Coyote by Steele, Allen, 2003

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Unlike most themes in SF, I am not really a fan of colonization stories. I will admit that I tend to be a bit bi-polar about them; I usually criticize them because they are either too light or too heavy in describing the challenges that colonists must overcome in order to survive. Some of them I do not appreciate aesthetically though because the colonists are too bullish in their misguided efforts to remake a new world into a mirror image of the flawed one that they had just left. A perfect example of this, to me, is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Yes, I get that they were very well written, thoroughly researched, and very well executed. In my opinion though they were all way too long and even if they were very informative, they were too detail oriented to not very entertaining overall. Riding a somewhat bumpy medium between technical and entertaining (though still seriously lacking) was Allen Steele’s fix-up colonization series, Coyote. This series did have its own problems in that it was quite disjointed and was written nowhere nearly as well as KSR’s Mars books, but I must admit that the series does seem to be pretty successful and has spawned quite a few sequels and related novels. This review is of the first book called simply Coyote after the name of the moon that was colonized. Two out of five stars.

Coyote picked up in the very last stages of planning for the world’s first interstellar colony voyage. A harshly repressive U.S. government which was modeled on extreme conservative views had put together a crew to pilot the U.S.S. Alabama to the 47 Ursae Majoris system. Many of the mission planners however had been jailed to keep them out of the crew lottery. Captain Robert E. Lee has grown dissatisfied with the government and joined a plot to steal the Alabama and crew it with dissidents and their families. They executed their plan poorly, though it did come together in the end and 103 people begin the long journey in cold sleep to Coyote. Well…almost.

Although Steele did a barely passable job with character in other respects, he did manage to succeed with one named Leslie Gillis. In the rush to enter sleep pods Gillis entered the wrong one. Instead of getting into his own Gillis entered the sleep pod of a government spy whose pod had been programmed to eject him three months after the voyage started so that he could make sure that the Alabama had not been hijacked. Gillis had no idea how to put himself back into cold sleep, so after he came out he was forced to live the rest of his life alone on the Alabama, certain to die before it reached its destination 226 years and 230 light years away.

His first thought was “Thank God, I made it.” His legs were numb, his limbs stiff, and his body weak. He was naked and hairless from the hibernation process. As he slowly began to regain consciousness, he began to wonder why the medic was not on hand to aid him from his biostasis cell. His mind was still adjusting, but when Leslie Gillis realized the ship was deathly silent, he knew something had gone catastrophically wrong. He was alone.

Gillis live to a ripe old age, but went insane before dying. He filled a section of the Alabama’s walls up with drawings and writing and unintentionally created a story that the colonists later used as a very rough guide of sorts to navigate the pitfalls of exploration and colonization. Gillis also reported seeing another spacecraft out the porthole window. Steele dropped the issue until the third book, though.

The rest of Coyote details the pitiful attempts of the reanimated crew to create new lives for themselves on Coyote. One of the main themes of the rest of the series is the speed of Earth’s innovation relative to the colonists. But in the first book Steele set the Alabama crew down on Coyote with virtually nothing, save for the technology that they could cobble together from the Alabama itself. This I think was Steele’s greatest failure. The revolutionaries who stole the Alabama apparently put no thought whatsoever into the skill mix that they would need to survive on an alien planet, and instead of picking those who might actually have some necessary qualifications, they took anybody who was willing to go. Granted, secrecy and necessity probably required that they take who they could get, but it is not as if the revolutionaries were fleeing the country for a less dictatorial nation on Earth. They were going to another planet, so I would have expected to see some planning and preparation. Furthermore, even though those who landed on Coyote were not the intended colonists, and thus had the wrong skill mix, it became obvious that the Alabama was improperly outfitted for the colonial experience. These people barely had shovels and there were almost no guns. They had no advanced construction materials, very little in the way of supplies: Nothing at all to get them started. As I read the thing I had a hard time believing that this group would ever succeed. It also seemed a bit silly to send so few people in the first place. How can a colony that is totally cut off from its parent survive with so few members?

Once the colonists reached ground Steele changed the direction of the story a bit, but probably in the wrong way. Virtually ignoring Captain Lee and the rest of the revolutionaries Steele decided to focus instead on the camp’s five or six teenagers. The story almost became a YA, with the young children of the revolutionaries taking center stage in the exploration and mapping of Coyote. Despite the abrupt change in focus, Steele did a fairly passable job of describing a trek through the wilderness. Coyote presented a number of problems, not the least of which were soil deficiency and a lack of construction materials. He also introduced an aggressive predator; a flightless avian species called boids that were given to hunt by stealth and would attack in numbers.

It was obvious to me after finishing this book that Steele would continue with the tales of Coyote. There were just too many open ends for him to stop after one book. He has not disappointed me. There are now four books about the Coyote colonization effort, and three or four other related works, set in the same universe. Steele seems to have had a great deal of financial success with the project. This book is pretty solid, but it will not ever be considered a classic. If the Gillis episode were not included it would only barely be passable; Gillis’ story makes the entire work better. Get this one for a long flight.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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