Across the Universe

I’ve read in several places that sf stories are Westerns with ray guns. Kinda simplistic, but still pretty much true. If you’ve kept up with this blog, you know that one of my favorite forms of sf is the space opera. I like big, sprawling stories with several characters and a broad canvas. It gives me something to sink my teeth into, and a big, fully realized world to inhabit while I’m at it.

I would like to note, right here and now, that if you like sf, and space operas in particular, you are doing yourself a grave disservice if you’re not reading the Star Wars books. No matter what your opinion of the movies, the books are written by quality sf authors and have very good stories. They take the Star Wars universe in directions the movies really can’t. If you want to go in chronological order, start with The Han Solo Trilogy by A.C. Crispin and go from there. Incidentally, A.C. settles the argument started in A New Hope when Han says he did the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs. Anyone who knows science knows that a parsec is a unit of distance, not speed. I’ll just say that Han’s explanation has to do with time/space relativity, and Chewbacca disagrees with him. And it’s not something you have to be a physics professor to understand.

Anyway, now that I’ve digressed, let me return to the reason for this post.

I’ve recently rediscovered my other favored form of sf: the colonization novel. In this case, the Coyote series by Allen Steele.

The colonization story is one where you really see the Western in space. Or, more precisely, the frontier novel in space. Settings vary, but the basic idea is that a group of colonists have set out to settle a new planet, and the stories are always those of various members of the group exploring and learning about their new home.

In the case of Coyote, the first book of the series (there are four that I’m aware of; haven’t had a chance to look up Allen Steele’s page on Fantastic Fiction), the book begins in the year 2070. NASA lost most of its political clout in the 2020s, even though they’d sent up the Sagan Terrestrial Planet Finder and discovered that 47 Ursae Majoris B, which has a superjovian (gas giant planet), initially cataloged as 47 Uma B, among its satellites. One of the Uma B’s moons looks capable of supporting life. Since the French had recently devised a working fusion engine, the idea of a real starship is now feasible.

Unfortunately, since NASA has fallen largely out of favor, they need help, and they get it in the form of one Hamilton Conroy, a first-term congressman from Alabama and leader of the Liberty Party. The Liberty Party is fairly far-right, but NASA decides they’ll take help where they can get it. What can it hurt, right? All of this is related in a short prelude chapter, including the Liberty Party’s platform: rewriting the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights.

Of course, it turns out to be a Faustian bargain, and by the time the main story opens on August 4, 2070, the Liberty party has reformed the United States into the United Republic of American, a far-right government that despises anyone who’s too intellectual. The URS has pretty much bankrupted their own economy to build a spaceship capable of reaching 47 Uma B, now known as Coyote. The planets in the system were named using an American Indian pantheon of animals. So 47 Ursae Majoris is called Bear, while its satellites are Dog, Hawk, Eagle, Snake, Goat and Coyote.

The ship, the URSS Alabama, is capable of reaching 20% of the speed of light, or .2c. Coyote is 46 light years away, so the colonists will be put in stasis for the trip, which will take 230 years (226 ship’s time, due to time dilation when reaching relativistic speeds). What the URSS doesn’t know is that the captain and his officers are plotting to steal the Alabama, launching it ten hours before time. They’ve switched the original colonists chosen by the government and replaced them with D.I.s, or Dissident Intellectuals, scientists from JPL and a few other institutions, who are too left-leaning for the new government. The idea is, once they’re 46 light years and 230 calendar years into the future, it’s not likely the URA will come after them.

I won’t give away what happens at the end of the book. This isn’t a synopsis for an agent/editor, so I’m not obligated to do that. If you want to know, read the book. But I will tell you that, if you enjoy the idea of exploring a new world through the eyes of characters you can care about, you’ll like this book. There are some typos in the copy I got at the library, but I’ve noticed more of those in recent releases. I think publishers are shipping them out so fast in an effort to get some money coming in, especially when you’re talking about established writers like Allen Steele, that they’re skipping the copy editor altogether and pushing approval of galleys to boot. In one case, late in the book when the colonists are having a town meeting, it states that one woman “…raises her.” and it stops right there. You can get the drift through context, but it’s still irritating and throws you out of the story. Or it did me, anyway.

I don’t like seeing this. I don’t care how badly publishing companies need to improve their bottom line, the upshot of something like this is that you tend to blame these mistakes on the author. Sure, the writer should share blame, depending on how many opportunities he/she had to view galleys (assuming that’s even done anymore), but the publishers need to take more of the share, too. In this case, it was Ace, an old and venerable sf imprint, so that makes it a true shame that they’ve allowed this to happen.

In the long run, though, it doesn’t detract from the story. A couple of the characters seem a little bit stock to me, such as the spurned teenager who resents the one-time best friend because the one girl their age chooses him, but this is about the setting more than the characters, so it can be forgiven, in my opinion. Some people would argue this, saying that current books are character-driven and anything that isn’t is falling behind the curve. But there is the setting that Orson Scott Card calls the milieu setting, wherein the important factor is the backdrop of the story. We’re exploring a new world through the eyes of the people in the book, so character development takes a back burner. One of Card’s best examples is Middle-earth, where he points out that LOTR is an exploration of that mythical world. He emphasizes this by pointing out that Merry and Pippin are almost indistinguishable from one another, but anyone who’s read and loved the trilogy can tell you about the Mines of Moria, the swamp of the dead in Mordor, or the golden trees of Lothlorien. Tolkien describes all these settings lovingly, so they stick out in the reader’s mind, while the characters are pretty much cardboard cutouts.

It’s not quite that drastic in Coyote, but anyone who’s read much sf will recognize the characters, from the Alabama’s captain, whose name is Robert E. Lee and is supposedly descended from the original leader of the Confederate Army, to the URA president, the aforementioned Hamilton Conroy, who claims Alexander Hamilton as an ancestor. The political allusions are evident, such as the Gingrich Space Center, and centering the URA capitol in Atlanta. But doing it this way gives us something to latch onto without a lot of backstory and drawn out explanation. We can see how things might progress this way, and they even make sense. They’re the kind of things people might very well do, given the setting.

Personally, I didn’t give the political setting more attention than it deserved. It’s a major plot device, since the far-right repressive government is the reason the colonists do what they do. And it makes a good setup for the next novel in the series, where you learn what happened back on Earth in those 230 or so years when another ship arrives from there. But, again, I won’t give anymore than that away, and if you intend to read the book you might even get mad at me for telling you that much.

One last thing: I mentioned another book in an earlier post: The Unincorporated Man. I want to say this about it: I didn’t finish it.

It seems that working to perfect my art, and learning to write very strictly in POV, makes it hard to read a book that takes the omniscient POV. I like the first person or third person subjective, and hovering above everything, peeking into all the characters’ heads, just isn’t for me anymore. And, besides, the book seemed to move too slowly for me. I tried, I really did, because I liked the premise of the story, and I kept reading until I had something like 100 pages left. But I just couldn’t force myself to go on. There wasn’t a character there for me to identify with, which left me asking one question that killed the entire experience: why should I care?

On the flipside, I picked up a book called Young Junius, a crime novel set in 1987 Cambridge, Massachusetts and written by Seth Harwood, that looks very promising. Stay tuned and I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Later,

Gil

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