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art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Guidelines for First Contact in Simplified Technical English

Jetse de Vries is a technical specialist for a propulsion company by day, and a science fiction reader, writer, and editor at night. He's also an avid bicyclist, total solar eclipse chaser, beer/wine/single malt aficionado, heavy metal maniac, and an intelligent optimist. Recent fiction can be found in Michael Moorcock's New Worlds, Escape Pod, the anthologies Dreaming of Djinn (Ticonderoga Press) and Looking Landwards (Newcon Press).

WARNING: trying First Contact can cause genocide, xenocide, death, injury, and/or mysterious disappearances.
CAUTION: trying First Contact can cause enslavement, colonialism, frustration, bafflement, extreme cultural diffusion, and/or enlightenment.
I): Preparations.
Make sure that:
1) The aliens are truly extra-terrestrial: perform the AAA (Anthropocentric, Anthropomorphic, Anthropomaniac) test. If they are not extra-terrestrials, proceed to (w);
2) The aliens can communicate: perform the AAS (Autism, Asperger's, Solipsism) test. If they cannot communicate, proceed to (x);
3) The aliens are truly intelligent: perform the T/MI (Turing/Machine Intelligence) test. If they are below our intelligence level, proceed to (y);
4) The aliens are not hostile: perform the RS/WF (Red Shirt/White Flag) test. If they are hostile, proceed to (z);
II): Procedure.
1) Establish exact communication range by sending the first eleven prime numbers as a signature:
a) across the complete photon wave spectrum;
i) if no response, repeat step (a), but with other elementary particles;
ii) if no response, repeat step (a), but with the anti-particles of the above (note: set gamma ray shields to maximum);
iii) if no response, repeat step (a), but with the sypersymmetrical partners of the above;
b) across the complete sound spectrum;
c) across the complete chemical molecular reaction range (note: careful with the aqua regis);
d) direct contact knocking (adapt knocker size to that of the aliens);
e) If none of the above yield any result: the aliens are most probably a figment of your imagination. Return the psychedelical drug stash (or what remains of it) to the First Aid Cabinet;
2) Establish the most effective communication protocol. If necessary, use:
--> babelfish;
--> elementary particle ping;
--> the quake codex;
--> electromagnetic touchy/feely (as pioneered by Captain Kirk);
3) Establish the typical lifecycle of the aliens:
a) if their lifecycle is longer than 6 x 1052 Planck Times, make sure that you have a long line of successors that can continue the task of First Contact;
b) if their lifecycle is shorter than 6 x 1047 Planck Times, make sure to hurry before their civilization peaks and crumbles;
4) Establish the evolutionary pathway of the aliens:
a) if they did not evolve:
i) and cannot remember who created them: report them to the Intergalactic Lost and Found;
ii) and their intelligence has far exceeded that of their creators: refer them to the Union of Dyson Spheres, Matrioshka Brains, Kardashevs and other Technological Singularities;
iii) and truly do not know who created them: adopt them, and teach them well;
b) if their evolutionary path is different from those already known:
i) find out everything about it, and:
--> report the findings to the Encyclopaedia Galactica;
--> do not update the Universal Wiki as the discussion will take a vigintillion Planck Times;
c) if their evolutionary path is known, but they insist that they were created by god:
i) and they are machine intelligences: see (a) above;
ii) and they are not machine intelligences: educate the hell (and heaven) out of them;
5) Establish the long-term goals of the aliens:
a) If their goal is galactic domination, point them towards the berserker fleet;
b) If their goal is cultural infiltration and/or indoctrination, tell them: "Soylent Green is people!";
c) If their goal is free trade and peaceful co-existence, tell them that conflict propels innovation;
d) If they appear to have no long-term goals, tell them to become more ambitious;
e) Note: contrary advice keeps a civilization sharp and helps it avoid the next existential filter;
6) If the aliens appear inscrutable: think lateral. If necessary, use:
--> the Spock protocol;
--> the Greg Egan Indices;
--> the psychedelic drugs stash in the First Aid Cabinet;
III): Aftermath.
1) If your and the aliens' civilizations are still largely intact: congratulations! Invite them to the Galactic Federation;
2) If your civilization is still largely intact but the aliens' civilization is not: either offer Marshall Aid until it recovers or fence it off, and mark it as an asylum (or at least clean up the debris);
3) If the aliens' civilization is still largely intact but yours is not: accept their Marshall Aid or try to recover in your asylum. Be exemplary vassals (or at least clean up after yourself);
4) If the aliens are aloof, disinterested or bored: improve your sales pitch. If necessary, use Instaspam(TM);
5) If the aliens think they're god: provide them with a slap and a chocolate;
6) If you behave as god towards the aliens: SLAP! And a chocolate to help you think straight;
7) If you find yourself in a completely different Universe: explore and report the results (Note: keep the quantenglement radio charged);
8) If the laws of physics have changed beyond recognition: see point (7) above, use the Greg Egan Indices and try to stay alive;
w) Help SETI from wasting time and uplift the intelligence level of the system-wide net. Perform:
--> the Intellectual Property Data Base comparison test;
--> the spaceweb hoax test;
--> the LOLCAT LULZ test;
x) Use reverse logic: tell the aliens that they can join the Co-operative of Solipsistic Minds.
y) Help intelligence-impaired species: enroll them in the Universal Uplift Program.
z) Test the military power of the aliens:
--> Send in the redshirts: if the redshirts win, promote them to eternal guardian duty at the black hole of Cygnus X-1; if they lose:
--> Send in the Shopped WorkGames Space Marines: if the Space Marines win, launch them into the Amazon Retail Jungle; if they lose:
--> Send in the most powerful matter/antimatter missile available: if it destroys the aliens, promote Starfleet Admiral Jim White to Redneck of the Century; if the aliens ignore it:
--> Set alert level to BERSERKER;
--> Move away at the highest possible speed (but not in the direction of the home system);
--> Make sure to leave behind an easily identifiable piece of missile debris marked as "Queer Forces of Gamma-Rabbit-Centauri."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 11th, 2013

Author Comments

At the day job, I was attending a short training session about "simplified technical english." This is an invented "language" (actually more like a jargon, or actually a non-jargon) used in the little instruction booklets you get when you buy a household appliance (say: a coffee machine or a microwave: they still include those printed instructions) or a gadget (there the instructions are increasingly in electronic format).

While the technician in me does see the need for clear and unequivocal instructions, the writer in me rebelled against the linguistic straightjacket. So while I was following the training, my back brain was highly critical: for simple appliances and gadgets, this might work, but for more complicated installations it will eventually become impractal and even impossible to cover each and every eventuality. At a certain point the writing brain thought: "let's approach the completely the other way around: using simplified technical english for the most unpredictable scenario imaginable." And the most unpredictable scenario possible--to my mind--is First Contact. (I was reading David Brin's Existence, which tackles a number of possible First Contact scenarios, around that time, as well.) On top of that, this thought experiment shouldn't outstay its welcome, so I cut down the 1,500 or so first draft to under 1,000 words, or flash fiction length. Hence "Guidelines for First Contact in Simplified Technical English," a tongue-in-cheek attempt to capture the unknown in clear and unequivocal instructions. Don't try this at home, and most certainly not in space!

- Jetse de Vries
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