Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Books

Festival of Reading: Rick Wilber imagines the future, UFOs in new novel 'Alien Morning'

The Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading presents more than 50 authors, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 12 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Rick Wilber will speak at noon in USFSP Davis 130. Find more information here.

In a world just a few years in the future, washed-up pro athlete and part-time sports journalist Peter Holman is forging a new career. He's among the first to become a "sweeper," using new technology to record his experiences and transmit them out to audiences around the world. We're not just talking video here. Sweeping involves all the senses: taste, smell and touch as well as sight and hearing, losing yourself in another's experience.

As Rick Wilber's new novel Alien Morning opens, Peter is sweeping his date with Chloe Cary, a former TV star trying to revive her flagging career at the perhaps-too-late age of 22. Their sumptuous dinner, their heated kisses, their romantic walk along the beach near Peter's home on a Pinellas County barrier island — it's all going out to audiences who are early adopters of the receiving end of sweep tech.

Also on the feed: Peter's utterly unexpected sighting of what looks like a fleet of UFOs sailing slowly across the skies above the Gulf of Mexico.

By morning, he's on the news, and not to talk about the date.

Wilber, until recently a longtime professor in the University of South Florida's mass communications department, is a prolific author of science fiction, horror and realistic fiction. Alien Morning may be his best yet, combining a convincingly imagined future with adventurous sci-fi and its protagonist's engaging personal story.

One feature of Peter's world that's far more common than sweeping is internally installed personal assistants, kind of like having Google and Siri living inside your brain. Peter's is named "myBob. The presence that was with me constantly, available at a murmur, knew everything or could find it out, kept my appointments and organized my life, handled my communications, took care of all the details of my sweeps, sent birthday wishes to my friends and kept my life going." No wonder Peter feels a little panicked anytime myBob has to be shut down. Interestingly, these devices can not only crack jokes and get jealous but communicate with one another, independent of their human hosts.

But that's not what Peter's worried about. Those spaceships were real, as he discovers when various research entities call on him for help, since it seems the beings aboard the ships have some interest in him.

The first time he meets one (or realizes he has), it seems laughable: "It was, though I didn't quite realize it then, the end of things as I'd known them to be. The alien, the visitor, the thing from The Ten, was no more than 10 meters from me, standing in the shallows. ... His skin was dark and slick, and from 10 meters away I could smell him, a sort of low-tide salt tang: familiar, not unpleasant. His fat, porpoise-shaped body was short of 2 meters tall and he had on what looked for all the world like comical soaking-wet Bermuda shorts that ended at the knees of short, thick legs. Halfway up the torso were thin, tiny arms coming out from the sides." But the invasion of the S'hudonni will not be comic, as Peter learns as his role in the story becomes clearer.

The plot of Alien Morning involves some globetrotting, but Wilber sets much of it around the Tampa Bay area, and he has a sure hand with the Florida scenes. Peter's first-person narration is an engaging blend of humor, skepticism and wonder, and the futuristic elements of the story sound in many cases all too probable. I'm not hoping for S'hudonni, but I could maybe use one of those myBobs.

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