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Second Contact
J.D. Austin
Ace Books, 199 pages

Second Contact
J.D. Austin
J.D. Austin (aka Joshua Dann) was born in New York and grew up in Connecticut. He was educated at the University of Miami and Fordham University in New York, with a double major in history and literature. He began working as a newspaper reporter, but later went into advertising and sales promotion. He now lives in Los Angeles.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Some while ago I had a discussion with an SF writer who is also a reviewer. He has a policy of never reviewing books he dislikes. There are several arguments to be advanced in support of this notion, among them simply not wanting to waste the time reading a bad book, but the one which impressed me the most was the suggestion that when you encounter a book you dislike, a main reason may be that you are not the intended audience for that book: that you are for some reason out of sympathy with what the author is trying to do. I'm not wholly convinced, but I do think there is some merit to that notion. On the other hand, as a reviewer I do think I can recognize, with no doubt some considerable margin of error, a bad book -- and I hope that readers will at the least be able to calibrate my tastes, and take my comments accordingly. So -- to drop the other shoe -- I will report that I thought Second Contact by J.D. Austin to be a very bad book. On the other hand, I may simply have missed the author's point, or I may not be the intended audience. I can only report what I felt.

J.D. Austin is not a new writer -- he has apparently published three previous novels under his real name, Joshua Dann, and this seems to be his second novel under the name Austin. I haven't seen any of his earlier books. Second Contact is the story of a planet named Kivlan, far across the Universe from Earth. An Earth expedition visits Kivlan, only to be chased away by a couple of missiles. Some time later, Earth sends another expedition, this one armed rather better, in a sincere attempt to really get to know the Kivlanians. On another narrative thread, we follow the action on Kivlan. Apparently Kivlan is a Utopia of lazy people, having existed in planet-wide peace for 300 years, but unfortunately some volcanic eruptions are making the inhabitants cranky and even psychotic, to the extent that they are annoyed by the intrusion of Earth's expedition, and, later, to the extent that one man tries to start a war and take over the planet.

It's hard to say exactly what the book is about. Characters are introduced, described in the most glowing terms, given love interests, and then dropped. The focus shifts from the first Earth expedition, to the second expedition, to the action on Kivlan, and back. Conflicts are introduced, then resolved effortlessly, usually because of the overwhelming good nature of almost everyone, on both Earth and Kivlan. In the end, the book reminded me oddly of another very bad novel, Alien Planet by Fletcher Pratt, a story which was first published in a pulp in the early 30s, then resurrected after Pratt's death and published as a book. That book is a ham-handedly satirical account of the journey of some Earthfolk to an alien planet -- the main point being a bitter contrast of the society on that other planet with that on Earth. In a broadly similar way, much of Second Contact deals with the rather curious utopian society of Kivlan. But the satire, if that was intended, has almost no bite. Moreover, the alien society as portrayed is terribly unconvincing, and terribly inconsistent. And the depiction of the next century society on Earth is also unconvincing, and has little extrapolated depth. So -- if this is a satire, it fails for lack of bite. Is it a serious examination of an alternate society? It fails for lack of rigor, and lack of consistency. Is it a fun romp? It fails for lack of plot, and lack of interesting characters. In a word -- it fails. Utterly.

The characters are uniformly cardboard, given fawning background stories, and unconvincing and emotionally flat love stories. (Most of which are back story anyway.) Naturally there is a love story between a Kivlanian and a human (though the cover portrait switches the sexes) -- it takes about a paragraph to develop. The plot is both discursive and implausible. The science is beyond absurd (though I will say that the book never makes a pretence of having real science -- and in the hands of, say, Robert Sheckley, the same level of science can work just fine). I thought I detected a few jokes -- some even made me grin, some grimace, and I'm sure I missed some others. I will say that the prose is serviceable -- nothing special, but not an encumbrance to the reading of the book. It was a waste of some three hours of my time.

I can only add a caveat -- some editor saw enough in this book to buy it. It is possible that I have simply and profoundly missed the point. But tread carefully.

Copyright © 2001 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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