Heroism is a tricky business in science fiction. It can be so candy sweet it makes your teeth hurt, but it can also be grittily realistic, and, in some cases, both. Winner or nominee in the novella category for all the major American awards of science fiction, Allen Steele’s 1996 The Death of Captain Future is one such story. Playing with the history, tropes, and direction of the genre, it is short, sweet, and quality storytelling.
Rohr Furland is a veteran spacer. Burned out from too many space hauls, he bums his way from one gig to the next, spending his free time in bars and space stations and dreaming of earning the big bucks. Receiving the employment opportunity he’s been waiting for one day, he spies only one catch: he must work his passage to the gig. Ultimately agreeing to the proposal, he becomes second mate on the Comet and is introduced to the one and only Captain Future—a self-pronounced space captain of heroic proportions. The reality of the claim, well, that’s for Furland and the reader to discover.
With one hand dreamily caressing the golden years of science fiction, and the other probing its deeper motivations, The Death of Captain Future is a tale for the past and present. Steele combining elements from each cleverly, the novella hearkens back to the good ol’ days of spacers and rockhounds, dry dock and ship bridges, all the while pulling back the curtain to expose writers and props backstage which produce the show. It is a short, nostalgic trip looked at from a modern perspective.
Through these two lenses, Steele is also able to subvert science fiction in unpredictable fashion. The reader can see the author intentionally playing with and utilizing the stereotypes, leading to the understanding the end will be anything but predictable. And Steel does not disappoint. Writing a well-structured story that plays out one evolutionary idea after another, the science fictional-ism of the telling quickly takes on a realistic hue once the conclusion is reached, making for good story. What is heroism? Well, it’s probably a little bit of everything—facts, lies, and luck—all rolled into one. For those who enjoyed Lucius Shepard's Barnacle Bill the Spacer, Steele's novella may be for you.