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V-S Day by Allen Steele

V-S Day by Allen Steele

V-S Day by Allen Steele (Ace, 2014) is an alternate history version of World War II. This time, the “what if” is potentially very interesting. Rather than go for the major change of outcome as in P K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, this has the German leadership change their scientific priorities and shift the war effort in a singularly unexpected way. In the real world, the Manhattan Project began in 1939 and matched the German group Uranverein. Both groups aimed to exploit uranium as the basis of a weapons program. The rest as they say, is history. In another part of Germany, Peenemünde under the direction of Dornberger began a military program to develop rockets as weapons. Thanks to the work of Wernher von Braun who borrowed many patented developments produced by American physicist Robert H. Goddard, a program was authorised by Hitler in 1942 to devastate London. Except Allen Steele has Hitler authorise the development of a suborbital bomber capable of attacking New York. Needless to say, when spies bring word of this project to the Allies, Goddard is tasked with putting together a team to develop countermeasures.

So, as a paper-based exercise, we have ourselves an early space race. The German approach is to achieve escape velocity using a rocket-sled system to slingshot the rocket-powered bomber into the air, and then bounce along the atmosphere like a stone skipping across a pool of water. The Americans build a rocket-launched fighter that can match the orbital path and then intercept. From a technological point of view, the mechanism for this interception proves one of the highlights of the book. I’d been assuming the American approach would be a suicide mission, but in this alternate, the word kamikazi obviously does not cross the Pacific. US technology comes up with a most interesting solution. Anyway, a race usually means excitement and I was looking forward to a white-knuckle scientific thriller. But it never arrives. This is a book which is never more than interesting. It never catches fire because, in a sense, both sides work in a kind of vacuum and it’s not not outer space. For there to be a race or a fight, you need a choreography of attack and defence, move and countermove. In this book, the scientists and engineers are sequestered in carefully protected environments and apart from one remarkably ineffective attempt to assassinate Goddard, and the historically accurate bombing raid by the British on Peenemünde, little disturbs the calm atmosphere in which both sides work.

Allen Steele

Allen Steele

Well, that’s not quite right. Wernher von Braun is portrayed as a man struggling with his conscience. Forced to join the Nazi Party and pay lip-service to the political hierarchy, he’s troubled both when he learns Goddard is to be targeted and as he sees slave labour used to build the launch track. Other than that, his progress is relatively serene as he overseas the production of this silver bird. Both sides have the same intellectual and engineering challenge. Before they are tapped by their governments, their rockets tend to explode shortly after the engines are fired up. A few seconds of flight is all that’s been achieved. Now both teams are given a one-shot chance to build a manned craft, one as a passive bomber, the other as an active interceptor. So they are to go from abject failure to instant success because lives depend on it. In Germany that’s both the scientists’ own lives and all the slaves whose lives are, and have been, instantly disposable. In America, our heroes are defending the people of New York from an incineration attack that’s only theoretically possible. This decision to invest American treasure in a project to defend against a purely theoretical threat is never really explored. There’s a quick meeting in the White House and the green light is lit on the basis of a renegade scientist’s assertion the German threat could be real.

During the book, there’s no mention of the Japanese or other German military manoeuvres. Nothing disturbs the focus of our group on beating the von Braum challenge. You might at least have some discussion of whether the technology could be adapted to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles. What better way of delivering the atomic bomb to Tokyo or Berlin, for that matter? This is distinctly odd. We’re watching the militarisation of science without exploring how other weapons might be developed. In Germany, we’re supposed to assume the High Command would never authorise construction of a second bomber. They have the technology and the launch track. Why would they not want a back-up? It’s not credible to assume they would simply kill all the scientists who had presided over this failure and then forget about their work. Later in America, after they had won the war, they went into space for peaceful purposes. What about the Russians? In the real world, they had spies in the Manhattan Project. What happened to the Cold War after this version of World War II ended? Everything is fudged into the background with none of the political and military context to make it believable. Sadly this leaves me thinking V-S Day is seriously underwhelming.

For reviews of other books by Allen Steele, see:
Angel of Europa
Coyote Horizon
galaxy blues
Hex

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Hex by Allen Steele

April 24, 2012 6 comments

Well, here we go again. I keep hoping the next Allen Steele will be a return to the glory days of his early books so, with some trepidation, I open Hex (Berkley Publishing, 2011). My first impression is less than encouraging. The passive-aggressive alien culture calling itself the Talus recognise that humans have made contact with the danui. This is one of the more enigmatic races and somewhat reclusive. Except this race has made what can only be described as a grand gesture to the universe. They have constructed the tanaash-haq (which translates the “the living world”) and, in their off-hand way, offered its potential as a habitat to races considered actually or potentially worthy. Through the nord acting as third party intermediaries, a small group of humans from Coyote is invited to view this engineering marvel which turns out to be a massive Dyson sphere completely enclosing the danui sun. They have dismantled all the planets to provide the raw materials for the construction project and, now that it’s all done, they have relocated to part of this new habitat. With more than enough space to go around, other races are also moving in.

If we go back to the days of Big Dumb Object science fiction like Ringworld by Larry Niven and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke, we had Earth exploring alien objects not knowing who had built them. They were just there and our “boys” went around poking everything with sharp sticks to see whether anything reacted to the poke (a bit like Facebook, really). The problem with such novels is that, without finding someone immensely old who could tell our explorers where these Objects had come from and how they came to be built, we were often left with little better understanding than when we started. That’s why they were “dumb” objects. In this case, it’s obvious who built the thing and, to some extent, why it was built. More to the point, it’s already filling up with different races all of whom have developed societies capable of interstellar travel. Dumbness should not an issue here. What should happen is that the Talus should provide facilitators or, if you prefer, ambassadors to give us the cultural background and introduce us to the right people so we can be allocated habitat space and smoothly integrate into the neighbourhood.

Allen Steele promoting the idea, "Full steam ahead!"

But no! There would be no story in that. So everyone must act dumb to generate the maximum potential for misunderstanding, bloodshed and political brinkmanship. None of the alien races must be allowed to contact the humans before they arrive in the system and give them any useful information about what to expect. The team therefore arrives “dumb” and “blind” hoping to play a mean pinball. Once at the relevant coordinates, they continuously send out messages asking what they can or cannot safely do. Naturally, no-one answers. As to the crew, they have been picked with an eye on complete dysfunctionality. The leader of the away team is fundamentally incompetent. Fortunately, he’s quickly killed when contact is made with one of the alien races. Another member of the team, Sandy, also has a kind of death wish whether for herself or others. The captain of the starship is mother to one of the away team, but they don’t speak to each other. There’s also a problem in the chain of command because the only one who might be considered an expert in alien contact and negotiation is not in charge. The best he can do is offer advice to the captain. So, instead of having a well-trained team capable of acting with a reasonable chance of survival when under pressure, we have a group of people who don’t get on with each other and are prone to do daft things. As you can imagine, this rapidly degenerates into a chaotic situation that tests the reader’s patience. I have no problem in watching something go wrong when everyone is doing their best. I get extremely annoyed very quickly when stupidity gets people into difficulty and then, instead of learning from these mistakes, they go on to make yet more stupid decisions. There comes a point when you just wish the aliens would go off and do stupid alien things without seeking to involve us, and we humans would all commit suicide to save the aliens the trouble of killing us when we repeatedly do stupid things.

As we come to the end, we find human impulsiveness at its best or worst depending on your point of view. Having been clearly told of a rule, the ship’s captain deliberately ignores it. None of this, “When in Rome. . .” rubbish for her. It’s “My way or the highway!” for her and, by association, the whole of humanity. Personally, I was less than indifferent by this time. I hoped the aliens would just wipe us all out and feed our molecules back into their living world system. I’m not sure what message Allen Steele thinks he’s sending to readers in this book, but it seems to be that recklessly going forward all the time, no matter what the circumstances, is always the right thing to do. This also seems to be the thinking behind the stand-your-ground laws that are causing so much national and international interest in the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida. Essentially these laws permit gun-totting Americans to shoot each other without any duty to retreat or first explore peaceful options to resolve the crisis. They get an immunity to prosecution so long as they reasonably believe they are being threatened. Perhaps I’m wrong, but Allen Steele seems to be promoting exactly this NRA-backed approach in all dealings with aliens, even if they have superior technology and could eradicate our species without blinking. It also underpins the notion of American exceptionalism which is used to justify unilaterally interfering in the affairs of other sovereign states. This is hardly the right law for a civilised country and certainly not the right approach in a technologically sophisticated galaxy. So unless you feel like having a slow-motion lobotomy, give Hex a miss.

For reviews of other books by Allen Steele, see:
Angel of Europa
Coyote Horizon
galaxy blues
V-S Day

Angel of Europa by Allen Steele

July 22, 2011 1 comment

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?

Allen Steele demonstrating the new neck-mounted microphone for public speaking

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.

For reviews of other novels by Allen Steele, see:
Coyote Horizon,
galaxy blues
Hex
V-S Day.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Coyote Horizon by Allen Steele

August 23, 2009 1 comment

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.

For reviews of other books by Allen Steele, see:
galaxy blues
Hex
V-S Day.
There’s also a novella Angel of Europa.

galaxy blues by Allen Steele

June 30, 2009 1 comment

There are times when life as described on the pages of novels is just too damned convenient. I know fortuitous accidents often do make their contributions to the real world, but it has become a somewhat tiresome cliché to point them out. Luck does not sit comfortably alongside the need to present yourself to the world as a competent planner. Although there is no doubt we do all need a little luck sometimes, it should never do more than add to the expected success. Building a plan around the need for luck is a recipe for disaster.

So, in galaxy blues by Allen Steele, we’re back in the Coyote universe with a manifestly successful businessman who is planning what he hopes will be his greatest business coup. He has a ship and all but one crew member. And wouldn’t you know it, one just happens to drop into his lap. Worse, he is a turncoat and may have betrayed his brother so perhaps shouldn’t even get on to the shortlist.

But, hey, we need to get this particular set of people on the ship for this story to work so less of the carping.

Have you noticed how the two leading characters who are going to end up together often seem to hate each other at first sight?

But there are compensations. It’s a mildly amusing twist on the trade goods for natives (usually worthless geegaws) that the ship is full of top grade cannabis. As good a case for the legalisation of this “herb” as I’ve seen for a while. That the natives are also running a scam is somewhat thrown away. Although the politics a inter-species trade is perhaps slightly less exciting than the space travel to get there, there is more to be made of the philosophical factionalism of the aliens that is dreamt of in this author’s heaven and earth.

Nevertheless, the opening section of the book is diverting and Steele is a readable author so I’m well past the halfway line before I start to lose interest. Now you have to see this vastly superior set of aliens. They have high technology coming out of their ears and any other orifices available. They’ve been aware of this approaching black hole for yonks (that’s a really long time for those of you who don’t speak Brit). Their top scientific brains have been collecting data, trying to devise a way of stopping it. So they lay this silly trap to recruit these technologically challenged Earthlings to go and plant a recording device in the back hole’s path.

Any self-respecting alien with an abacus would have known decades ago where this black hole was going to hit next. The affected planetary system has been evacuating its citizens for some time. Anyone could have gone to a suitable planet or moon and left a recording device without the slightest risk. But, for the purpose of this story, this ship of con artists from earth are shanghaied to do it when they could all be killed. Even more ironic is that the aliens were convinced the earthlings would wreck their experiment by simply throwing the device out of the ship and making a run for it to save their skins. We earthlings impressed the shit out of these aliens (assuming they do produce shit, of course) by actually doing the job properly and almost getting killed in the process.

It’s completely brainless and lacks any kind of page-turning tension. From the outset, we all know that the earthlings will be successful and get back to Earth (or Coyote as the case may be). So the whole book stumbles vacantly to an end and we wonder why we bothered to keep reading. The nice asides like the telepathy merchant who stays drunk to avoid the misery of having to hear his fellow earthlings’ thoughts and the thematic rerun of Pierson’s Puppeteers from Larry Niven’s universe cannot prevent the work from failing retain interest after the halfway mark.

For reviews of other novels by Allen Steele, see:
Coyote Horizon
Hex
V-S Day.
There’s also a novella Angel of Europa.

Jacket artwork by John Harris.

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