Saturday, January 15, 2011


Contact And Commune by L. Neil Smith

L. Neil Smith was recommended to me as a great Sci-Fi author who injects a libertarian subtext to his work. The first book I was able to get my hands on was Pallas, a great read with succulent libertarian flavor. Contact And Commune was the second, and is officially The Worst Book I Ever Finished.

To be fair, Contact And Commune was written more than twenty years ago. Perhaps Mr Smith's work has vastly improved, and I intend to read more, based on my positive experience with Pallas. But enough qualification, let's get to the reason I forced myself to finish: the review.

Contact And Commune is a mess. It's a mishmash of great ideas and stupefyingly boring dialogue, of likable aliens and cliched humans, of an asteroid with a gooey Earth-like center and why didn't they just go to Mars?

The USA has been absorbed into the United World Soviet. The entire world has sunk into a grim, gray, industrial Communism. To cheer up the proletariat, a space mission is launched to ... well, some undistinguished asteroid. It's like using Excalibur to crack walnuts - but Communists are not renowned for making a lot of economic sense.

Turns out this asteroid is inhabited. It's actually a spaceship! Or a time machine. Or an inter-dimensional conveyance. It's never really explained. The intelligent creatures on board are evolved from lower orders of Earth life - flowers, insects, multi-tentacled deep-sea snails - everything but humans.

One of the humans is murdered. one of the "aliens" goes missing. An interminable investigation follows. There is an Atlantis angle. There is a professional military officer who goes comatose, then lunatic, when she sees the "aliens". There is a surprise ending so implausible that I would have gone back to read the clues again if I had cared.

This book reads as if a talented sci-fi writer outlined it, and hired a hack pulp romance grinder to fill it out. The dialogue is stilted and embarrassing. The situations are contrived. The characters are mostly uninteresting, unlikable, and unbelievable. Even the parts that could have showcased the author's Libertarian arguments are instead crouched in pseudo-religious lectures that I mostly skimmed.

Frankly, I skimmed the last quarter of the book, once I figured out that Contact And Commune is a journey to nowhere. The aliens never revealed why they came (or came back, or sideways) that I noticed, and if they did, that part of the plot was never developed. According to another review on Amazon, this is the first part of a trilogy, and those questions are answered later.

Me, I'll pass. While I intend to take another ride with L. Neil Smith, it won't be anywhere near the world of Contact And Commune.


  1. +JMJ+

    Oh, my. It does sound awful. =S

    The only L. Neil Smith novel I've read is The Probability Broach--and that was the graphic novel he worked on with Scott Bieser. It has an even stronger libertarian bent, if you're interested in how he mixes philosophy with fiction, and his world building is certainly better than what you've of Contact and Commune. It is set in an alternative universe where libertarian principles (called "Gallatinist," after Albert Gallatin) hold sway and federalist/statist "Hamiltonian" ideas characterise the baddies.

  2. The Probability Broach is one I will definitely read. Thanks for coming by!

  3. +JMJ+

    You're welcome, Bryan! =) I found your blog through the reviews Gypsi linked up for the Victorian Reading Challenge. We had both read King Solomon's Mines this month, and I was glad to have found someone to discuss it with.

    Incidentally, I also reread The Probability Broach this month and wrote a post about it! =P L. Neil Smith isn't someone I get to discuss very often, either, so I hope you don't mind if I post the link here and invite you to read it: