands, shielded from the void, but not from curiosity, grasp the artifact. The human possesses the item, but only in a physical sense. Metaphorically, and psychologically, it possesses its claimant. This relic is a deviation from a universe where humans reign as the sole intelligent species. It is the culmination of an interstellar search for the Other. It represents a paradigm shift—and not always in humanity’s favor.
Finding mysterious yet powerful alien technology has a long history in science fiction. There’s a metaphysical sheen to such stories, since the artifact in question represents the unknown. Often something of such staggering complexity that human knowledge cannot unlock it. Unlike other spacefaring stories, this is a frontier not of distance, but of ken.
When I wrote Inherit the Stars, I wanted a MacGuffin, something that everyone would want once it was found. Kivita Vondir has been hired to retrieve the Juxj Star from deep space; something no one has been able to do. It’s a spherical red gem rumored to have belonged to the Vim—an ancient, dead race. But the gem isn’t the only thing everyone in the galaxy will want, once Kivita finds it. She discovers that she is the real MacGuffin, and the gem, a mere enabler of who—and what—she truly is.
It’s easy to write off the MacGuffin as a mere plot device, but not in the case of alien artifacts. These objects are like a character themselves. Science fiction, more than any other genre, expands our horizons. It encourages us to think about our future, and about who we are, today. An alien artifact, if ever found, would reveal that we are not alone in the universe. It could divulge secrets to benefit humanity. It might challenge people’s ego and self-image. The relic would be lauded as messenger, savior, and destroyer. A controversy on the termination line between who we are, and who we will be.
We all hunt for treasures in the dark between worlds—and in the unlighted depths of our ignorance. Like Kivita, perhaps the treasure lies within us.
Here’s a list of books where alien artifacts play a major role, and I recommend them to lovers of good fiction everywhere:
2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
Though not a space opera like my novel, Clarke’s seminal work features an eerie artifact—the Monolith—that appears at various times in human history. Its final appearance, in this novel, is to act as a gateway for humanity to enter. The Monolith is pure black and fashioned from an unknown material. Its angular structure betrays its intelligent origins. It is an enigma, a challenge, and a validation to humanity all at once. That is the same alien mystique I wanted to convey with the Juxj Star, the item Kivita seeks. 2001 definitely influenced my book, and remains one of my favorite novels.
Search for the Star Stones, by Andre Norton
This omnibus by the inimitable Andre Norton details the escapades of Murdoc Jern, an intergalactic gem dealer who happens upon a shipload of rare stones. He discovers he isn’t the only one that wants the precious artifacts, and must evade thieves and governments on a space chase. My novel shares part of this premise, where the protagonist discovers something that everyone wants to use—or control.
Probability Moon, by Nancy Kress
The opening volume in Kress’s The Probability Trilogy has humanity using star gate technology left over by ancient aliens. When a new planet is discovered with an artificial moon, the military seeks to use it as a weapon, even though this goes against the expedition’s purpose. Like my novel, Kress’s story shows what happens when humans try to use knowledge that is beyond their abilities.
Ringworld, by Larry Niven
This classic science fiction work tells of a massive structure that is 600 million miles in diameter and a million miles wide; known as a “ringworld.” The sheer scale of such a project influenced the antediluvian aliens I created for Inherit the Stars, the Vim. I like how Niven instills wonder with the very existence of such an object. It does more than beg the question, “how was it made,” but also, what else can its creators do? It is both humbling and frightening, two things I tried to convey in my own novel.
Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
Another of Clarke’s books where the story revolves around an alien artifact. This time, it’s a cylindrical starship over 50 kilometers long. Human explorers gain entrance to Rama, and try to understand its purpose as the vessel’s interior comes alive with exotic lifeforms and advanced machinery. Only, there is no one (apparently) aboard. The inherent mystery in this narrative is something I borrowed for Inherit the Stars: give the readers clues throughout the story, revealing just enough to make them turn the page.
Inherit the Stars is available now.