Saturday, July 16, 2011
Review: The Metalmark Contract
The idea of first contact has always been a staple of science fiction. How would humanity react when we find out that we aren’t alone in the universe? The Metalmark Contract, the debut novel by David Batchelor, tackles just that question with an interesting premise.
The Earth is visited by Metalmark, a charismatic alien salesman, who has an offer humanity can’t refuse. In exchange for spawning rights on Mercury and Triton he is willing to provide the human race with advanced technology as well as a spaceship capable of interstellar travel. Handing over a small percentage of the solar system seems to be a small price to pay, but are his motives really as benign as they appear?
The Metalmark Contract deals largely with how governments react to the appearance Metalmark and all the bureaucratic processes and machinations that ensue. The first half of the novel makes for somewhat slow reading since it seems the story jumps from one meeting to the next, but after things actually start happening the pace picks up considerably and makes for compelling reading.
The science portrayed in the novel is top notch and written in such an accessible manner that you never feel as if you are being lectured to. I’m an amateur astronomer so I really enjoyed the mention of various NASA missions and how realistic the actual space travel is. Metalmark’s spaceship only travels at a small fraction of light speed and while traveling to Earth he encounters our television signals which gives him the necessary information on how to interact with humans.
The reaction to Metalmark’s visit is rather subdued. I would have thought that humanity would have reacted much more strongly. The only real turmoil that happens is when religion comes into play. To disprove fears that Metalmark is a demon the Vatican sends a Cardinal to perform the rights of exorcism on Metalmark during which he kisses a cross. The Islamic countries around the world view this as proof that he is evil and that he has aligned himself with the infidels of the West. They denounce Metalmark and all the gifts he offers.
Metalmark’s true form is a refreshing take on what alien life could possibly be like. He is a silicon based life form unlike anything the human race has encountered so far. I won’t give anything away, but when the origin of his name is revealed and his physiology and method of procreation is explained it came as quite a surprise.
There are lots of characters to keep track of so the addition of a Dramatis Personae at the back of the book really comes in handy. I really liked Metalmark and the characters of Ilana Lindler, a UN event coordinator, Dr. Steve Simmons, a NASA scientist, and Liu Xueli, a very ambitious Taikonaut. Their paths inevitably cross and intertwine with that of Metalmark and I’m sure they will play a huge role in the rest of the trilogy. The characters are believable and well-written and Dr. Batchelor's insider knowledge into the workings of NASA and the related government organizations shows.
The ending seemed a bit rushed. The timeframe of the relationship between two of the characters was a bit too unrealistic for my taste and the congressional hearing seemed to simply be a ploy to get the characters from one country to the next. That being said, I really enjoyed the ambiguousness of the final paragraph. You are left with a nagging feeling that Metalmark could have a nefarious purpose after all – a great incentive to read the rest of the trilogy when they become available.
A good read with some very interesting ideas. The focus on bureaucracy bogged things down, but that might just be because the author has intimate knowledge of just how slow things really tend to happen in government organizations. I’m definitely intrigued enough to want to see how things turn out. As a debut novel this shows immense promise. Ben Bova better watch his back!
The Rating: 6.5/10