Contact and Commune

Contact and Commune - L. Neil Smith As it happens, Contact and Commune is an apt title. The novel concerns first contact between humankind and a non-human technological society. And the commune? Well, the expedition is from the American Soviet Socialist Republic and the United World Soviet. A case of the universal lack of ability to foresee the demise of the system? Well, this was written before it disintegrated in 1991. The book was written in 1990--well after the writing had been broken off the Berlin Wall. The premise is that after economic crisis, the world turned back to old style Marxism. In some ways, Smith’ scenario of backsliding into socialism is more credible in the age of Occupy Wall Street than when the book was published. But for Smith there are statists and there are his sort of libertarians and nothing in between. That means he has some blind spots that make it impossible for him to credibly depict an American Marxism. The spacecraft, for instance, are named after Democratic politicians: the Daniel P. Moynihan, the Howard M. Metzenbaum and the James C. Wright. Smith can’t see the difference between middle of the road Democrats and Marxists. (Never mind that mid-21st century anyone would remember any of them, particularly the last two.) The “commune” side of this novel just isn’t credible to me in several respects. Never mind the level of political preachiness this book slides into, heavy handed even by the standard of Smith’s usual novels which I’ve often found overly polemical. (And believe it or not, I consider myself a libertarian, so if I find it annoying... ) And the “contact” side? Well, there are science fiction authors that simply rock at putting across credible aliens with truly different mindsets. Orson Scott Card’s “pequeninos” in Speaker for the Dead or the alien in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Star Beast or those in Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness come to mind. L. Neil Smith’s aliens feel like... well, how did he himself put it? Ah, yes, a “cross between a paleontology exhibit and a cartoon where the animals wear trousers.” They’re about as believable as Jabba the Hut or Jar Jar Binks. If you are interested in reading Smith's tale of Communist humans versus Anarcho-libertarian aliens, this book probably isn’t the way to do it anyway. Contact and Commune is the first part of two books; the third in the trilogy was never released separately. In 2000, Forge of the Elders was published, comprising the first two novels and the previously unpublished third work. So if you want to read this despite all I’ve said, order that book, not this one. Believe it or not, I have read and enjoyed books by Smith. I liked his Probability Broach. It’s libertarian science fiction too, and perhaps too much insider in-joke for non-libertarians, but it has imagination and a sense of humor. Both The Crystal Empire and Henry Martyn are good adventure stories and neither sport a heavy-handed libertarian message but are enjoyable by general readers. One is an alternate history involving a Sino-Aztec empire and the other is swashbuckling space opera. All three of those novels are something Contact and Commune is not: fun.