This review of the first two books in Allen Steele’s ongoing series first appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction 198, February 2005.
Science fiction loves its traditions, even if those traditions are newly formed. If you are writing that most traditional of science fictional forms, therefore, the colonisation of a new world, there are certain rigid patterns that must be followed. For a start, your model is, inevitably, the colonisation of America, that original New World; and overwhelmingly the novel must celebrate the great self-proclaimed American virtues of self-reliance and the pioneer spirit. Rather blatantly, therefore, the dissenters who first land on the new world of Coyote name their landing craft ‘Plymouth’ and ‘Mayflower’ – though the fact that the leader of the expedition is called Robert E. Lee raises the spectre of another and perhaps more questionable type of American heroism. Allen Steele is nothing if not a traditionalist.
He has now produced two novels out of a series of stories that originally appeared (with one exception) in Asimov’s Science Fiction. There are advantages to the fix-up: the way Steele can shift quickly from one key incident to the next, from one key character to the next, the way prominent figures can be written out more cleanly and easily by shifting them from centre stage in one tale to the periphery in the next when they are killed. It is also clear, from the fact that the stories appeared over a very short period of time and in exactly the order of the novel’s internal chronology, that Steele conceived these stories as forming part of a novel probably from the very start. Nevertheless the novels, particularly the first, have the disadvantages we have come to associate with the fix-up: the awkward discontinuities between chapters, the fact that each chapter begins afresh with a new story, the way that certain chapters are at best tangential to any overall story arc.
Any work with a large cast of characters (and it is generally a bad sign if the author feels obliged to include a Dramatis Personae at the beginning of his novel) is likely to have a hesitant start: there are just too many people that need to be introduced before the whole thing can get going properly. But Coyote suffers from an especially stumbling and bumbling beginning. An extreme right-wing government in America has, inexplicably, expended vast resources upon a one-off colonisation ship aimed at Coyote, a habitable moon that orbits a ringed gas giant in the system of Ursa Major B. However, a majority of the crew of the ship side with America’s repressed liberals and in the most unlikely coup in American science fiction a group of dissidents who also happen to include many of the engineers who worked on the ship are able to take the places of the intended colonists and soar away to freedom. It is a silly, ill-conceived chapter: other than labelling it bad and rigid, Steele seems to have given no thought to how a repressive right wing regime might operate, and the coup is dependent on so many coincidences, so many convenient ‘friends’ in exactly the right places, that it would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. Fortunately, after this opener Steele can more or less leave politics to one side until the second volume, where he is on much more assured ground when he pits his heroic colonists up against a far more traditional enemy of American science fiction, communism.
Before this ship-load of new pilgrims reaches its new home, Steele interjects an odd chapter in which one of the would-be colonists is awakened early from suspended animation, and through some technical sleight of hand is not able to return to the mechanical womb. He spends over thirty years alone on an otherwise deserted ship, going mad, finding a way to recover his sanity, then finally succumbing. The characterisation is far more psychologically astute than the re-used cardboard of the opener, though that isn’t necessarily saying much. But this chapter sits at a tangent to the rest of the novel, and its key moment – when our Crusoe spots what can only be another starship – is quietly forgotten (is there to be a third novel?).
The next five stories settle down into a fairly standard story of setting up a colony, facing up to hardships, and beginning to explore the world. In Victorian literature there was a strong moral imperative: all who indulged illicitly in sex would meet an unhappy end, the gruesomeness of their death a measure of their level of repentance. Steele operates a similar moral imperative: all who are unhappy on Coyote, all who question their presence there, all who do not bend their whole being willingly to engagement with the new world, are similarly killed. A pristine world is liable to be a harsh environment, the new pilgrims are likely to face hardships and death, but the way each of this run of chapters seems to turn upon one death becomes so mechanistic that we soon learn to spot who is next for the chop. Usually pecked to death by vicious flightless bird that seems to be the largest predator on the planet, though it is also one of Steele’s more ludicrous inventions. (His other inventions are far more convincing, especially a symbiotic relationship between a vicious wasp and an evil-smelling plant, though the world does seem strangely denuded of life.)
For these chapters Steele does a good job of maintaining tension, of keeping you reading, but there is a sense that the characters are no deeper than the paper, that it is the world that has absorbed all his creative energies. Then in the last chapter we get the unexpected arrival of a new spaceship. A communistic regime has replaced the proto-fascists who ruled America at the start of the novel, and they have developed a much faster starship (it is curious that, whatever the repressive regime, only America is capable of developing space flight – in a brief, scene-setting prologue at the start of Coyote Rising, we see a colonised Mars and Moon, but no notion that any other than the American successor state could reach the stars). Now the communists are bringing their regime to Coyote, and in a neat climax to the first novel the original settlers quietly up sticks and decamp to an unknown part of the new world.
The second novel is devoted in its entirety to the war between our original Pilgrim Fathers, the embodiment of all that is good and noble and ingenious, and the interloping commies, who are quite simply nasty in every respect. It is the sort of battle that science fiction has played out all too many times over all too many years, and the various staccato confrontations that the various stories recount follow so predictable a format we are never in any real doubt how they will turn out. Yet paradoxically the very formulaic nature of this story has allowed Steele the freedom to create much deeper and more interesting characterisation. In other words, Coyote Rising is a much less interesting book than Coyote, but is much better written.
The hero of this novel is Carlos Montero (Steele is carefully multi-ethnic in his characters, both good and bad). In the first novel he was the arrogant, impulsive, self-regarding leader of most of the limited explorations of the world. He was dangerous to know – an awful lot of deaths occurred around him – but the fact that he returned from an epic solo exploration to be at the birth of his child indicated a streak of sentimentality which is clearly meant to show he isn’t all bad. By the second novel he has become the mature, resourceful natural leader of the resistance. Not only has his character changed, so has his name. He is now known as Rigil Kent, an outlandish name that he seems to have taken on for no obvious reason. Since he is not living a double life, the new nom de guerre serves no obvious purpose, and no attempt is made to explain why he should have taken on this particular name.
Each story that makes up this novel concerns some particular escapade, or raid, or hair’s-breadth escape. Always, crucial figures in the communist camp change sides at the key moment; or some particular ingenuity or device switches things in favour of the good guys at the last moment. Some seven ships in total have been despatched by the communists, each carrying professional soldiers along with their colonists, armed with equipment that is several decades more advanced than anything the Pilgrims could have known. The original settlers are mostly civilians, overwhelmingly outnumbered and outgunned, and their superior knowledge of the terrain is marginal at best. Of course the Pilgrims are going to win, in a novel such as this would you really expect otherwise? And they do it with honour, of course, and nobility and self-sacrifice. One character who went over to the side of the communists eventually sees the error of his ways and switches back to fight beside his deadliest rival. It’s that sort of book.
But within these mechanically predictable plots, Steele has now inserted some vivid characters: a once-successful musician rediscovering her muse in the harsh environs of a transit camp; a renowned architect forced into a project he doesn’t believe in; the mad leader of a religious sect whose body has been agonisingly remade. All of these make you hope the story will keep coming back to them. Even ‘Rigil Kent’ has more substance and therefore interest than Carlos Montero had in the earlier volume. The ideas that make up Coyote are fresher and more interestingly developed, but at the cost of poor writing and thin characterisation, so that it becomes progressively harder to sustain interest in reading the book; Coyote Rising, on the other hand, is as routine and predictable as the most hackneyed science fiction, but this has somehow allowed much better writing and characterisation that has so much improved that it is, at times, hard to believe the two volumes were written by the same author.