First Contract by Greg Costikyan
(Tor, July 2000, US$24, 287 pages, ISBN: 0312873964.)
First Contract is a very entertaining update of a classic SF question: what happens if the aliens arrive, and WE become the Aztecs or Incas or South Sea islanders? Costikyan's answer: a business collapse that makes the Great Depression look like a 'rolling readustment', bringing 50% unemployment, shantytowns and soup lines to Silicon Valley -- and to every industrial country. After all, who's going to buy a Lexus, when you can buy an alien aircar that goes from zero to Mach 1 in 60 seconds for $30,000?
Johnson Mukerjii, the fabulously wealthy founder of Mukerjii Data Systems, quickly becomes a statistic as he loses his company, his mansion, his Jag -- and his trophy wife, the treacherous but practical Maureen, who, noting it was "sweet, but possibly unwise" of him to have given her power of attorney, cleans him out of everything but his underwear and pocket change: $17.41.
Mukerjii finds a certain satisfaction in cooking 'thon pour chat, avec une sauce tomate' for his fellow down-and-outers in Sludgetown. But you can't keep a good entrepeneur down, and with an unwitting grubstake from a wealthy, right-wing SF author -- the galactics find his human-supremacist novels a hoot -- he introduces the Mukerjii Drink Valet: an improved drink-bulb for zero-gee travel. It's a hit with the alien tourists, but there are trillions of potential customers out there -- so it's off to the Carina Arm Travel Accessories Trade Show, once Mukerjii surmounts the minor difficulty of raising $85 million for starfare, registration and travel expenses....
One of many nice touches is the rate-of-exchange disparity: one gozashtandu is worth about US$5,000, so power, air, gravity and radiation shielding for Mukerjii's booth will set him back 6500 gosh, or a cool $32 mill American.
But the flipside is -- to a galactic, a gosh is a negligible sum, so he can retail the Drink Valet, which costs maybe a quarter to manufacture, for $5,000 apiece! Even after shipping and sales commissions, this will leave a 'substantial' profit....
But the biggest customers will be the zdeg warrior-traders, who regard breach of contract as a capital offense. And limited-liability is a truly alien concept to the zdeg....
This is a very funny book -- I lost track of the number of times I laughed aloud. Plus it's economically-literate, clever, brisk, wise, witty and short. Some of the exaggerations-for-effect border on cartoonish, and I've given up on predicting other people's reaction to humor. But if you know the world of IPO's and trade shows, big business and burn rates, schmooze, booze and sales -- First Contract is your kind of book.
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© Peter D Tillman 27 January 2001