Allen Steele, |
There's no suggestion that Allen Steele knows Coyote is a slang term for people who smuggle immigrants across borders. But it wouldn't be surprising if he did. Coyote is, in the beginning, a tale of extremely illegal immigration, and Steele is a writer of unusual depth.
Coyote covers the lives of the first extraterrestrial colonists, sent out by and in defiance of a fascist American government. It opens with a sting of conspiracy, as Capt. Robert E. Lee and his crew plot to replace the approved settlers with intellectual dissidents destined for imprisonment. A long sleep separates the first illegal exodus from the awkward settling of their new trickster planet, clearing the reader's mind for a new adventure along with the colonists.
Coyote has a somewhat episodic feel, probably due to its origin as a set of short stories. Side stories that could carry their own novel are gracefully woven in into the larger saga of rebellion and colonization. It's a technique that lets Steele work with several viewpoints and even different genres without losing the epic science fiction arc of the grander story. The side stories allow for a cold, sterile tale of Les Gilis, woken from cold sleep to face 35 years of complete solitude. The saga of Gillis' quiet, insane survival absorbed me so completely that a ringing phone almost sent me into a panic. The young adventure atmosphere of the first-generation Coyote teenagers as they rebelliously explore their world was as exciting as any pulp-action story might hope to be, while providing a study of human development and laying unseen framework for the future plot.
Steele's storytelling creates a new reality with every chapter. The claustrophobic culture of an America turned purely fascist, the freedom and fear of a new world, the sterile emptiness of space, all become immersive, tangible environments. His skill extends to the characters that roam his worlds. Coyote shifts between wildly different leads, giving both the opinionated Capt. Lee and the confused adolescent Wendy Gunther their own voice without creating an inconsistent feel in narrative. The characters are real enough to be annoying instead of despicable, pleasant instead of heroic. Steele seems to know that epic adventures need a very human observer to feel plausible, and every person of the crew, even the least involved citizens, has a life full of mundane, powerful human concerns.
Coyote does manage to have a flaw; it moves slightly too fast. The colonists adapt to a truly new world in record time; Wendy relates her adventures to descendants before we even see her grow up; the governments on Earth change while the settlers sleep. But even that helps bring home the reality of the story, as the colonists themselves are left breathless at the forced pace of their lives. It's a fast book, submersively real, and can leave an unprepared reader gasping. But for those who can force themselves to break for air, Coyote is a great place to visit.