Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Feb 07 18:06:21 EST 1990

Raymond's Reviews #6

%T Contact and Commune
%A L. Neil Smith
%I Questar/Popular Library
%D Jan 1990
%O paperback, $3.95
%P 199

I wanted to like this book. I really did, because I'm a libertarian and the author is a libertarian propagandist. Unfortunately, it suffers all too obviously to me from having been written as propaganda first and novel second. You might find it stimulating if you know little about libertarian philosophy (quick test: if someone says `libertarian' and you think any of `conservative' `Lyndon LaRouche' or `let us kill and eat the poor', you are sufficiently ignorant to learn from this book).

L. Neil Smith has been a promising writer for a long time now. His first novel, The Probability Broach, was pretty good. But most of the incredible clutter of sequels that followed it were forgettable, and he's spent too much time for his artistic good turning out renumerative hack-work like the Lando Calrissian books.

On the other hand, he's always had a fertile and quirky imagination; books like Their Majesty's Bucketeers, Wardove and The Crystal Empire confirmed that he could write a pretty good stick when not preoccupied with beating the drum for his politics.

On the third hand, he's also displayed a regrettable tendency towards mellerdrammer -- in particular, making his villains implausibly blacker-than-black in a way that actually tends to drown out the valid ethical points he has to make.

I keep buying his novels, hoping he'll learn to curb his excesses and develop the mature novelistic skill to match his persuasive gifts as a propagandist and polemicist. Sadly, Contact and Commune suggests that he's still stuck.

The story is told from the point of view of an Earth expedition to the asteroid 5023 Eris (all hail Discordia!), which encounters there a variety of lifeforms from the Earth of another timeline. The asteroid's inhabitants, representatives of a superior 200-million-year-old civilization, are of course all anarcho-libertarian adherents of the Non-Coercion Principle, and the Earth visitors are dazzled by the magnificence of it all. As usual, Smith makes the most of the plot's opportunities for anti-Statist broadside.

But mellerdrammer swiftly intrudes. Not because it begins to look as one of the Earth-humans has murdered a native -- that's necessary plot conflict. No -- but Smith produces an unecessary and implausible premise that the US has gone so Marxist that it carries a hammer and sickle on its flag. Why?

The viewpoint characters must solve a murder mystery in a wildly alien environment. But that plot element tends to get lost in the furniture -- and a lot of talking-heads scenes as the characters argue philosopy. Intellectuals will love this; everybody else will yawn ("But it was the very best philosophy...").

The plot resolution, when it comes, is so psychologically implausible as to be funny, and leaves several loose ends dangling in midair. But that doesn't really matter -- it's tucked away in the last four pages. If you're going to enjoy this book, you'll have already got your money's worth out of the scenery and disputation by the time the plot rolls up.

I cling to my hope that L. Neil Smith will write a truly great novel someday. He's got a Rafael Sabatini pastiche out in hardback called Henry Martyn that looks at first glance to be considerably better than Contact And Commune; let's hope he continues to improve.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Feb 07 18:06:21 EST 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>