Saturday, November 29, 2008

Allen Steele: Coyote

Allen Steele's Coyote was nominated for the Prometheus award when it appeared in 2002, but somehow I missed reading it at the time. This year, it was nominated for the Hall of Fame award, which gave me a second chance to read it. Since I had read the follow-up novel Coyote Rising when it came out in 2004, I already knew something about how things turn out, but Coyote Rising takes place long enough afterward that only a couple of characters carry over, and they have a lifetime of hardship between their two appearances. The story appeared as a series of short stories before publication as a novel, but for the most part this isn't very noticeable since the story proceeds reasonably through quite different venues, and the character continuity is unbroken.

In Coyote, the US has become the totalitarian United Republic of America, and a race is on to colonize the planets circling a nearby star. When the URS Alabama is ready for launch, the captain and most of the crew conspire to hijack the ship. They don't change the destination, so the hijacking consists of replacing loyal intended crew-members with families and other folks that the URS regime had considered to be subversives.

The first story covers the theft of the Alabama, and most of the political content appears here in the presentation of the regime's repressive tactics. Most of what we see directly concerns people whose friends or acquaintances have been taken off to the camps, and Steele gives the impression, without saying anything very explicit that minor transgressions against local authority explain most of the incidents rather than anything that would look like true rebellion or protest. The only other time politics comes up is when the crew of the Plymouth (Alabama was renamed upon landing) decides how to arrange their colony. The results are quite pedestrian, and we see the process through the official records of the colony's Secretary. The Ship's captain is elected chair of the Town Council, with a little dissent by people who were hoping for a continuation of military formality.

The rest of the story is pretty standard colonizing-a-new-planet material. The characterization, conflicts, and scenery is reasonably interesting and well-written, but there's nothing of deeper significance to recommend it. The coming of age sub-plots are well-developed, and the conflicts are real; colonists die when they're careless while exploring the new environment. The native flora and fauna have plenty of surprises in store. As I recall, some of them continued to be crucial plot elements in Coyote Rising.

Overall, I'd summarize it as a decent read, but I don't disagree with the decision to not give an award when it first appeared. I can think of several perennial nominees for the Hall of Fame that are more deserving, as well as a few that have recently been nominated for the first time.

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