Second Contact

Second Contact by J.D. AustinSecond Contact
Ace Science Fiction, 2001
Price I paid: 75¢

Dangling on the edge of the galaxy is Kivlan, a planet reputed to be a gracious and accommodating paradise. Even its name means tranquility—but apparently in some dead language, because when an earthship sends out a friendly hello, Kivlan immediately responds with missile fire.

Leave it to Earth to give peace one more chance—by dispatching one more ship to Kivlan. And Matt Wiener, its optimistic captain, isn’t traveling way the hell out there just to make enemies. A real straight-arrow, he’s prepared to do what it takes to keep the universe in harmony. Even if it kills them all…

This book is the most recently published one I’ve reviewed to date, although only by about three years. I didn’t really realize this when I picked it up. Everything about that cover screams Raygun Gothic, and that’s what I expected the contents to be. It looks to be a sort of throwback, retro-style cover, and I found that interesting. I especially like the bubble helmet. Asimov help me: I have a deep and abiding affection for bubble space helmets. They are the best mix of seems-like-it-would-be-practical and actually-isn’t-practical-at-all. You get a lot of visibility, right? That seems like the best thing. Modern space suits don’t allow for any peripheral vision at all hardly, and that’s a pretty big downside when pretty green ladies are blindsiding you from the right for a hug. Either that or she’s some kind of parasite that merely looks like a pretty green lady and she’s going to eat his brains using that white jewel on her head. I have not yet dismissed the possibility. Still, a bubble helmet has a lot of surface that can shatter, and that’s a bad thing, I suppose.

The thing that worried me about the retro aspect is that I figured the inside of the book would be that way too, either as a parody or as a more respectful sort of tribute thing. I’m not keen on either option. Doing a stylistic parody of the work of a former generation is just lazy and mean spirited. Yes, I am aware that I often do just that thing when I pick through these books looking for inherent racism and/or sexism, but I am quite comfortable in my hypocrisy, thank you very much.

On the flip side, there’s the idea that the book is a deliberate throwback to a time when science fiction was different, a bygone era of bubble helmets and cubic-space zeta-ray drives. I do love that stuff, corny as it all is. Still, the idea of deliberately bringing back that style for a book leaves a bad taste in my mouth. For one, there’s still plenty of that stuff from the past to be read without feeling like one needs to add to it. That’s a good part of why I do this blog in the first place. Doing more of it is just unnecessary. More than that, though, it just doesn’t work all that well. There’s a reason that sixties-style science fiction was written in the sixties. There were cultural influences, science that hadn’t been discovered yet, and all those other elements that make a work a product of its time. There are those subtle elements that are irreproducible that would make any attempt to “bring back” that style fall flat.

So where does Second Contact stand in that regard? Pretty well, actually. It seems that the only real “retro” element is the cover. The book itself shared some qualities with its elders, but it at least wasn’t ham-fisted. The style was definitely more modern in ways that I’m not sure how to describe, maybe because I’m just bad at it but possibly because I feel like that sort of thing is more of a “you had to be there” element.

The story goes that mankind has found a way to get into deep space. The mechanism for this is never actually described. It’s just taken for granted that interstellar travel is a thing. Actually, now that I go back and check, it’s actually intergalactic travel that’s the thing. And we’ve discovered it by the year 2039. Freaking impressive.

In fact, it’s really impressive. It takes about nine months for our human crews to get to the planet Kivlan, which is where most of the story takes place. No real distances are given, but the idea that we somehow found a way to get “galaxies” away in nine months is just…insane. This is one of many ways that this book, while pretty good in story, was really really dismissive in regards to the scientific element. I wouldn’t say it was deliberately so, it’s just that science wasn’t the driving force behind the story. Maybe that’s an element of “retro” that crept its way in. I’m not entirely sure.

Oh, the back of the book says that Kivlan is on the edge of the galaxy, though. What gives? Blurb lies are supposed to be orders of magnitude larger, not smaller. Man, that throws that theory out the window.

Anyway, the first human crew to reach the planet Kivlan was told, in so many words, to get the hell away. This is perfectly understandable, given that the ship was named Lifespring and was crewed, and I kid you not, entirely by hippies. Well, not entirely. The pilot was an actual military guy. Everybody else was environmentalists and so forth, but not the actual scientifically-minded type and more the “Earth mother wooo woo woo” type. There’s this bit that I guess was supposed to be funny where the pilot gets berated by some of the female crew members for the “racist, sexist trash” he reads. What he reads are things like Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. I think our author has a grudge against ultra-PC types. With good reason, too, it’s just that it’s not all that funny.

So that crew returns home and reports to Earth. Before they leave, though, they launch a package of information to the planet’s surface so the people there can learn about humanity. Much to the consternation of the hippies, the package included things like the complete works of William Shakespeare and a Frank Sinatra greatest hits compilation.

We find out that NASA is now GASA (the G stands for Global) because the UN has taken control of space travel. This discovery lasts all of about ten pages in the book.

That’s a bit of a weird thing that got me thinking about plot devices. In this case, the plot element was brought up so it could be immediately reversed again. It didn’t impact the story all that much, so what was the point?

The various governments of Earth are afraid of the implications that may stem from their failed first contact. It seems that the folks on this planet aren’t very friendly. Is there a chance that they’ll decide to come to Earth and wipe out the people who bug them? Are they a threat? So a second ship (actually the first ship again, just renamed) sets out to see if it can do better. This time it has guns and nukes, just in case.

The commander of this second voyage is named Matt Wiener. He’s a good guy. Eagle Scout, fantastic pilot, proud and diligent father. Everybody in the book, once you get to know them, turns out to be a good and decent person. He establishes a crew of six other people. We get their backstories, and while they ran together after a while because they had a major common element, they were actually pretty touching. All of the people (four men, not counting Matt, and two women) came from backgrounds where they were, for lack of a better phrase, unlikely to succeed. There’s one guy who was the leader of a gang until he joined the Marines, a woman who became an Army doctor after finally leaving her abusive husband, an Air Force guy who came from a rich family that was over-controlling, and so forth. I think they all had a story kind of like that until they met somebody from the military who told them they were brilliant and could go far if they decided to join the service. It was pretty schmaltzy and shouldn’t have worked, but I feel like it did for some reason. I think I’m just susceptible to schmaltz. Still, it’s worth noting that in every single case the savior in their lives was the military. Actual author belief, or a little jab at old-timey science fiction, Heinlein in particular? I’m not sure.

Nobody had all that much in the way of character, mind you, just decent backstory.

Oh, Matt is also dating the President of the United States, who by all accounts is the foxiest president we’ve ever had. It’s explicitly stated that she really fills out a pair of jeans. She’s also really good at her job, so there’s that, but yeah. In fact, every woman in this book is described as quite beautiful, even the alien ones. Especially the alien ones.

Matt and the crew set out for Kivlan. The point of view, in the meantime, switches to that of some of the natives there. It jumps around a lot but we get their side of the story. It turns out that the Kivlan race is pretty great. They’re kind, friendly, and masters of constructive laziness. In fact, that last bit is essentially the foundation of their entire society. Why have war when peace is so much easier? Why pollute the air when it’s better to breathe it clean? Their entire technological structure is based on ease of use. They’re masters of the zero-point energy field, so they can even mentally summon things like food as soon as they want it. It’s pretty great.

So why were they so mean to the hippies? I mean, I would be too, but it’s not like they knew. Well, it turns out that their planet has a volcanic cycle that hits every 700 years or so. The eruptions put a chemical in the air that makes everyone on the planet cranky. Specifically, it breaks them out in rashes, which is bad enough, but it also affects their brains. Most people just get easily annoyed and then get over it, but a very small percentage goes insane. One of the planet’s most powerful naval admirals is among that small percentage, and he’s threatening the planet.

That last bit wasn’t happening yet when the Lifespring showed, up, but the consensus of the planet was that the Earth people should turn around and come back another time after everybody has had their morning coffee and cleaned up a bit, so to speak. Unfortunately it came off a little strong, and now Earth is on the defensive.

By the time Matt and the crew of the Forlorn Hope show up, things have settled down a bit for the most part. The Kivlan have gotten a bit of a handle on their irritability and are able to welcome the humans and tell them what’s up. On the whole, the Kivlan are very nice people and everybody gets along pretty well.

Also, the Kivlan are basically the same as humans except a shade of greenish-blue. Funny how that all works out.

Also, while they’re technologically ahead of Earth by a couple centuries (whatever that means), they are culturally behind us. The theory is that while Earth has yet to shed its primitive ways of racism and greed, that has let us fully express our emotions in ways like music and literature. The Kivlan are pretty chill most of the time, so they never even invented brass instruments.

Score one for Earth.

The Kivlan get a big kick out of Shakespeare and Sinatra.

Things start to come a head when the newly insane Ro Heelvar, brilliant military strategist, decides that the only way he can save his planet from its imagined dangers is to take it over himself and institute martial law. He sets out on a full-scale naval invasion. This falls through almost immediately when people mutiny against him. His next plan is to hijack the Forlorn Hope and use its nuclear weapons, which the humans mentioned to the Kivlan, saying they didn’t know what to expect and that they might need to use them in case the Kivlan turned ugly. The Kivlan took that well and understood and praised the humans for their honesty and integrity. Heelvar wants to use them to nuke his own planet, for some reason that made sense only to him because he was insane with Volcano Madness.

What is supposed to be the climax of the book turns out a bit dull. One of the nukes launches, but one of the crewmembers disables it before it hits. Heelvar is hit over the back of the head and knocked out (which, incidentally, doesn’t work on most humans in real life) and the day is saved. Forlorn Hope is forced to make a landing, which means that the humans might well be stranded on Kivlan.

There’s a big party and we get to see a bunch of other ways that the Kivlan are pretty cool folks.

There’s a debate over how to get the humans back to Earth. The Kivlan could develop the necessary technology, but that might take a while. See, the Kivlan like their planet, so they never really got into the whole spaceflight thing. They knew that there were other people in the universe, but they didn’t go out of their way to go visit them or to say hi. On the other hand, the Kivlan zero-point field technology would do really well, but nobody is sure that Earth is ready for that kind of technology yet.

A decision is made once the humans start succumbing to the effects of the volcano. Instead of making them itchy or crazy, it just makes them dead. Not too quickly, though, because that would kill the story. Instead, the Kivlan hook up the ship to a zero-point generator and decide to send two of their own back to Earth with the humans, since the humans couldn’t drive the machine anyway because they don’t know how and they’re unconscious.

Everybody shows up back on Earth (the humans wake up en route). The last chapter is from the point of view of a CNN correspondent, who talks about the aliens a bit but is distracted by the fact that the commander of the Forlorn Hope has just started making out with the president on the podium. Book end.

I really did enjoy this book, although I’m not entirely sure why. It was a bit like cotton candy: sweet, enjoyable, over fast, and without an awful lot of substance. Nothing really jumped out at me as especially inventive or clever. In fact it was usually quite the opposite. I’m not sure this book brought much of anything new to the table. The more I think about it, the more I suspect it was written as a sort of throwback to the Golden Age of science fiction, which you’ll remember is a judgment I dismissed at the beginning of this review. Writing about it has made me think again, though, and now I’ve changed my mind.

If it was supposed to be a tribute or a parody of its forebears, the book got a few things right and a few more wrong. It was a quick-moving adventure that had sexy alien chicks and rocket ships that didn’t make any sense, sure. But while that was pretty much all there was to this book, aside from a few oversentimental backstories, Golden Age sci-fi often had more going for it. They were books set in the shadow of imminent nuclear annihilation coupled with the arrival of humankind in space for the first time. Dread and wonder, all bound up in a neat little package printed on cheap-as-hell paper for consumption by a couple thousand readers. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the fact that spaceflight is almost commonplace, we’ve lost a lot of both the dread and the wonder. Sure, there’s still plenty of both. This book was released about two months after 9/11, and there’s still plenty of dread and fear trickling down from that. And we’re still sending probes and rovers to Mars and beyond. Heck, we’ve had things leave the Solar System! But sadly, we’re not racing the terrorists to space, so the two elements don’t jive together like the Cold War and the Space Race did. I’m not saying that’s a good or a bad thing, it’s just something to think about when you consider the differences between older and modern science fiction. Meshing the two can work, but I think it’d be really hard. This book came close sometimes, but it fell short in others.

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