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Coyote
Allen Steele
Orbit paperback £6.99

review by Alasdair Stuart

For the last few years, Allen Steele has been making a name for himself as one of the new kings of hard science fiction. Steele's work tends to be set in the near future, focus on the changes to society that expansion into space will bring and have an upfront, blue collar feel to it that places it in the hinterland between American literature and hard SF. However, whilst most of his books have taken place in the same universe, none of them have been directly linked, until now.

Coyote is the first in a projected trilogy of novels that follow the creation of the first interstellar colony. Like many of his earlier books, this is very much in the sort of territory that authors like Clarke and Niven have made their own. However, once again Steele's work evokes American literature, in this case stories of the old west. It's an interesting juxtaposition and it's not the only unusual thing about Coyote. The novel is assembled from several shorter stories that Steele wrote and had published over a period of several years, almost all of which have been extensively reworked for this book.

The overall story follows the crew of the Alabama, America's first interstellar spacecraft, dispatched on a one-way trip by a fascist government to create the first-ever colony world. However, the ship is hijacked by the command crew, who are disgusted by the atrocities committed by their government, and escape from the Solar system to begin a new life. This in itself would be more than enough to fill the book but Steele cleverly plays with time and supporting characters to give both a real sense of the epic scale of the journey and a new perspective on a relatively familiar story. The first part, 'Stealing Alabama' deals with the plot to steal the ship whilst later sections deal with the establishment of the colony, how those still loyal to the government deal with being free and the struggle the colony constantly has to survive. Using everything from first person narration to journals, Steele constructs an intricately woven look at these people's lives, their relationships constantly evolving as time goes by. One of the best sections for this is 'Liberty Journals', a collection of journal entries and reports from the colony's first year.

However, where the novel really comes into its own is in the sections dealing with individual characters. 'The Years Between' is a particular standout, with the Alabama crew all entering hibernation for the centuries-long trip out to their new home. The story follows Leslie Gillis, the communications officer, as he's woken after three months instead of 230 years and how he deals with his solitude. It's a gripping and very moving portrayal of one man's acceptance of his fate and the payoff is one of the highlights of the book. Likewise, 'Across the Eastern Divide' and 'Lonesome and a Long Way From Home' put the teenagers of the colony in the spotlight. They're stories that evoke Mark Twain at his best and, again, are shot through with darkness. None of the Liberty colonists have an easy time of it and Carlos Montero, Wendy Gunther, Barry Dreyfus and Chris and David Levin are no exception.

This is Steele's most ambitious book for a long time and it's a ringing success. The only minor quibble I have is that some plot elements are deliberately left open, to be explored further in the sequels, Coyote Rising and Coyote Frontier. However, in the author's defence this never feels like cheap salesmanship. This is the story of a world and it was never going to fit into just one book. Coyote is a phenomenal piece of work, drawing influences from several sources and creating something complex, moving and utterly involving out of them. It's Steele's best book to date, creating an intricate and believable alien world and intricate, believable people to colonise it. Science fiction honestly doesn't get much better than this.
Coyote

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