Reviewed by Steven H Silver
When the aliens arrive, Johnson Mukerjii’s plans to launch a holographic display are scuttled by the sudden influx of advanced technology and an uncertain future. In First Contract, Greg Costikyan outlines Mukerjii’s fall from the arena of American industry and rise in the realm of interstellar commerce.
First Contract is a satire of the business world, attempting to explain how finance works and why it frequently is counter-intuitive. Costikyan describes it in terms which highlight its ludicrousness without actually condemning the system or attempting to suggest a better way. Mukerjii must build a business from scratch, having experts explain the different parts of the process to him. Since he has already gone through the process once before, it is strange that he has such a slight understanding, but that can be attributed to the different circumstances he was in.
The business world forms the background to the novel. The aliens who appear are mere window dressing. There is nothing particularly alien about any of the races except their physical appearance. Their purpose in the book seems to be simply to instigate a massive crash of Earth’s financial and business institutions, thereby giving Costikyan the opportunity to demonstrate how somebody with absolutely nothing can manage to build a successful company.
All of the aliens would fit in to the American business model, although the zdeg, who run the largest outlet in the galactic sector have a limited acceptance of the idea of limited liability. One of the things Costikyan uses them for, beyond the crash is to take business practices to their illogical extreme, thereby spotlighting how illogical they are. This primarily occurs in the final chapters of the novel when Mukerjii and his associates travel to an interstellar trade show.
Mukerjii never becomes a sympathetic character, although neither is he a vile character. In fact, few of the characters manage to insinuate themselves into the reader’s emotions. Mukerjii uses fraud throughout the book while Leander Huff, one of his antagonistic backers gives every indication of being a racist. Characters who are sympathetic, such as Mukerjii’s CIO David Greenblatt, are quickly shuttled off stage after Mukerjii takes advantage of them.
Mukerjii is more an anti-hero than a hero. His concerns are focused narrowly on his own well-being, and even there he defines his well-being in terms of wealth and ownership. Even when he is reduced to homelessness, he takes pride in his education and ability to cook food which is above the norm for the situation. Nevertheless, he sneers at his fellow homeless because they don’t (appear to) see anything wrong with eating cat food when nothing else is available. Mukerjii’s personal values are brought into as much question as the business ethics which Costikyan satirizes.
First Contract is a well-written, clear and enjoyable book which explains business concepts. It fails in being a great book because it does not make any palliative suggestions for the situations it describes, nor does it deem to pass judgment on those situations. Costikyan is merely pointing to them saying, “Look, aren’t those customs funny,” without examining why they have arisen.
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