Saturday, July 16, 2011

Review: The Metalmark Contract

Title: The Metalmark Contract
Author: David Batchelor
Series: Metalmark #1
Pages: 245
ISBN: 9781612960111
Source: Review copy provided by author

The alien Metalmark offered mankind a starship and its advanced technology in a trade for the rights to planet Mercury and moon Triton. What could go wrong? But his appearance sent the nations of Earth into turmoil as many people suspected danger and a trick.

Our dreams of futuristic breakthroughs made Metalmark a celebrity in the West, but inflamed the Islamic world. A scientist with the space agency and a CIA spy became two of Metalmark's defenders. Our chance to join superior beings and travel the stars depended on the clash of futurists with ancient traditions.

Could he sell us the means to a quantum jump in progress? But ... he wanted Mercury and Triton for habitats where his species could spawn ... what did that mean?

Available in paperback or as a Kindle ebook.

About the author:
David Batchelor is a physicist and science writer. He has been consulted on futurist topics by Wired Online, The Economist, The San Francisco Chronicle, National Geographic Online, NBC Nightly News, and Star Trek Communicator magazine. He also appeared on television shows such as the 2009 PBS special “Science Trek.” Dr. Batchelor is employed as an Astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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.

The Verdict:
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


  1. Nice review :) The bureaucratic and government angle is interesting. I haven't read a lot of sci-fi with that angle before.

  2. I am the author. Thanks for the review! As a 22-year government employee, I think the narrative reflects that for better or worse (of course I don't speak for the US government in any way in the book!). As an astrophysicist I also made sure that the physics of the alien life form's life cycle was authentic, such as the energy requirements and sub-light space velocity.

    I am working on the second book, tentatively entitled The Triton Transformation (if that is not too alliterative).

  3. Of course I only have your review to go on here, but I'm put off by the portrayal of the entire Islamic world as an homogeneous whole and instantly opposed to both aliens and the technological developments they offer. It sounds like the novel just forges mindlessly ahead with the stereotype of Islam and all its followers as backward and hateful of the west, modernity, etc. I don't doubt that the stereotype is characteristic of some small, often fanatical groups, but not every Muslism or Muslim country/community is the same.

    The Koran actually refers to non-human beings (jinn) which would typically be assumed to refer to angels, ghosts, etc. but could could be interpreted as a reference to aliens. Islam might actually be more open to life from other worlds than Christianity.

    Would have been interested to know more about how the novel handles its religious issues.

  4. To be fair it is stated in the novel that it is only the fundamentalist Islamic believers that take things to the extreme.

    The point of Metalmark being an evil jinnee is also made in the novel. The religious response is only really touched upon in the first third of the novel and then takes a backseat to other events.

  5. Ok; I was just misinformed then by the generalised references to "the Islamic world" and "Islamic countries around the world".

    A pity the novel doesn't give much attention to that theme - would have been interesting. On the other hand evil Islamic fundamentalists are a bit old.

  6. Hi, I'm the author. In the book the Islamic world is not completely characterized as fanatics, but as largely opposed to Metalmark due to turns of events. In my next book a more diverse Islamic set of ideas will be introduced by the United Arab Emirates, where people find Metalmark more attractive. If violininavoid would like to review the book, I am offering it. I think the story makes clear how the ambiguous actions of Metalmark set up real conflicts with the Islamic peoples' worldview, which only get resolved in the 2nd book that is now in the works.