July 23, 2011 – The men and women of science fiction novels have launched themselves into the stars for many reasons. They are escaping a doomed planet facing some sort of apocalypse. They are sent off by their government to explore. They’re heading off to destroy the alien enemy. It’s time to colonize. Etc. The spacefarers who are the stars of “Coyote” are most similar to that last one, sent off to colonize the remote moon from which the novel gets its name. But there’s a catch.
This isn’t a story of a bunch of simple colonists, rather they are fugitives, intellectuals and dissidents oppressed by their government, escaping a certain and horrible future in internment camps, lead by a conspiracy of government officials to steal a billion dollar space craft on its way to colonize a small moon many light years away. The novel grabs you at the very beginning and drags you along through an intense heist and finally, despite several close calls, into space. What follows is a story of a colony landing on an alien world, learning to cope and survive in a hostile environment, while working out internal strife and conflict.
Steele’s writing style is straightforward and descriptive, never veering too far into techno-babble that plagues some works of the genre, but providing just enough insight into the science behind the story, and with just enough nod to the realism of the scenario to satiate those readers who are more interested by the numbers and the theories than the characters.
Yet it is the characters who receive the most attention in “Coyote.” Complex motivations, political idealism and basic human drama serve to flesh out the characters and connect them to the reader. The politics that pushed these escapees into space serve as a backdrop, and inform us of where these people are coming from, but it’s the simple matters of survival, love, hate, curiosity and the explorer’s spirit that really make the characters shine.
Where some books exploit character deaths to try and tug on heart strings, “Coyote” uses them as a matter of fact. These people have taken risks. Risks which sometimes cause death. None of the characters ever seem safe, and characters that have been followed and built since the beginning can still die. The book isn’t a slaughter house by any means, but the dangers of space colonization aren’t glossed over either.
The book has, in my mind, three primary standout elements (I’ll spare the details.) The beginning is a wonderful an intense heist, fraught with danger and excitement. On the journey to Coyote, an accident occurs, and the reader is treated to witnessing a man’s life in isolation in what is easily my favorite sequence of the book, and then near the end of the book, a lone man’s journey through a foreign landscape while discovering himself. The rest of the book is great, but these three elements are what make the book a joy to read.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some issues. Steele shifts in and out of Present tense to emphasize the difference in when a scene takes place, which is nice and artistic, but some people will not be able to get over having to read Present tense. I admit that it took me some time to get used to.
The biggest issue to me was how familiar the world seemed. For a book about exploring an alien moon, much of the alien life is very familiar. Of course there are obvious reasons, both scientifically and from an author’s perspective why this would be, but at times I wondered how the book might be even better if I truly felt out of place on this world. There are glimpses of exotic life on Coyote, but in a way I felt like they had landed on another Earth. This somewhat shortchanges the exploration elements as you never really feel like you’ve stumbled upon something truly out of this world. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” felt more exotic.
On top of this, the colonists truly have smashing luck. I mean, aside from the predators, they couldn’t have landed in a better place. It’s not an easy life but it is also pretty darn manageable. I can see why the author would write it that way, as he wants to deal with more than just survival concerns, but in the back of my mind it sometimes felt like the universe was being rather gracious to these people.
My concerns aside, this book did a great job of investing me in the characters and their successes and failures in this new world. The thematic elements calling back to the Pilgrims’ journey to America feels novel and inspired, bringing out a surprising nostalgia for the beginnings of our own nation and the burning desire of mankind for freedom. But what really makes this book stand out is it’s humble focus on the daily struggles of individual people, and how that the journey across space and time is just a backdrop to the real journey, the exploration of our own souls.
STAR RATING: (4 Stars)
For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish or high-concept for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.
I can’t wait to go get the sequel and read it. The arrival of new people from Earth, so strange in their advancement, are more alien than the world they’ve landed on, while being simultaneously terribly familiar. I’m very hopeful for what comes of these events, but I hope Steele doesn’t paint them in a black and white paintbrush. I want them to be as complicated as the colonists.
The boids are interesting, I suppose, but they just don’t do it for me as creepy creatures. They’re dangerous to be sure. The case is made there as good as it can be, but they just don’t give me that vibe that I get from predators here on earth.
A lot of my reaction to the blandness of the alien life might come from how much of the world is presented as flat plains and marshes. I know there are trees, but I never really felt like we saw any forests to speak of, or other plant features that would make it interesting. While we only saw one selection of wildlife, it felt as if it was all boids and grass as far as the eye could see.
This contributed, I’m sure, to the catwhales and sandthieves portions of the exploration by Carlos and the others being such favorite bits of mine. That and I’m a sucker for massive sea creatures and sentient life.
I’m hoping that now we’ve established some ground rules for the planet and the colonists that we might see some more exotic elements of living on a new world. They are traveling elsewhere, after all. It would be a shame to drop the exploration elements, which were some of my favorites in this book.
Oh, and the sequence where Leslie Gillis is woken up and lives out thirty-plus years of his life writing that book and drawing murals was fantastic. There’s simply no other way to put it. I felt like I was watching history as Gillis unwittingly created his masterwork which I’m sure will shape the future generations of the colonists from then on. It felt like watching the man who first chipped Gilgamesh into a stone tablet, or Moses scribbling down his account of the ten plagues. He’s formed what will become a backbone of their future’s culture, and I find that fascinating. If this isn’t followed up on in the sequel, I’ll be very, very disappointed.