Angel of Europa by Allen Steele
In the stories we tell ourselves around camp fires, we always like to pretend that monsters are fictional. Whether it’s a massive kraken from 20,000 leagues under the sea, or an alien that’s just oozed out of a spaceship and is looking for something crunchy as a light snack before lunch, we describe the “thing” as a source of terror and horror. No matter what its shape, a monster disturbs our sense of what’s right or natural both in physical terms and as its behaviour reveals its inherently evil disposition. This is an entirely human reaction, assuming any being that looks unnatural is likely to be dangerous, if not lethal. Superstition is always a mirror of our own fears. In shadows, we see predatory beasts. Where the light shines brightly, we hope for angels who will keep us safe, not least by driving away the shadows so we can see nothing is actually lurking there. Our religions characterise demons as a mortal danger and a temptation to sin, but they have an unnerving capability. In Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe shows us how Mephistophilis can change its form to appear human, all the while tempting Faustus to make a deal with Lucifer. This draws on our most primal fear. When the monster is obvious from its physical appearance, we can guard against it. But how do you guard against a monster that looks all too human?
So we come to a new novella, Angel of Europa (Subterranean Press, 2011) by Allen Steele, and ask the question, “if you were in a deep submersible, and a monster came and knocked on the outside of your craft, how would you react? Would you sell your soul for, or to, the monster.” The elegant answer comes in a story about an expedition to explore the moons of Jupiter. There’s an unexplored ocean underneath the ice on Europa and the crew have taken two bathyscaphes with them. When there’s a terrible accident and the explanation for the death of two scientists is an attack by a monster, the captain has a difficult choice to make. Is this creature real or has the pilot of the bathyscaphe invented it as an excuse to murder the two scientists?
The strength of this novella lies in the quality of the mystery. How and why the two scientists came to die is resolved in a satisfying way. Unfortunately, I found the storytelling rather wooden. Now don’t get me wrong. Allen Steele is a highly competent writer and, as you would expect, the prose is of high quality. But the way the narrative unfolds failed to capture my interest. The “detective” is resuscitated and we watch him slowly grow accustomed to being back in his body. As soon as he is strong enough, he’s pitched into the investigation which involves talking with all the remaining crew and travelling, first, down to Europa and, then, under the ice. But it’s all very functional. There’s very little colour or context. The majority of the crew are cyphers who are there just to make potentially illuminating comments. The story really does little more than start at the beginning and, in a very workmanlike way, arrive at the end. So I’m not convinced this slim volume is worth the money. $35 is a not-insignificant chunk of cash to shell out for a moderately routine detective story in outer space. So buy if you are either a red-hot fan of Allen Steele, or you are prepared to bet this 500 copy limited edition will show a profit. Personally, I would wait for this story to appear in a collection or an anthology.
Ron Miller has produced a rather fine piece of jacket artwork.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.