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Contact with Chaos by Michael Z Williamson

Cover art by Kurt Miller

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

First contact is one of those tropes that appears again and again in science fiction. What happens when humanity encounters another self-aware, tool-using species? Will we be able to co-exist profitably, or will some misunderstanding lead to a downward spiral that ends in a war of extermination? If there are marked differences in technological levels, will contact result in the destruction of the less-developed one, either directly by rapacious exploitation or indirectly through cultural disintegration?

In this novel Michael Z. Williamson gives his own take on the question, in the context of his Freehold of Grainne, a libertarian miniarchy. Until this point the Freehold universe has been presented as humans-only, in the tradition of Asimov's Foundation series or Frank Herbert's Dune universe. There were some mentions of animals that had been uplifted to human-level intelligence, but they remained beasts legally and socially, not people. But both Freehold and The Weapon were human-focused stories, dealing with fundamentally human problems of how society ought be run and defended. To have introduced aliens into the fictional universe would have only distracted from the central themes of those novels.

This novel is also noteworthy because it shows us a dark side to the society of the Freehold. In the first two novels it was portrayed as pretty close to a utopian ideal of libertarian miniarchy, in which reducing government to the barest essentials freed people to create a just and prosperous society. There might be a few jerks here and there, but they were isolated aberrations. In this novel we get to see just how dangerous parts of the Freehold's corporate culture can be. To be sure, it was hinted at in The Weapon when Ken Chinran commented on how the Freehold's unique form of government keeps the power-hungry and the unscrupulous out so they stay in business where they belong. But it was never shown so explicitly as we see in the varous underhanded antics of the corporate representatives in this novel.

The story begins with agents of one of those unscrupulous and power-hungry corporations scouting a new system for resource exploitation. They're quite surprised to discover its Earthlike but metal-poor world to be inhabited by a native civilization. Although they'd like to make a landing and get right down to business making money by means fair or foul, they've got just enough fear of the law that they head home to report their discovery to the proper authorities.

The discovery quickly becomes the subject of a meeting of the Freehold's Council of Citizens (the word "Citizen" has a different meaning in Freehold parlance, referring to one of the officials of their minimalistic government), who move a fair amount of other business aside to deal with it . Given that the UN (which is doing a pretty good job of recovering from the beating Ken Chinran and his team gave Earth in The Weapon) is also showing an interest in this new planet and its population, it's quickly decided that they need to send an official delegation. They also give careful consideration to how their delegation may best avoid unnecesary cultural disruption, and particularly how to avoid exposing them to metals, or even the concept that metals exist.

They arrive with all due ceremony, only to discover the UN's already there and being their usual assinine selves, spouting all their transnationalist-progressivist pretty-sounding rhetoric but doing nothing substantial to improve the situation. Too good to dirty their hands with actual work, doncha know.

There are also delegations from some of the other independent planets and representatives of various religious groups who want to determine the spiritual status of the Ishkul and maybe look for converts. And of course we've got those corporate types, just champing at the bit in eagerness to start wheeling and dealing. And given that a lot of them tend to look upon rules as just another game to be played rather than moral boundaries to be honored, it's pretty clear that some serious trouble is in the offing from that quarter and it's just a matter of how long and how much.

And the longer things go, the more it becomes obvious that the Ishkul are neither primitive nor stupid. Far from it, they're downright ingenious in developing ways to make unpromising materials do work usually accomplished by metals in human cultures. Furthermore, the slower pace of development enforced by the limitations of the materials available to them has not hindered their theoretical work. If anything, it's led them to do a lot more thinking through the theoretical underpinnings of a technology before trying to develop it, such that when something comes into their grasp, they can exploit the implications of it very rapidly. In this they rather resemble the Gw'oth in Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner's Fleet of Worlds series, particularly Destroyer of Worlds.

One of the really neat things about this novel is how it really highlights the flexobility and open-mindedness inherent in the Freehold's system of governance. Status as a Resident is not dependent upon birth on their planet, or even membership in the species Homo sapiens, but entirely upon one's competence and willingness to take the Oath of Responsibility. We saw some of it in the original volume, when Kendra who had fled trom the UN is welcomed once she takes the Oath of Responsibility, on pretty much the same footing as those who were born on Grainne. In this volume we see the Ishkul examining the implications of this legal apparatus with their usual logical thoroughness and set to using it to their advantage in developing long-term relations with the Freehold, including an exchange of embassies, complete with extraterritoriality.

The ending is quite satisfying, as long as you have a sense of humor and can handle seeing humans getting egg all over their faces courtesy of a nonhuman intelligence. And there's promise of further cooperation between humanity and the Ishkul, presumably with gains for humanity as the Ishkul gain access to a whole range of new materials. I'll be interested in seeing how he will handle it in his long-term development of this fictional universe.

And I'm happy to see that Ken Chinran's daughter has not just survived and got safely home to the Freehold, but has prospered. Although she is having to use a different name, that seems to be more a matter of protecting her identity as an Operative than the result of any stigma adhering to her as the daughter of her father and his role in the war with Earth.

Review posted July 21, 2011

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