Coyote Horizon by Allen Steele
It’s a sad fact that everyday life is mostly boring and repetitive, made bearable only by the occasional moment of interest and excitement. In any reasonably developed society, those who have managed to rise to the top, enjoy lives of privilege and leisure. Those who are less equal are trapped into selling their labour, hawking their skills for meagre rewards. The gap between rich and poor always produces unfairness. The bigger the gap, the greater the unfairness. But if you live in a frontier society, even survival can be challenging when dangerous animals may attack or famine may starve the community. In such societies, only an elite can buy themselves immunity from drudgery and the threat of death. The rest of the world ekes out their living as best it can.
The Coyote of Coyote Horizon by Allen Steele is a world on the cusp of transformation from a backwater into a thriving new world. The more dangerous of the land animals have been cleared away from the main human population centres. There is a reasonable amount of food with a little surplus. The only problem is immigration. Unfortunately, in a swings and roundabouts’ irony, the more Coyote threatens to prosper, the more Earth falls into the mire. As a result, a flood of economic refugees now threatens the fragile balance. A further complication is the relationship with the hjadd, an alien species whose technological and cultural superiority are intimidating to a human race so new to the reality of interstellar exploration and settlement.
This novel roughly parallels the events in Galaxy Blues and is on a mission to explain some of the background to the Coyote universe. So now we have a better understanding of how telepathy comes to be developed and how planetary exploration might be conducted. The good things about the book are easy to state. Steele has an engaging style. Simple and straightforward in his plotting, all the characters follow their arcs and arrive in the right place at the right time for everything to work out “just so”. He also has a pleasing line in capturing the prosaic quality of everyone‘s lives. Those who risk their lives in the fishing fleet have no consolation other than a pub in which to drown their sorrows. Those who work in the pubs have no real prospects. This leads to a certain social levelling as even the wealthy have to confront the fact that, sometimes, the help talks back or walks out.
In the midst of all this comes a form of religious crisis. The reality of aliens has undermined a central tenet of Christian faith. In a monotheistic system, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that God made man in his own image. But when aliens with a completely different image appear on the scene, which god made them? In a moment of cynicism, Steele offers the not unreasonable insight that all primitive societies come up with broadly comparable Creation myths and then are forced to discard them when a different perception intrudes. Except, of course, the power structures of old religion can be resistant to anything that threatens their continued influence. There’s no knowing how far they might go in the defence of their beliefs.
But, for all the elegant simplicity of the writing, the craft of the plot and the willingness to embrace the ordinariness inside every hero, there is a certain plodding quality to the resulting novel. It’s not that stuff does not happen. Some does. It’s not that there is no excitement. There are odd flashes. But Steele has not written a melodramatic potboiler here. Even when the waterborne exploration team gets into trouble, the writing stays consistent with the tone describing the boring lives of fishermen. Such adrenaline pumping as there is in each situation is never brought to the fore. People do what they are good at. Sometimes this earns them praise. Other times, it lands then in trouble. Steele is careful to leave shades of gray in actions and their consequences. This is pleasingly realistic. Other than the looming chaos of too many immigrants, the other dynamic is the rise of the chaaz’maha, a non-messianic human chosen by the aliens to spread the universal belief system among the citizenry of Coyote. The speed with which the community adopts the codicils of belief is conveniently fast and less than credible. I understand the need to compress time in a plot so that everything fits in, but the whole interfaith wrangle smoulders rather than catches fire. Without something more, humanity’s rush to abandon monotheism in favour of an extraterrestrial philosophical system and its instant adoption of the chaaz’maha as a spiritual leader rings hollow. Soup kitchen proselytising has never been successful in the past. I hardly think it would work in this future as described.
The result is a book that does slowly build to an interesting cliffhanger at the end. But, guess what. The key word here is “interesting”. It is really interesting in the most positive sense of the word, and I really do want to know how it all works out in the next book of the duology. But it’s a book one admires rather than becomes engrossed in.