Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Contact with Chaos by Michael Z. Williamson

Contact with Chaos
I was excited to pick up this book by Williamson, which is once again set in his Freehold universe. It is, as one might guess from the title, a novel about first contact with an alien race. A ship owned by Halo Materials Group (HMG) of Freehold discovers a planet in the 107 Piscis system that they are hoping to mine for materials is already inhabited. While it can't be exploited in the ordinary slash and mine fashion, it could be a figurative gold mine for the company, but the first contact experts, such as they are, must be brought in first to determine what effect cultural contamination might have on the residents of the planet.

An expedition is hastily mounted, led by Citizen Mark Ballenger, a former corporate negotiator now working (as the nearest thing to an ambassador to aliens) for the Freehold government, to first survey and then possibly make contact with the Ishkul (as it turns out they call themselves). Mark has a little competition in the system, as a diplomat from the UN, Nurin Russ, soon arrives in system, as well, hoping to woo the Ishkul to trade with Earth and its allies, rather than Freehold. Mark and Ambassador Russ come to an accomodation fairly rapidly, and are able to work together to defend the Ishkul against the rapacious robber barons. The only corporate ships allowed in the system at first are HMG and DHS, one of their main rivals.

The Ishkul are at first thought to have only a neolithic level of technology, but it fairly soon becomes apparent that that impression was mistaken. The planet has almost no elements in the metals category of the periodic table present, and so all of their technology has developed without metals. However, the humans find out that the aliens have already created wood-framed telescopes with ground crystal lenses, and they become aware of the humans' presence in the system quickly and invite contact by drawing geographic and mathematic symbols, like the Pythagorean theorem, on the planet's surface.

Williamson does a fantastic job of doing something that SF authors used to routinely (with varying levels of genius) do - take a hypothetical situation and explore all of the philosophical, cultural and technical aspects of it while telling an entertaining and perhaps educational story. His descriptions of the Ishkul's methods of achieving what turns out to be the equal of 20th century technology in many areas without having the use of metals are fantastic. Sort of like building an alternate history of the industrial revolution that uses glass, resins, wood, steam, water power, biochemistry and genetic engineering rather than Earth's somewhat brute force approach.

His primary alien characters, the ambassadors appointed by the largest nation on the planet, Vlashn and Somle, have fully developed personalities and agendas of their own, which play against Mark and Nurin's desire to move slowly and not contaminate their culture with any hint of how humans got where they are. Some fantastic conversations and twisty intrigues ensue, and there's a truly great surprise at the end. Williamson has done a great job with this book, and I'm hoping to find some more of this genre and caliber soon.

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