Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review of Coyote by Allen Steele

Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein were once the ‘big three’ of science fiction.  Vanguard of the Silver Age, their stories were amongst the most widely read science fiction of the time, and remain popular to this day.  Influential in obvious and unobvious ways, their optimistic vision of technology and mankind in space have carried on.  Written wholly in the spirit of these three men, Allen Steele’s Coyote series is an acknowledged confirmation of the tradition that tells its own tale of planetary adventure.   

The first books in the series is called simply Coyote (2002).  Published (interestingly) in Asimov’s over the course of a year, the book is broken into novella/novelette sized chunks.  Each moving linearly into the next, the stories describe the people of the USS Alabama on their trip from Earth to 47 Ursae Majoris, a moon dubbed Coyote revolving around one of its large planets, and the beginning of their settlement.  Coyote full of tricks, the story is part drama, adventure, and colonization effort, buoyed by Steele’s clean, practiced prose.

Robert E. Lee is the captain of the USS Alabama, a spaceship which has broke the bank of the dictatorial United Republic of America—a fragmented version of the US—as it attempts to prove its glory by sending man to another planet.  Lee and several members of his crew part of a conspiracy to hijack the ship once it leaves orbit and declare the vessel free of the regime, Steele patiently and effectively introduces the others involved.  These include: a scientist and his family whose lives are turned upside down when the Secret Police come to their house; First Officer Dana, an intelligent woman who must use her wits to forestall the Republic’s knowledge of the conspiracy for as long as possible; Lee’s ex wife who has her own ambitious goals; Ensign Gunther who remains true to the Republic no  matter what happens on the ship; and a handful more to round out the picture.  The novella which opens the book building a high degree of tension, matters spill over from there—through space and to Coyote.

The story told is a nice balance of imagination and light humanism.  Steele does not go overboard with describing new plants, animals, and land formations in Coyote; all is kept to an effective minimum.  And what imagination does exist on the page is readily recognizable as coming from the Silver Age of the genre.  The space ship diagrams, the boids, the approach to story, the presentation of the logical mind as hero, etc. all have a strong Clarke feel. Character equaling plot, there are times one motivates the other, and vice versa.  Leslie’s awakening from biostasis is a nice touch, as is the relationship between Wendy and Carlos.  Overall, the story does not get bogged down in interrelationships, a dash of something new added here and there to keep things rolling forward.

That being said, Steele does nothing new with Coyote.  There may be pink dots instead of red, or a bird creature instead of a six-legged insect, but almost the entirety of the novel has been told in some form or another in the history of science fiction.  Where Steele makes it his own, at least relatively so, is in style.  Knowing well how to motivate a narrative, the pace is kept smooth and brisk, character and plot drive the story, and background knowledge fills the dialogue and narrative between.  Steele is not an artistic writer rather one who is aware of his craft and how to keep the the story rolling moving through exposition scenes.

Putting the novel into context, Coyote occupies literary territory below Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and above John Scalzi’s The Last Colony.  Lacking the human interest that Robinson invested in his series, Steele nevertheless has a better handle on plot and realism than Scalzi.  Style-wise, Steele is not breathtaking, but his work as a journalist has certainly made his writing flowing and proficient—noticeably better than other entry level genre practitioners like Alastair Reynolds, and on par with Clarke himself.  All these writers dealing with planetary colonization in one way or another, Steel fits snugly into the middle class.

In the end, Coyote is truly a work of Silver Age science fiction written in the modern day.  Steele openly acknowledging the fact, his story presents science as shiny metal and remains optimistic that mankind will go into and colonize space someday.  Numerous good individual stories told in getting mankind to a semi-settled state on Coyote, Steele keeps one eye on the human element and the other on story.  Technical details are kept to a minimum, letting the character and story take the lead most often.  As mentioned, there is nothing new in the novel, just a very fresh coat of paint that makes the old look good.  Compared to Ben Bova’s Titan, Coyote is proof that a writer can go retro without sacrificing readability.

*Added April 26, 2015 - While they may have garnered some attention when they were initially published, I doubt Allen Steele’s Coyote novels have expanded in popularity since, rather maintained a rigid core of enthusiasts.  And the reasons confuse me, slightly.  Steele writes tight, lucid prose that never strays from purpose.  Where Alastair Reynolds rolls and rambles his space operas to the tune of 500, 600 pages, Steele tells the same quantity of story—if not more—in two-thirds the space.  Secondly, Steele’s characters achieve the second dimension and can, occasionally, hint at the third.  Some occupy stereotypical roles, while others come across as more human, in turn making them empathetic to the average genre reader.  I cannot always say the same of Reynolds’.  But thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Steele’s plotting, particularly Coyote Rising, shows a mature degree of control and purpose, and builds toward exciting scenes of the type science fiction is renowned for.  Coyote Rising’s conclusion is very satisfying from a pure storytelling perspective, particularly how the strands intertwine to form a single thread.  I would thus take this opportunity to recommend the series to genre fans who have not tried the books.  Within the sphere of planetary exploration/space opera/planetary revolution, they are class acts.

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