First Contract, Greg Costikyan

Tor, 2000, 287 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-54549-4

You would think that more than a hundred years after H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, Science-Fiction would have managed to come up with every single imaginable twist on the “First Alien Contact” scenario. And yet here’s First Contract, a refreshing take on the subject that will make you smile in amusement even as it describes the complete economic collapse of Earth.

The hook is simple: Aliens descend on Earth, say “hi!” and propose a small trade; a copy of the galactic encyclopedia in return for the low-low price of, say, Jupiter. Before anyone can scream out “REMEMBER MANHATTAN!”, the deal is done and humans are stuck with a set of UN-controlled data files that no one can figure out. Meanwhile, aliens set up shop on the planet and destroy most of our industries by offering better products. The resulting economic catastrophe makes the depression of the Thirties look like a trifle.

I won’t pretend that this type of scenario has never been explored before in SF (who knows what might have been published in “Analog”, not to mention Costikyan’s own seed novella, “Sales Reps From the Stars”), but it’s certainly not a common spin, and the style with which it’s explored deserves mention.

In many ways, this is a novel that should have been published by Baen Books. The glorification of market forces, the deep and thorough knowledge of economic drivers, the quasi-encyclopedic knowledge of past historical precedent all bring to mind the usual Baen potboiler. But no, surprise, this is a Tor book… Jim Baen must be kicking himself.

The story takes the form of a narrative by Johnson Mukerjii, initially a hard-working high-tech CEO whose business, marriage and life are irremediably destroyed by the aliens. Before long, he’s huddled underneath a bridge, plotting his revenge. Mukerjii makes a perfect narrator, his lively wit illuminating the dry exposition passages he must dish out throughout the story. Hey, it works; expect to know a lot more about stock markets, financial statements and trade shows by the end of First Contract. Heck, the novel will even make you understand how third-world countries have to behave in light of rich-nations imperialism.

It’s worth repeating that even though the novel deals with heavy-duty economic SF theory, it’s never dull or difficult; Costikyan vulgarizes quite well, and if the novel isn’t all hilariously funny, it’ll leave a quasi-permanent grin on your face while you’re reading it. Which isn’t as straining as you might think; you’ll probably end up reading this book in a single sitting.

Dig a bit deeper and, of course, you’ll find here a deep and knowing satire on corporatism and the new feudalism. Or is it? Costikyan understands his subject so well that it can play both ways. Certainly the last few pages of the book take the Wal-Mart philosophy of retail (and supply) to its logical galactic extreme… and if that’s not satire, well, I’m ready to send back my SF-Critic’s license.

It helps, of course, that the book is a throwback to the plucky-humans-über-alles philosophy of so much golden-age SF. Despite being technologically pounded, economically colonized and spiritually destroyed, humanity -through our stalwart hero- finds a way to make a good deal. We haven’t conquered back the universe by the last page, but it’s obvious that we’re on our way and it’s only a matter of time. Say what you want about self-image and wish-fulfillment, but that type of attitude usually earns a bonus point or two in my ratings.

I wasn’t so taken by the last two pages, which seem a lot like a gratuitous extra spin than a knock-out ending. (Cut it, and the true ending sentence is much funnier. You better believe they’d ship on time.)

But taken as a whole, First Contract ranks as one of the best SF novels of 2000, a unique blend of big business and alien invasion. Cleverly imagined, compulsively readable and constantly amusing, this is a book that should please a wide array of readers. Don’t miss it.

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