(2012) Allen Steele, Pyr, £15.99, hrdbk, 312pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14686-3
This is a story for young adults and, as the publishers quote on the back cover, other reviewers have likened it to the works of Robert Heinlein – but do I agree? Well, read on… It is 2097, there are colonies on the Moon and on Mars, and world politics and political allegiances have changed somewhat since our days. OK, so far it could be Heinlein, or Clarke, or…
The story opens just after midnight on Jamie Barlowe's sixteenth birthday. He is abruptly roused from his slumbers by his father and clearly it is not an early start for a party; something very serious is happening. Despite the numerous protests from Melissa, his annoying, self-centred, teenage elder sister (understandably nicknamed MeeMee by the family), his father and Jan, his eldest sister, soon have them packed and into the car. For Jamie this is not as easy as it sounds as he is confined to a 'mobil', an 'intelligent' wheelchair, as he suffers from LBDS (Lunar Birth Deficiency Syndrome). Having replaced the car’s automatic GPS and traffic cruise control chip with an illegal, manual control chip so that they cannot be tracked by the authorities, his father eases them very quietly from their home near Washington and drives off into the dark as he explains the predicament they are in.
He had received a call through the political grapevine warning him that President Wilford had died a few minutes earlier and that therefore Lina Sharpa, the vice-president, will be sworn in just as soon as she can manage it; they know that whilst Wilford was peace loving, Sharpa is a rightwing hawk with dire intentions and little respect for the Constitution. Furthermore he is amongst those that had signed a petition objecting to some of Sharpa’s proposals and, knowing that that she has a list of such 'objectors', is well aware that very soon they will all be arrested on some trumped up charge or another. They are on the run!
A few hours of driving brings them safely to Chesapeake Bay and the Wallops Island Space Launch Center. There it becomes obvious that Jamie’s father, a scientist with the International Space Consortium, and some of his colleagues have been planning for such an eventuality. Whilst they themselves will continue on the run, they are packing their children onto a shuttle and off to neutral territory – to Apollo, ISC’s mining colony on the Moon.
So we get into the main story. First Jamie and the others have to cope with space travel in a confined shuttle and in the knowledge that Sharpa will try anything to stop their escape. Once safely at Apollo, they have to settle in and get used to life in a lunar colony, which is quite different to what they are used to. The city is surprisingly large, some five miles in diameter, and nestles under a vast dome; it is well lit and much of its upper level is given over to parkland with many trees and birds. For Jamie it is a surprising release; the Moon’s lower gravity means that his weakened bone structure from the LBDS is no longer a problem - he as able as anyone else. He also finds that he is well known, indeed something of a legend, the son of a local heroine – during a terrible accident, his mother, instead of saving herself, had gone back for him and had thrown her new baby to safety through the closing doors of the emergency airlock.
Not content with merely settling in, Jamie joins Lunar Search And Rescue (known colloquially as the Rangers). This is in part because everyone has to undertake work for the colony, but mostly because he is sure that President Sharpa will be sending forces to capture and take over the colony and the Rangers will need all the help they can get in defending it. Indeed, Sharpa soon makes it clear that, despite the international neutrality of ISC, she intends to take control over the production of the lunar helium-3 which they mine and which provides much of the world with energy. This will, of course, also give her great political and military control over everyone other than the Pacific Socialist Union. Needless to say, Sharpa sends her troops, there is a battle for freedom, and, of course, fatalities (the Moon is an unforgiving place).
And so we have all the ingredients for a good action adventure in space. Through Jamie’s experiences we learn much of the problems and realities of space travel and of life on the moon (at least, as best as our current knowledge of science and technology can tell us). We follow him as he gets used to the realities of a markedly lower gravity and then the problems of space suits, airlocks, decontamination, and the like; and of course he also has to deal with being in his mid-teens and being looked after by new guardians rather than by his family. The descriptions of his Ranger training and his day-to-day lunar experiences are full of detail and the concepts behind the Apollo colony, the mining of helium-3, various space and lunar vehicles, and so on, are well researched. It all feels very real and it flows well in a nicely paced way, the characters feel right, and the technology and science do not get in the way of the story nor vice versa. There is a lot of technical detail which gives it a good, solid feel, but it is also a good story that is most enjoyable to read; the two are woven together well.
I found Jamie and his understanding to be surprisingly mature - it is as if he is telling his story a little in retrospect rather than as it was happening, and that is no bad thing. All in all, whilst categorised as a young adults’ story, I found it also worked well for the less-young adult; indeed, almost as if it was an adults’ novel where the lead characters simply happened to be rather young. Be it for a young reader or an older reader, I found this most enjoyable; good, well written, easy to read, classic hard science fiction.
And Heinlein? It has been quite a while since I read anything by him but I recall that it was the combination of a well written story and technical reality (in so far as we knew) that made his stories so enjoyable to read. Without re-reading some Heinlein, I really cannot compare Allen Steele’s writing style with that of his predecessor, but what I will say is that they both write/wrote good, well structured, technically satisfying, stories with a good plot and that are a pleasure to read.
See also Mark's take on Apollo's Outcasts.
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