Thursday, October 8, 2015

Series Review: "Coyote" by Allen Steele

With Earth in political and ecological ruin, the discovery of a new habitable planet means a second chance. On Coyote, humanity can start over--or retread the same bloodstained paths it always has.

The United Republic of America has spared no expense--and no few lives--to develop the first interstellar colony ship. But a group of dissident intellectuals is determined that the Coyote colony will not be under the thumb of the corrupt regime.

The conspiracy to steal the URSS Alabama goes all the way to the top. On the eve of launch, Captain Lee smuggles rebel would-be colonists aboard. It is an all-or-nothing chance. Whether or not the new planet can support human civilization, they will learn the hard way--with no hope of return to Earth.


The Coyote Trilogy by Allen Steele (2002)
2.5 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 2/5
Logic of Plot Development: 2/5
Evocation of Setting: 3/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 2/5
Resolution of Conflict: 2/5
Emotional Engagement: 1/5
Mental Engagement: 2/5
Memorability: 2/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: character deaths, ambient misogyny, ambient racism
Overall Response: The author fails to really grip his topic, and skims over plot and characters.


More Thoughts: I'm hard up for good science fiction. Sci-fi westerns? Even better. When I read a delightful short story of Allen Steele's in the anthology Year's Best SF 9, entitled "The Madwoman of Shuttlefield," I raced to get my hands on the full series that inspired it. 

As it happens, the Coyote series makes for good plane reading, but I wouldn't go out of my way to read it again.

The structure of the series is a little unusual. Each book is pieced together as a progression of novellas, changing not only viewpoint characters, but also tense and perspective, shifting from third-person to first-person between sections. At least they're chronological. The segments read as if they were composed without the intent to publish as a whole. The same information dumps, and even specific phrases, reoccur in several different novellas. At best, it reads like déjà vu; at worst, like a book in need of a harsher editor.

Still, this wide-range approach gives Steele room to play around with all the different elements that go into the foundation of a new world: the conspiracy to steal the URSS Alabama, first contact with native flora and fauna, internal strife among the colonists, comings-of-age of the first generation of humans born on another world. 

Several novellas stand out as better than the rest. "The Madwoman of Shuttlefield," which I first read in the anthology, turns out to be the first part of the second book in the series. Other good bits revolve around a crewman accidentally brought out of biostasis during the Alabama's centuries-long journey, forced to come to terms with the fact that he will spend the rest of his life in utter isolation; and a group of religious pilgrims who view Coyote as the stage for humanity's redemption.

I enjoy a good frontier story, which the first book in the series delivers in spades. I'm not opposed to a well-told freedom fighter narrative, which Steele provides in the second. However, the more pages I turned, the inherent weakness of the series as a whole became clear. Steele retreats from every point of conflict or emotional intensity. Scenes of confrontation or reconciliation are skipped, more often than not, and summarized after the fact. Character development is promised, but the payoff never appears. The problem worsens as the series goes on. Soon Steele's characters are mere placeholders.

The series also suffers from the ambient misogyny that plagues science fiction. One suspects that Steele is not even aware of it. The cast roster offers approximately one female character for every twenty strong-jawed men (which, in purely strategic terms, hardly makes for a viable colony.) Women come equipped with a designated male counterpart at all times. "Doctor" is a valid occupation, but "leader" is not. The few women to whom Steele (no doubt thinking himself progressive) deigns to grant a position of authority are invariably depicted as irrational, emotionally volatile, and less capable of planning than their male rivals. 

It's all subtle, but it's unpleasant.

(One particularly lip-curling section has the heroes deciding not to bother rescuing a traumatized kidnap victim from the madman who cannibalized her comrades, because she "chose" to be his "consort." That was fun.)

The first book gave me hope that Steele would eventually puncture the concept of inherently masculine authority. An extended story about teenagers exploring Coyote's uncharted rivers seems designed to undercut the swaggering "boys-club" mentality of adventuring. Sadly, this doesn't pay off, and in fact serves only to provide terrible love-triangle-themed tension between male leads.

If the series had been otherwise engaging, or beautifully written, I could have given these flaws a pass. As it is, what started as a promising space western, full of unexplored vistas of human experience, gradually flattens into a rote summary with simplistic political commentary poured over top. The last book also serves up some unnecessary racial stereotyping: untrustworthy Jewish billionaire, traditionally-named Native American whose first lines are about seeing which "spirit animal" is inside the main characters, etc.

The Coyote trilogy is continued in other spin-off novels by Steele, but ultimately I don't find the world compelling enough to continue, nor do I trust the author to tell me a tale that engages either heart or mind. My search for good science fiction continues.

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