The Metalmark Contract by David Batchelor
Black Rose Writing, 2011, 248 pages, 978-1612960111, Paperback, $16.95
As a wise man once said, “You can’t always get what you want.” David Batchelor’s The Metalmark Contract reminds us of that truism. When Metalmark, a mercantile extraterrestrial with goods to trade, makes contact with Earth, the planet is forced to cope with all of the unknown factors an alien life form would present. Batchelor’s rendition of an exhausted theme, however, leaves the reader with a disappointing experience most often found in the taste of cheesy nachos and the smell of BO from that last B-rated sci-fi flick at the dollar theater. Not unenjoyable by any means, just in need of some serious spit, elbow grease, and a roll of toilet paper.
The source of the cheese and BO is Batchelor’s writing and its attempt at the delicate craft of storytelling and character development. Indeed, the best thing for the prose might be another draft and a stern editor. The reader is assailed with ill-timed and random fragments of plot as it is disgorged from Batchelor’s pen, headless of the flow, the nuance, or the suspense of story crafting. As close as can be told, the alien Metalmark strikes a trading deal with the United Nations and must, with his ragtag group of newfound friends, survive a Jihadist attack and the United States government in order to blow up the planet Mercury so he can spawn. Readers will be lucky to keep their heads in the face of Batchelor’s onslaught, much less have a clear idea of where the novel is going.
One unintended consequence of the novel’s rapid-fire approach is that one never has a chance to develop an emotional response to the book. Readers might find themselves unable to feel empathy or care for any of the novel’s many characters. For instance, we never really know who to root for. As the pages turn, a series of inconclusive candidates for the role of protagonist are presented only to be abruptly withdrawn. Is the alien Metalmark our protagonist? How about the UN official, the charming astronomer, or the beautiful Chinese astronaut? Each potential protagonist is given such cursory attention that it’s difficult to even remember their names after finishing the novel. The same problem is had in the search for an antagonist. The random group of Jihadists, the big bad US government, and even the novel’s namesake are, at some point, presented as possible villains. While playing hard to get can be as effective as any ploy to tantalize the reader, The Metalmark Contract only infuriates.
Yet we still go to the B-rated sci-fi flick and, gluttons for punishment, eat the nachos. Despite the book’s seemingly insurmountable deficiencies, the reader can’t quite make the decision to put the thing down and move on to more palatable dishes; underneath all the cheese, there is something that still offers interest. One thing that Batchelor is successful in is his description of the logistics involved in an intelligent extraterrestrial visiting our nick of the stars. What would our guest eat? How would politics and culture react? Would our cosmic guest be radioactive? The abrasively unpolished style of writing, however, makes Batchelor’s interesting answers to these logistical questions only slightly easier on the way down than the rest of the novel.
Though the book is in need of some red ink and a rewrite in the worst kind of way, David Batchelor’s The Metalmark Contract is not without its redeeming qualities. With the aforementioned remedies, Batchelor’s book could make it out of the dollar theater one day. It might even become the succulent feast we all wanted in the first place. Until then, pass the nachos, please.
Thank you to David Batchelor for providing a review copy of this novel.