This review, of Jerry Oltion’s 2000 novel, Abandon in Place, is a sort of companion piece to my review of The Dream of Spaceflight; it also touches on one of those things that used to be fundamental to science fiction, the sense of wonder, only to abandon that wonder ignominiously. It’s also another review that, I think, was never published.
For roughly a decade, say from Sputnik until Apollo 13, the exploration of space captured the imagination of the world. It truly was, as a television programme of the period put it, ‘the final frontier’, and it had the glamour and excitement of pioneers daring a strange new land. Unfortunately, the reality of space travel made it a place of unimaginative technocrats, dull administrators, and an intense effort to make even the boldest of adventures seem and indeed be routine. Nothing could be guaranteed to kill our dreams faster, and as the dreams faded so the space programme stuttered to an ignominious halt. Oh people still venture out there, on a programme studiously devised to ensure that no soul-stirring landmarks are likely to be achieved within our lifetimes, but when was the last time you knew the names of any spacefarers or considered them latter day heroes?
Of late, a few writers have again attempted to evoke the romance and the wonder of space (I am thinking in particular of Wyn Wachhorst’s superb essays, The Dream of Spaceflight (Basic Books, 2000)), and one such example was Jerry Oltion’s Nebula Award-winning novella ‘Abandon In Place’ (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1996). This is a beautifully judged and very simple story: following the death of Neil Armstrong a ghostly Saturn V rocket is seen lifting off from a long-abandoned rocket pad at Cape Canaveral. When another rocket appears, an idealistic young space shuttle pilot rides it, and finds himself enacting one of the lunar missions abandoned when NASA cut short the Apollo programme. In so doing he recreates the bold, brash days when space was equated with adventure, and reawakens the interest and the dreams of the world.
Thus the novella, not brilliant in its writing but wonderful in its evocation. Now Oltion has expanded that original into a novel, which basically means that the novella stands pretty much unaltered and a dreadful new story has been tacked on at the end of it which betrays every ounce of scientific wonder that the original drew upon. Rick Spencer and his girlfriend, Tessa, are no longer people who rode a ghost ship to the moon, but people who control immense psychic power. At first, from the moment they arrive back on Earth, they are trapped within the coils of secret America, but once they discover the extent of their powers these are easy foes to deal with. Then, like any simple-minded superman story, Oltion has to abandon believability and manipulate the plot like crazy in order to have any sort of story at all. Along the way, in this all-American wonderland, we discover that the President is female and Hispanic (so she’s rather dodgy to start with) and the Pope is American and probably agnostic (so he’s all right), and the biggest threat they face is a Slavic psycho out to take over the world (using techniques identical to those our heroes use). The inevitable all-American answer to this threat is to bomb him into oblivion (having resurrected King Arthur along the way – and if you can do that, couldn’t someone think of a better solution?) Finally, having gone through the biggest load of tosh it’s been my misfortune to read for a very long time, Oltion remembers that this was a story that was once about the wonder of space, and with a wave of his wand suddenly whisks everyone away on a space ark that conveniently appears from nowhere.
‘Abandon in Place’ was a novella about our dreams; Abandon In Place is a novel that betrays our dreams by revealing the paucity of the author’s imagination.