Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index

SECOND CONTACT

A novel by Harry Turtledove (1999, Del Rey Books)
Book 1 in the Colonization Trilogy.

As the colonization fleet arrives at Earth, the Lizards deal with ginger smuggling, curious human endeavors, and the destruction of some of their spaceships.

 

 

2 stars

Read February 1st to 12th, 2002  
    I'm still not sure what to make of this.  It was enjoyable, and I really liked revisiting the characters from the previous series.  However, not much happened, and it didn't even feel like the author was setting up for things in future books, with a couple of exceptions.  

This book is a long read.  But for the most part, it is quite enjoyable, peeking in on the lives of so many people.  Like the Worldwar series, this one has a huge cast of characters.  I could not often encourage myself to read more than a single chapter at a time.  There was so much going on, that it needed time to sink in.  Or rather, there wasn't much going on, but the characters were very busy, doing... nothing, for the most part.  

I had hoped this series would take up with the next generation of humans, who are just entering adulthood.  Instead, there are a few people from the next generation, but most of the main characters we have already met.  That's not really a problem, since they are enjoyable to read about, but I would have liked more involvement from the youngsters.

Almost twenty years have passed since the Lizards (the Race) came to conquer Tosev 3 (Earth).  The conquest fleet made its peace with the unexpectedly advanced humans in Striking the Balance, in a really neat cessation of hostilities.  The world outside of the US, the USSR, and the Greater German Reich (and concessions made to Canada, Britain and Japan) is under the rule of the Race.  Some people go about their own business, accepting the situation, others are constantly fighting the Lizards.  No nuclear bombs have been dropped since the truce came into effect. 

But humans have been very busy, inventing, stealing Lizard technology, and creating incredible advances.  The problem with this book in the way the author has done it is that we never get to see, or even hear people discuss, what went on in all that time.  Yeager tells us that he has gone to the Moon.  Why?  He was just a soldier who grew to know a lot about the Race.  He was never even a pilot.  Why send him there, instead of somebody like Glen Johnson?  Everything that we have now, and some things even beyond, like a Moon base and a trip to Mars, exists instead in the early 1960s because of the fusion of Lizard and human technology.  Of course, things are not quite as good, like lots of static on the telephone (and no cell phones), medium quality TV sets (I don't know about TV programs...), and the like.  But we have spaceships that can maneuver really quickly (more like a fighter jet than a spacecraft), hydrogen powered cars (much less pollution), and the internet, in some juvenile stage of development.  I wish we could learn more about how we got there.  Instead, because we don't have any specialists as characters in the book, and the characters that we do have only use the stuff, it must be taken as a given.  

From the point of view of the Race, we get a few that are from the conquest fleet, and are wary of humans, but we also get a couple of females from the colonization fleet.  The main point here, repeated over and over and over again ad nauseam, is that the Race wishes the Tosevites were as primitive as their probe, sent a thousand years ago, told them we were.  They hate the people, they hate the weather, and they can't believe Tosevites have not been subdued, and that they have advanced so far.  This is repeated so often that it gets tedious, not just at the beginning, but even as far as in the last fifteen pages!

The most interesting plotline in the book is the one that is most frustrating, because there is no conclusion to this book.  We get to follow the on-orbit activities of American astronaut Glen Johnson (a play on John Glenn?) through his routine space missions, none of which really grab the reader with interest.  He interacts with the German astronaut, and about two thirds of the way through the book, he begins to get interested in the American space station.  After a series of questions, he gets a very stern visit telling him that if he persists, his career will be destroyed!  There must be some really big secret up there.  So one day he fakes a rocket failure and strands himself close to the station, so that they are forced to take him aboard -and they are not happy about that at all!  As I suspected, the gigantic space station manages to leave orbit.  It goes to the asteroid belt, where humans will prospect...  that's all we get.  I believe, and it would be obvious to believe, that the Americans will be building a larger ship, one that can travel to Home (planet of the Lizards).  What their plans are, I have no idea.

Sam Yeager, the American ball player turned soldier, who developed an affinity for the Lizards, also gets interested in the space station.  He is also told that he should stop or face the consequences.  He does, officially, but still probes the Lizard internet to find out what they know about the project.  Eventually, he is kicked out when the Lizards discover the hole in their security.  Yeager doesn't really have much to do except give us a glimpse at American society.  Because the younger generation didn't know the world before the Lizards, and they know the aliens are superior technologically, they imitate them by shaving their heads, wearing very little (allowing the author to make some present day observations about teen girls), and painting themselves in the Lizard rank body paint.  From the look of things, American society has gone on.  And there's not much more to say about it.

On the other side of the Atlantic, however, lots is going on.  In Germany, Johannes Drucker is an astronaut, riding a nuclear-armed spacecraft.  He is having a grand time living in this technically superior country, until the secret service discover that his wife may have a Jewish grandmother.  She is nearly sent to the gas chamber, and his career wrecked, except that he has friends in high places.  He spends the rest of the book wondering if his former commander (I loved Jager in the Worldwar series, but he's dead now) had the right idea about opposing openly the anti-Semitism that was running around his country.  We get to see a little about how Germany has developed from his point of view.

We get more about German society from occupied France, however.  Monique Dutourd has an SS man watching her all the time, enrolled in her classes, asking her out, and searching for her brother, who smuggles ginger.  Yes, the spice is still a problem for the Race.  A big one.  The Germans don't want her brother put out of business, but they want him to operate under their supervision.  The plot was interesting for a little while, but got stale pretty quickly.  They catch him, put him under their "protection", but capture him again after he is found to be seeking other options from a British Jew and some Americans.  But by the end, he's back out, being supported by the Germans for smuggling ginger, and by the Race for smuggling hard drugs for humans into France.  Even the SS man, Dieter Kuhn, wasn't all that interesting, as his scenes were pretty much repeated from beginning to end every time we saw Monique.

The British Jew is, of course, David Goldfarb.  He finds himself under pressure from an old friend and superior who knows the Britain is leaning towards the Reich.  Goldfarb can't afford to say no to the missions he is sent on, even when one of them means going into Nazi Germany.  The entire mission doesn't make sense because of that.  There must have been better people available, but the missions are really just incentive for Goldfarb and his family to prepare to emigrate to Canada or the US.  I don't know if they will be able to do it soon enough, though, before consequences happen.  It was interesting to see, even if the story didn't do much for me, how much Britain was leaning towards Germany.  Without the rest of its former Empire, and being just across the English Channel from the Reich, it is no wonder that they feel this way.  Culture leaks from country to country, especially when they are so close.  (And I did enjoy Pierre's comment to Goldfarb that he should wish that there was a tunnel from France to England under the channel!)

The Americans who were sent to negotiate with Pierre about ginger smuggling were none other than Rance Auerbach and Penny Summers.  Yuck!  I remember waiting eagerly for their scenes in the Worldwar saga.  Here, I dreaded them.  Rance was shot full of holes at the end of Striking the Balance, but survived.  Now he is in terrible condition, full of acidity towards the world.  When Penny walks back into his life after fifteen years, looking for his help with ginger smuggling, he agrees.  They cross into Mexico and get caught.  After they are sent to try and get Pierre to stop smuggling ginger (a ridiculous mission, too), they are captured by the Germans.  Thanks to the fleetlord's intervention, they are released, and are then sent to South Africa by way of punishment / reward for their failure / partial success.  There was absolutely nothing interesting about this plot in the slightest.  I can just feel the movement of pawns, though, so that we get a point of view from South Africa in the next book.  Less of this, please.

The Soviet Union doesn't get much to do in this book.  Mostly, it's internal strife, everybody vying for power, everybody looking over their shoulders.  Stalin is dead, like Hitler, and Molotov is in charge now.  He wonders about the leaders of his spy agency and military, and ends up in a cell by the end.  But the military leader stops the coup, which results in Molotov's restoration to the job of top boss.  

Another human in that part of the world, Mordechai Anielewicz is the leader of the Polish Jews, and has in his possession the nuclear bomb that the Germans tried to set off at the end of Striking the Balance.  Even though he didn't do anything, either, I really liked his story.  His tells of the strife of the people under control of the Lizards.  He avoids fights and ends up moving the bomb after it is discovered.  He is still suffering from the effects of nerve gas from disarming the nuclear bomb, something that struck Ludmila worse (she's still alive, but only appears on about two pages), and which gave Jager an early death.  

Also in a land controlled by the Lizards, Moisse Rushie lives in Jerusalem.  He observes firsthand how the Lizards have calmed the area down, so that the Jews and Muslims are not fighting each other anymore.  And when the colonization fleet arrives, the Muslims take up a jihad against the Lizards, making his town more dangerous.

Finally, we get to China, where the Communists are still fighting the Lizards, making life miserable there for their oppressors.  Liu Han and her daughter Liu Mei travel around and devise plans.  They end up going to America to ask for arms shipments because the Russian ones stopped flowing for a time.  She seems awed by the US.  I really wondered if she would defect.  As she spends more time there, she sees how much more equal women are, how good the quality of life is, and how wealthy some people can be.  And the people that she meets (outside official duties), like Yeager, are really nice.  I really liked the way Straha (the Lizard shiplord defector from the last series) tries to interpret Yeager's son's attraction to Liu Mei, while meeting with them.  It was a blast!

The Lizards, from their point of view, try mostly to deal with ginger.  They show mild interest in everything else that is going on, like the American space station, the gun shipments, and their new cities (especially in Australia, which is almost human-free after the bombs they dropped in the last series).  But ginger is a major problem for them.  It is a worse drug than any humans have tested, because once they scent it, if it is within reach, instinct forces them to lap it up.  And they feel power-high.  But worse is the effect it has on their females, which have only begun to arrive with the colonization ships.  It sends them into their breeding season prematurely.  And males cannot resist the pheromones of a female, so when the females started using ginger, there were massive orgies in the streets.  

And so humans got their revenge on the Lizards for all the ridicule they put humans through about "disgusting" mating habits.  But the Lizards were more inventive than even that:  they invented rape (though the author calls it seduction) by giving a female ginger in her food or drink, which forced them to be sexually receptive, and then the females invented prostitution, too, by accepting ginger for monetary payment!  I wondered if the females were in real heat, able to produce eggs, or if it was a false, drug-induced condition.  But by the end, females are laying eggs, so it must be real.  I thought it would be more psychologically interesting if it put them in heat, but didn't make them fertile.  Every time a female goes into heat, no matter who is around, even Atvar himself, the mating urge takes over and thinking disappears.  Yet there are some who begin to think rationally about both female pheromones and ginger, and are able to resist, even for a short while.  This signifies that, like with human drugs, the Lizards will be able to survive without the substance.  They just need time to figure out how.  I wonder if the Emperor, when he hears of all the problems on Tosev 3, will declare a quarantine, or destroy the planet entirely!

The first representative of the Race that we meet is Fotsev, a male who patrols an area inhabited by Muslims, probably in Iran.  They send in suicide bombers, and do all the things a jihad requires of them against the Lizards.  By the end, they have figured out how to lay a neat trap for the patrols, by kidnapping females, giving them ginger, and luring the troops into a dead end.  Fotsev serves the same purpose Ulhass did in Striking the Balance, who ended up in a Soviet gulag and died in Siberia.  Fotsev is one of those who is able to resist ginger, even though he craves it continuously.  He can even think clearly about keeping up their guard when the mating urge hits him.  Unfortunately, he is dead by the end.

Two females, Felless and Nesseref, go into heat because of ginger.  Both resist it eventually, but the craving is probably there for life.  Felless is studying human behavior in Germany, and seems to get nowhere.  She is frustrated through the whole book.  Nesseref is a shuttlecraft pilot in Poland, and trades remarks with Anielewicz, comments on the stupidity of treating humans as equals, while worrying about his possible nuclear bomb at the same time.  Ttomalss also makes an appearance from the last series.  He is the male who kidnapped Liu Han's child, and suffered because of it.  But he has taken another child, and she is now in her mid teens.  He has observed Kassquit all her life, and she thinks like a member of the Race instead of a human.  She is the one who catches Yeager on their network, and I think by the end, she will end up turning on her shipmates, because they treat her like dirt, while she might learn more good stuff about humans than she thought was possible.

The final thing which concerns the Race, which actually appeared at the very beginning of the book, is the destruction of some of their colonization ships through a nuclear attack.  But nobody knows who did it.  Everybody thinks it was likely Germany, then possibly Russia.  But I think it was the US, mainly because of these potential leads, but especially because of the vehemence with which Yeager thinks those responsible should be punished.  What irony if it ended up being his country that gets punished!  I would have liked to see the reaction of Atvar's officers to the symbolic strikes he made at all countries, because he couldn't figure out who did it.  I am certain they would have been very unsatisfied.

I appreciate the thorough research the author must have performed in order to write this book, though I would be clueless if he was making it all up.  It seemed very "right", though.  When dealing with a particular nation, we get totally immersed in their culture.  The language is full of local jargon, and the Russians and Germans even speak with a certain stiffness, as if afraid to give away too much.  And when we switch to the Race, a human becomes a "Big Ugly", without insult.  I really like that about these books.

The anti-Semitic viewpoint, from both sides, was well presented.  The characters do a lot of thinking about the Jews, positive and negative, and the Lizards even ridicule the Muslim religion every chance they get, even though both groups have proved to be a nuisance to the rule of the Race.  Unfortunately, when we get over to North America, we have much less of a basis for racist remarks and their reactions: references to American blacks and natives seem to come out of the blue, instead of the story.  It's as if the author noted that he was painting too rosy a picture of the US and had to do something about it.  Not much is done, and what we get stands out glaringly.

Still, the book progresses at a congenial pace, even a pleasant pace for much of it, and there is lots of thinking time between actions.  Somehow, though, it isn't as interesting as even the least interesting of the Worldwar books.  I wonder if it is because there was no real action.  In the last book, characters went from crisis to crisis.  Here, it is much more like everyday life.  But I wonder if, instead, it is because we have moved out of real history (interrupted, of course), and into a future stemming from that alternate history.  This is a complete might-have-been.  Worldwar was actual history until the Lizards showed up.  They used technology and research from our 1930s and 1940s to battle.  Everything from the truce onward is based on hybrid technology, and there are fewer "real" people or circumstances.  

I am still torn about whether a higher rating is deserved, but I think not.  Because I got tired with the everyday life presented quite early on, and that tediousness was not quite countered effectively with interesting events, I think I have to stay with the lower score.  The characters could have brought it up quite a bit.  They were, for the most part, very well developed.  Unfortunately, they also served the plot more than the plot served them.  They were used more for dealing out information rather than causing that information to come into existence.  

The book suffers because of the lack of resolution, or even a mini-resolution, of just about every plot.  Fotsev is of course dead, Molotov has passed a test of leadership, and Liu Han went back to China.  So there is some resolution, at least.  But I have a feeling the author wrote the whole thing, and divided it all up into three parts, instead of making it an actual trilogy.  Add in the useless plots involving Goldfarb and the American ginger smugglers, and this book was not quite worth it.  I hope the second book amounts to more.

 
   

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