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You'd think there'd be nothing new to bring to the table where the first contact story is concerned, and you'd probably be right. But Kevin Randle is actually a UFO believer (though I'm sure he'd bristle at the term), who takes seriously abduction claims and has written extensively about the usual alleged cover-ups and good old Roswell. What would this kind of story be like coming from someone in the camp, as it were? I've had the interesting experience of reading Christian SF, wherein the author usually tries to reconcile his divine beliefs with modern science. Would Signals be similar?

Well, happily, no. Randle approaches Signals from a traditional SF perspective, taking cues from neither The X-Files nor Contact. And unlike Christian SF, Randle isn't using his story as a way of proselytizing his views (except for perhaps one character). This is entertainment. But we have seen much of this before. The book begins badly as Randle finds it impossible to avoid cliché.

The novel's dramatis personae, for instance, is a roster of stereotypes straight out of Sci Fi Channel Central Casting. The babelicious scientist chick ("who looked as if she still belonged in high school" — hell, this might as well be anime); the noble serviceman; the ethically challenged reporter; the smartass grad student; the avaricious poltician; and last but not least, the faceless panicking mob. The one character who represents the Fox Mulder view is dealt with in a very low-key manner. Randle keeps him on the sidelines for much of the book. But of course, when the scientists are in a clinch, they scramble for his advice, and he's presented as the calmest and most rational one of the bunch. It's cute. Tellingly, though, he has a habit of getting testy and indignant when someone goes all skeptical on him.

Anyway, the plot: mysterious radio signals are detected from a source that cannot possibly be natural, as they are heading towards Earth at high speed. When Ethically Challenged Reporter creatively edits a news piece to make it seem as though Babelicious Scientist Chick's discovery corroborates some woman's abduction claims, Avaricious Politican takes note. Almost immediately he whips up fears of an impending alien invasion, believing, for some reason, that this will be his ticket out of a lowly state senate seat and straight to the Beltway. Worldwide riots ensue, which I had a hard time buying. I'm sure some level of panic might grip the populace if it were proved aliens with an inscrutable agenda were on the way. But conspicuously absent from this story are, of all people, the UFO believers, whom I guess Randle assiduously wants to avoid depicting in any way kooky or fanatical. Yeah, you'd get riots if aliens were coming, I guess, but you'd for damn sure get armies of tie-dyed new agers gathering at Stonehenge and the Washington Mall, banging drums and holding signs saying "Welcome to Earth, Space Brothers!" I mean, Independence Day may have been a moronic movie, but it got that right.

As it happens, the only people who discredit the senator's Wellsian gloom and doom scenario are our cast of principals, who are selected to go on humanity's first deep space voyage — into the Oort Cloud — to meet the visitors head on. (Randle has set his story just far enough in the future that we have moonbases, Mars colonies, and asteroid mines, but apart from that everything looks pretty much like today.) The book gets better right around here. A brief scene set on the Mars colony, I thought, had a very pleasant feel, the sort of thing you expect to get from good, old-school SF. And I found the finale of the book satisfying and not at all pandering to formula or preconception. But Randle does drop a surprise in his denouement, which he'd better be darn sure he supports as book two opens.

In short: lame first half + good second half, promising for next volume = straight-up popcorn potboiler. If, like Fox Mulder, you've got an "I Want to Believe" poster on your wall, feel free to notch the rating up a bit.

Followed by Starship.