Volume 08, Number 04, Fall, 1990

Contact and Commune; Converse and Conflict

By L. Neil Smith

1990: Popular Library
Reviewed by Tom Lauerman
October 1990

I assume Neil Smith really enjoyed himself writing the Forge of the Elders trilogy. I certainly enjoyed reading the two-thirds published so far. Presuming the third volume, Concert and Cosmos, is published this year, the entire trilogy is an obvious Prometheus Award nominee. (see Smith’s letter elsewhere this issue—Len)

Actually, when I first read Contact and Commune several months ago, for reasons I can’t remember, I wasn’t much impressed by the book. In fact, I had to make a conscious decision to buy Converse and Conflict when I saw it in the bookstore. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately re-read both books to get a better conception of the world and world-view of the Elders.

Smith’s stock-in-trade is a cosmos of infinite parallel universes, each reflecting the consequences of alternate paths of evolution, conscious choices, random accidents, each decision point producing a new branching of probability. So here, a rag-tag expedition of humans from (our?) Earth, sent by the American Soviet Socialist Republic and the World Soviet, reach their destination asteroid to encounter a mind-boggling discovery. 5023 Eris is already inhabitable, terraformed by beings from a parallel universe.

Another of Smith’s favorite themes, intelligent non-human beings, is given play here. The asteroid is populated by nautiloids, avian/dinosauroids, descendants of sea scorpions, sharks, insects and spiders, as well as one intelligence-enhanced talking dog. These individuals are all investors in or employees of an enterprise organized by Mr. Thoggosh to explore the asteroid.

Mr. Thoggosh’s nautiloid ancestors had reached sapience some 500 million years prior to the time of the novels. Members of the other species have been “collected” over time by the nautiloid Elders from alternative Earths, where each had been the dominant sapient species, though none were nearly as advanced as the Elders. The one human among this group, Eichra Oren, was himself a descendant of the people rescued 15,000 years earlier from Antarctica on the story’s Earth (our Earth?).

The Elders’ world is fully libertarian, capitalist, technologically developed, with a firm moral foundation in the philosophy called p’Na. “No Elder, nor any among the many species associated with them, could abide an unpaid moral debt, especially one owed by himself. It was customary to resolve personal and business disputes, and to examine one’s own conscience periodically, with the aid of professional assessors wise in the half-billion-year old philosophy of p’Na and capable of prescribing measures to restore the balance.”

Eichra Oren was himself such a debt assessor, hired by Mr. Thoggosh to help investigate the murders of a geologist from the Earth expedition and an Elder. This investigation is carried out by Eichra Oren and Major Estrellita Reille y Sanchez amidst the confusion resulting from orders to the expedition to secure the asteroid against beings millions of years their superiors. The second book covers Eichra Oren’s effort to discover the secret purpose of Mr. Thoggosh’s enterprise while the humans of the expedition each struggle to discover his or her own best self interest.

Because of these investigations, there is ample opportunity for conversation, and thus for explanation of the Elders’ world to the humans and the humans’ world to the Elders, and often the humans themselves. Here Smith has done marvellously well. While we as readers learn a lot about the Elders’ philosophy, we do so as the story is carried forward, without bogging down. This itself is no mean accomplishment.

Moreover, some of Smith’s previously common practices, explanation by way of relative clauses inserted often clumsily in to the middle of sentences, is greatly moderated. Where used, the device is handled usually with deftness. Only a few times did I have to stop to re-chew a sentence, just to understand the words. The characterizations here are splendid. Eichra Oren and his companion dog Oasam are an intriguing pair of investigators. Mr. Thoggosh is the most delightful entrepreneur since Poul Anderson’s Nicholas van Rijn. All members of the Earth expedition, whether major or minor, are individuals of appropriate depth and character. Rendered equally well are the members of the Elder’s enterprise.

Smith is working at the top of his form here, and I look forward eagerly to the finale.

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