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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Janice L. Newman

Author Janice L. Newman is thinking about love, what it means, and how it manifests… and not in the ways we always expect. In the Big Idea for her collection At First Contact, Newman explains why all these various looks of love matter to her.

JANICE L. NEWMAN:

It might seem tricky at first to identify a single “big idea” that runs throughout At First Contact. That’s because At First Contact isn’t one story – it’s three! Though they are all romances and all more or less queer, they are also quite different. They’re grounded in different genres (science fiction, paranormal, modern fantasy) and take place in different worlds.

And yet common threads do run throughout the volume. Themes of loneliness, isolation, and alienation are visible in the weave, complementary colors that draw the three disparate pieces together into a coherent whole.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I started writing the first story, the eponymous “At First Contact”, before the pandemic. The main character’s disgust and fear of germs seemed exaggerated back then, a phobia that people could sympathize with, but not really identify with at a gut level. The isolation wrought by such a phobia, to the point where a lonely mission to an unknown planet actually brings a kind of freedom, seemed even more extraordinary… back then.

Now, it’s impossible for me to read the story through anything but the lens of the pandemic. The revulsion at the idea of touching the same doorknob or elevator button as another person, the horror of breathing someone else’s air, these became visceral. Then, too, the mingled feelings of safety and alienation born of nearly complete isolation are now familiar and real.

“Ghosted”, on the other hand, was written at the height of the pandemic. It doesn’t get much more isolated than being a ghost who can only interact with one other person. Yet the story is not from Will’s point of view – it’s from Leo’s. Leo, who walked down the beaches of Southern California in the afternoon sunshine, maskless, as I longed to do. Leo, who searched for the human connection he was missing after the disappearance of his ironically incorporeal friend.

“A Touch of Magic” was written late in the pandemic. I was more than ready to go back out to the real world. Yet physical issues made it hard for me. I’d spent so much time sitting, constantly hunched over my desk, and it took a toll on my body that affects me still. Chronic pain and physical difficulties thus wove their way into the background of the third story whether I wanted them to or not.

But while isolation, alienation, and loneliness exist as common themes across all three stories, there are also counterpoint themes: those of finding love, hope, and acceptance, especially in surprising people and unexpected places.

At least one character in each of the three novellas that make up At First Contact is alienated in some way. For some, the alienation is mental, perhaps a phobia of germs or simply a fear of people. For others there are physical reasons that they cannot participate in ‘normal’ social activities. In one case, an android experienced deep trauma during his initial programming. These characters are shaped, but not defined, by their phobias, traumas, and chronic pain.

At First Contact is not about ‘fixing’ these issues. Nor is it really about learning to work around them. All of the characters so affected have been dealing with these difficulties for most or all of their lives. They already have coping strategies in place. In some cases, the very things that have kept them apart from society even prove to be advantages.

Whether a character is ultimately ‘healed’ or not is never the point of a story. And when love develops between one character with difficulties and another, it’s neither ‘despite’ nor ‘because of’ their issues.

Alienation doesn’t just happen between a person and society. It can exist between a person and their own body. It can affect their view of themselves and make them feel unworthy of love, of care, of happiness.

It may not take a shape we expect. We may think ourselves unworthy of it. But The Big Idea underpinning all three stories in At First Contact comes down to this: no matter how isolated or alienated we are – from society, from each other, or from ourselves – love is possible for all of us.


At First Contact: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

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By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

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