by Allen Steele
Review by Rich Lynch
Ace Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0441013317
Date: 06 December, 2005 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
It's probably a fair statement to say that Allen Steele may be the closest thing the science fiction world now has to Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein's fiction provided not only a strong and intelligent "sense of wonder" that is characteristic of the science fiction genre, it also made sense from a socioeconomic aspect - things and events in his stories made down-to-earth sense to the reader, even if many of those things and events were not yet scientifically possible. This gave Heinlein's stories and novels a much greater sense of humanity than most other writers of his era. Allen Steele's fiction resonates with the reader in much the same way. Most notable is his extended Near Space series of stories and novels, where mankind has succeeded, amid many fits and starts, of establishing various footholds amid the inner solar system. It is a future history in every bit of the Heinlein mold, and the fiction is as compelling as Heinlein's in both a sense of wonder and a socioeconomic viewpoint.
The Near Space series succeeded in elevating Steele to one of the most respected writers in the field and led to his first Hugo Award in 1996 for the novella "The Death of Captain Future." There have not been any new stories in that series for several years, but Steele has gone on to create other series that have in their own way been equally groundbreaking. The best of these is the Coyote series, which began as an extended series of stories that resulted in two Hugo Award nominations for Steele in 2002 for the novella "Stealing Alabama" and the novelette "The Days Between." These were all collected into the first two novels of the series, Coyote and Coyote Rising.
The premise of the Coyote series is that by the year 2070, the United States had regressed into a far right-wing fascist political entity named the United Republic of America. As the series opens, earth's resources have become depleted to the point where the sustainability of civilization might eventually become questionable, so the URA is on the verge of launching an interstellar spaceship to the star system 47 Ursae Majoris, where scientists have determined a habitable world may exist. That ship, the URSS Alabama, was to bring both colonists and its political system to the new world on a trip that would last for more than two centuries, though the colonists, through cold-sleep hibernation, would experience no aging. However, these plans were upset when the captain of the Alabama led a successful conspiracy to hijack the ship, replacing the hand-picked colonists with a group of dissident intellectuals who would instead create a free society on the new world. What follows, in the first two books of the series, are the trip, and then the first steps of colonization and exploration of Coyote. By the end of the first book, the initial colony of Liberty has survived its first few years and is well-established to the point where there have been some efforts of looking outward to the rest of Coyote. But as the first book ends, there is a surprise for the colonists: another, much larger, starship from earth arrives bearing thousands of new colonists and, worse, another political system that is to be imposed on Coyote - this time a far left-wing communistic "social collectivism." The second book of the series, Coyote Rising, deals with how the original colonists attempt to liberate their world from this new and, as it turned out, equally repressive social order. As the second book ends, success has been achieved, but at a price.
And so we come to this final book of the trilogy, Coyote Frontier. The setting is about fifty earth years after the end of Coyote Rising, and the situation is that exploration of Coyote is still in progress, but the colonists have now proceeded into the development and exploitation stage. And with any rapid development comes problems associated with that development - in this case the sustainability of the available resources, the need for specialized equipment and machinery that is not readily available, conservation of indigenous life, and a growing displeasure of some of the colonists who do not want Coyote to become like the planet that the original colonists had escaped from. These new problems become especially acute when a new method of instantaneous travel between the stars involving wormholes is developed, which brings Coyote only days instead of decades from old earth and the political powers there that are turning a prospective eye toward Coyote as a place where excess population can go and from which needed resources can come.
Unlike the previous two books, Coyote Frontier (or most of it, at least) does not appear to be a "fix-up" novel that blends together the various shorter works of the series into a novel. That's good from a continuity viewpoint, but on the other hand, as in any final book of a trilogy, there are many loose ends to tie up which often results in a relentlessly hurried and forced narrative. Steele is such a good writer that this is not very noticeable in Coyote Frontier, but there still seemed to be a slight sense of "let's get this done with and move on to something new." Because of this, I don't think that Coyote Frontier is the best book of the trilogy, but there is still quite a lot to like about the novel. Plot dependencies from the previous books aside, Steele has constructed Coyote Frontier so that it can legitimately be read as a stand-alone novel. And it succeeds as such - it is a complex and well thought-out true sense-of-wonder novel, two or three books in one, with Heinleinesque who-do-you-trust political intrigues, an insurgency that could bring the wrath of old earth anew onto Coyote, and even the implications of First Contact.
From the way the book ends, it seems unlikely there will be future novels in the Coyote series even though there is certainly room for more stories, either as prequel or sequel. On the one hand, you have to hope that Steele will eventually decide to take the series further, or in some new direction. But on the other hand, one of the characteristics of a good writer is the ability to not only create such a complex and interesting universe of related stories, but to also know when it's time to move on to something else. Allen Steele is that good a writer. I, for one, can't wait to read what he writes next.