Saturday, 11 August 2012

Sci-Fi Lies and Butterflies [Review: The Metalmark Contract]

An alien parks his spacecraft in orbit and makes contact with humanity. His arrival creates tension amongst the politicians and divides nations and religions, while scientists try to make sense of his message and his seemingly generous offer.

Year after year, sci-fi novels and films keep on re-writing this story of our first contact with an intelligent alien. Do they declare outright war, as in War Of The Worlds or Independence Day, or try to conquer us by stealth, as in The Tripods, V or Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers? Might benign aliens make contact in order to share knowledge or guidance, like Klaatu and Gort, or the broadcasting intelligence in Contact? Or perhaps they’d rather wait mysteriously for us to come to them, as in 2001 or Rendezvous With Rama.

What’s clever about the cagey Metalmark is that he could be any of the above. When he makes first contact, he appears in the guise of a slick, human-like salesman offering a win-win trade of tech for resources: a little of your Solar System, and in return the stars. He’s also a pacifist and an enthusiastic student of human culture, particularly that of the US – but he’s smarter than he appears, and he’s holding back one or two key pieces of information, not least his own, alien nature. Taking the name of an endangered butterfly is a literal and also metaphorical clue to his identity, as well as a cryptic message intended for one of the characters.

The Metalmark Contract is written by NASA astrophysicist David Batchelor and is the first in a planned series. The plot takes in national and international politics but focuses on mild-mannered scientist Dr. Steve Simmons: I’m glad about this because Simmons is a good, believable hero, and much of the science feels plausible too. Other plot strands are less strong: I’m not sure I’m quite as convinced by Simmons’ possible love interest, translator Ilana Lindler, nor by the many politicians who also figure. To be fair, it’s hard to write convincingly about the corridors of power – The West Wing and The Thick Of It are very rare examples.

Another subplot concerns terrorism – when Metalmark appears to endorse a Christian leader there is a backlash led by a fundamentalist imam. I’ve got no objection to generic Islamist terrorist bad guys, but I don’t buy the entire Arabic world uniting behind this sort of leader. It’s much more likely that huge divisions would open up between different states. There are hints that this conflict might actually be engineered by Metalmark, which would make more sense.

I think the most enjoyable aspect of this novel is that there really is a puzzle to be solved, and a race against time to solve it. There’s a skillful drip-feed of clues about Metalmark’s body, or what he might want with Mercury and Triton, and even at the end of the book only a little of the solution is revealed, so there are plenty of unanswered questions to drive the sequel.

Available as paperback or e-book.


JerseyLil said...

This is so cool!!! Thanks for posting.

Sci-Fi Gene said...

Thanks for stopping by Lil!