Avengers of the Moon
by Allen Steele
Cover Artist: Thomas Ed Walker
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765382184
Date: 11 April 2017 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Allen Steele seems to be on a nostalgia kick lately. His previous novel, Arkwright, was about the legacy of a golden age science fiction author and included scenes set at the first Worldcon. In Avengers of the Moon: A Captain Future Novel, Steele reboots Edmond Hamilton's pulp science fiction hero, last seen in 1951. In this reboot, Steele has revised and updated the original material, which is necessary since the Future of the original Captain is in our past--the first novel was set in 2015.
Essentially, this book is an origin story set in the 24th century, after humanity has altered its genes to create versions of humanity that can live on other worlds and moons. The story starts with Curt Newton visiting the dedication of the Straight Wall System Monument, an alien artifact, with his android companion Ortho. Newton has spent most of his life hidden in a crater and has had very little contact with other humans. After an encounter with the police assigned to protect the President of the Solar Coalition, Ortho tells Curt they are there because Senator Victor Corvo, one of the other speakers, murdered Curt's parents. Although chased by Police Inspector Joan Randall, Curt and Ortho escape because their spaceship can become invisible.
Then, after a long 40-page flashback to Curt's parents' involvement with Corvo, who funded their attempts to create androids, and to Curt's childhood, the story picks up again with Curt and a robot infiltrating the Senator's home to kill him, not in revenge but for justice, or so he says. Instead, he stops an assassin from killing the President. Talking to the President privately, Curt tells him the true story and volunteers to go to Mars, where the assassin had ties to a rebel leader, to uncover the connection. The President deputizes him as a temporary undercover agent of the Interplanetary Police Force with the code name Captain Future. Of course, this leads to adventures on Mars as Curt, his team, and Joan become key to stopping a rebellion.
In many ways, Captain Future is the least interesting character on his team. The Brain is the human brain of Simon Wright, Curt's father's partner, preserved in a floating drone after his body died. Ortho is the universe's only android, a creation of Roger and Elaine Newton originally meant to be Wright's replacement body. But when it started to show signs of becoming a conscious individual, Roger decides that they couldn't ethically go through with the transfer, especially as it would taint the public reception of their science. Unfortunately, the book does not really go into how this past influences the current relationship of Ortho and the Brain. Even Grag, their robot, has an unusual degree of independence and emotions, even deciding to keep a pet dog and train him. However, since Avengers of the Moon is focused more on adventure than on character, most of this potential is ignored. The book does much better covering Curt's awkward attempts to romance Joan, one of the first women he's ever seen.
Avengers of the Moon also suffers from plot holes and inconsistencies. For instance, Captain Future has a ring that hypnotizes people, but only uses it once. The team worries that Curt doesn't know how to behave in public yet wait to drop the bombshell about his parents' murderer until he is in a crowd and has already been questioned by the police. Also, like too many origin stories, it takes a while for the main action to start.
One thing the book does well is to answer the question of why any rational adult, in a world without superheroes, would call himself Captain Future. The answer is Curt used that name for his fantasy games as a young child, and his companions use it to mock him, including using it as his radio call sign. But when he needs a quick alias so Corvo doesn't recognize his name, he calls himself Captain Future and it sticks even though the police call it "the stupidest damn thing I've ever heard."
The publisher describes Avengers of the Moon as "an old-fashioned pulp adventure with modern sensibility". The novel would be of great interest to those nostalgic for the pulp era and those who read Captain Future in their youth. This group would include the author, who, in an afterword, said he read his first Captain Future novel in 1969 at age 11. It might also appeal to some YA readers (although Curt seems to be in his early 20s, his isolated upbringing makes him seem younger in many ways). Without the nostalgic factor--and few readers these days have even heard of Captain Future--what's left is fairly average SF adventure novel. For most readers, Captain Future could well have stayed in the past where he belongs.