Coyote: Allen Steele’s realistic story of interstellar colonization

The full title of Allen Steele’s SF novel is Coyote: A Novel of Interstellar Exploration. Mr. Steele belongs to the WYSIWYG style of writing. As such, Coyote reads like a matter-of-fact historical record, comprised of third person accounts interspersed with first person diary extracts. In fact, Mr. Steele says in his foreword that he was inspired to write a novel about the exploration of a frontier, much like the early colonization of America in the 1600s. It certainly worked for me! I enjoyed being able to focus on the characters and the plot without being distracted by hyperbole, complex narrative structures or abstract philosophical discussions.

The style of the novel therefore is very reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, which chronicled the early years of colonization and terraforming of the red planet. Mr. Robinson used his novel to explore how scientists would have to balance political ideology with scientific curiosity while trying to tame a new frontier. Coyote is not as ambitious a novel, but nevertheless tackles similar themes. Instead of cardboard cutout heroes, we have very realistic characters, who are placed in extraordinary situations and make the best decisions they can within the limits of their skill, intelligence and emotional maturity. Since the colonists have formed an agrarian society on Coyote, while retaining elements of digital technology, there are also strong thematic parallels with the early stories in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series.

The chapters in Coyote were initially published as short stories and so, they are naturally episodic in nature. This is useful because every episode has some references to past events for the benefit of those who may not have read the earlier short stories. Apparently, Mr. Steele was inspired to do this by the fact that some classic SF novels of the 50’s (like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation) were first published in serialized form.

Coyote has 3 Acts, the first on Earth in the days leading up to the launch of the starship Alabama, the second act describes an incident that occurs during the 230 year flight of the Alabama to the 47 Ursae Majoris system and the third and longest act covers the exploration of the planet Coyote (actually it is a large moon which orbits around a Saturn-like gas giant named Bear; all the planets derive their names from Native American mythology).

The first Act which is an entire chapter, plays out like a political thriller. It is the year 2070 and the US is ruled by a right-wing totalitarian government, the outcome of a second civil war some years earlier. It has poured billions of dollars and bankrupted the country in the process. While the stated aim of the ship is to establish earth’s first interstellar colony, several intellectuals and dissidents see it as an attempt by the United Republic to extend its fascist reach across space and time. While preparations are underway for the launch of the ship, the dissidents are attempting to escape persecution and to subvert the government’s interstellar ambitions. The chapter ends with the launch of the Alabama, with several dissidents on board.

The second Act takes place on board the ship, soon after launch. One of the crew Leslie Gillis is accidentally awoken from cryo-sleep and cannot find a way to put himself back into hibernation. He is condemned to live out the rest of his days on his own and the chapter tells the harrowing story of his emotional and physical roller-coaster ride over a period of several years. It is a very unusual to find a story segment like this in SF novels and it is written with a great deal of sensitivity and insight. It will remain as one of my favorite passages in any SF novel I have read.

The last Act is spread across a number of chapters and clearly each of these chapters was published as a standalone story, as they are episodic in nature. It deals with the arrival of the Alabama colonists in Coyote orbit and the establishment of the colony of Liberty on Coyote. It covers the dangerous early days of exploration and various adventures which take place in the months that follow. As in Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and McCaffrey’s Pern novels, the episodes help us understand more about the planet and the nature of the society that evolves on it, besides establishing a number of important characters who feature in future Coyote stories.

The book ends with the arrival of another ship from Earth, one that was launched almost two centuries later with a near-light-speed drive, allowing it to reach Coyote in just 40-something years. The ship is named Seeking Glorious Destiny Among The Stars For The Greater Good Of Social Collectivism. That should give you a pretty good idea of the political ideology of the government that launched it; clearly, things haven’t improved on good old Earth. The original Alabama colonists are in no hurry to go back to a totalitarian government and so they abandon Liberty to the newcomers and establish a hidden colony on another part of the planet.

Coyote is a throwback to the golden age of SF, when the focus of stories was the characters and the plot rather than detailed descriptions of technology or alien life. Mr. Steele’s planet is rather simplistic, with an improbably small variety of flora and fauna. He is more concerned with the interactions and ideologies of the colonists than in writing a scientific treatise on exobiology. Although I am a self-confessed fan of modern hard SF, I found myself drawn to this simple storytelling style…small wonder that I immediately picked up the sequel Coyote Rising and will start on the third book Coyote Frontier in a few days. Coyote Rising is less thought-provoking than the first novel; more of a straight up alien planet adventure story. Nevertheless, it does contain some memorable characters (one of them, Zoltan Shirow, is almost as tragic as Leslie Gillis from the first novel) and incidents.

Allen Steele has so far published 8 books in the Coyote universe – the original trilogy, two subsequent novels – Coyote Horizon and Coyote Destiny – together referred to as the Coyote Chronicles and three more spinoff novels titled Spindrift, Galaxy Blues and Hex.  The last of these books, Hex was published in 2011, so the series is well and truly alive and I wouldn’t put it past Mr. Steele to continue expanding the Coyote universe.

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