The Coyote Trilogy by Allen Steele
Reviewed by Justin Howe
01 May 2006
I didn't read Allen Steele's Coyote stories when they first appeared in Asimov's Magazine, but discovered them a few years later in their paperback form. By that time Steele had reworked them to fit into a novel framework—a tradition dating back to the early days of science-fiction paperbacks and the "fix-up novel." Asimov's Foundation series and Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz are two of the more famous examples. In recent years, this tradition has had a mild resurgence as the "mosaic novel," as seen in Rick Bowes's From the Files of the Time Rangers and Charles Stross's Accelerando. It's a method that lends itself to well-crafted stories with dynamic uses of point of view and the development of an ensemble cast of characters, each of whom can step forward and shine for a moment in the limelight. However, as the Coyote series proves, it may not be the best method with which to construct a trilogy. It's easy to see in the first book that Steele wanted to tell a good story and investigate the mythology of the American Dream. He won favor with Coyote and continued that intensity through Coyote Rising, but by Coyote Frontier the signs of fatigue were clear.
Coyote opens with the Hugo Award-nominated novella "Stealing Alabama," a grueling tale of political dissidents fleeing a totalitarian future America by hijacking an interstellar spacecraft. The spacecraft is destined for a habitable moon in the Ursae Marjoris system, the world called Coyote. Here we first meet those characters who will go on to shape the series. These include Wendy Gunther, an alienated teenager who has spent most of her life in government juvenile camps and is now being reunited with her estranged father. Also aboard are the Montero and Levin families, dissident intellectuals fleeing persecution from the state. And then there is the crew of the Alabama itself, led by the mission's captain, Robert Lee. These men and women have become traitors in an attempt to recapture a libertarian vision that exists at the heart of the American dream. It's a taut and tension-ridden opening, one that is clearly rooted in the American politics of today. The unknown world these people seek gives every indication of being as inhumane and unjust as the world they have left behind. The direness of the situation on Earth, however, makes it clear why they have chosen this path.
It's easy to see why this story captured the minds of those initially reading it in Asimov's. It has all the earmarks of great science fiction—rich characters in a desperate situation simultaneously familiar and alien—and embraces the heritage of Joe Haldeman and Robert Heinlein, by capturing a uniquely American vision of the future. Coyote becomes the backdrop for Steele to explore issues of government, individual rights, and the mythology of the frontier. The rest of the book goes on to illustrate the many hardships these people must now face. From a shipboard error that awakens a member of the crew a century or so too early, to the newfound perils upon Coyote itself, there quickly proves no guarantee that everything will turn out fine for these characters. Especially since some of the very characters with whom we sympathized so closely in the opening die within days of landing upon the planet.
Steele uses a mix of techniques to tell these stories, from journal entries and scientific reports made by the characters, to straight prose that blends science fiction with first-hand accounts of the American West. Sometimes the tone is reminiscent of Lewis and Clark, other times a Heinlein juvenile novel. The tone shifts in completely new directions with each chapter. After "Stealing Alabama" comes the eerie novella "The Days Between," where poor Leslie Gillis finds himself "stranded" in outer space. Destined to die alone and isolated between worlds, he manages to maintain his sanity by writing, of all things, a fantasy novel set upon the world he will never live to see. By the end of Coyote we have ridden upon the rivers of the world, encountered ballplants and boids, seen madness and betrayal, and finally witnessed the arrival of another colony ship. This one was sent from Earth years after the Alabama departed, when the United Republic of America has collapsed into itself. This second ship, The Spirit of Social Collectivism Brought to the Stars, from a now dominant Southern Hemisphere, holds nearly twenty times as many colonists as the Alabama. These people threaten to overwhelm the original colony through either sheer weight of numbers or direct intent. The conflict that ensues between the two colonies forms the basis of the second novel, Coyote Rising.
It is in the first half of the second novel that Steele introduces his more far-reaching social ideas, as well as renewing his investigation of the idea of personal freedom. There are the post-human Savants who have downloaded their intelligences into machines and serve as advisors to the forces of Social Collectivism. There's a cult that worships a physically altered human as the Church of Universal Transformation. With both of these, Steele crafts cautionary tales. He clearly finds the Savants to be pitiable for having lost their humanity. Each character forced to deal with one of the post-humans experiences some degree of revulsion. As for the church, well, for that story Steele takes his inspiration from the Donner party and other gruesome tales of wilderness survival. In between and around these wonders are the human stories of colonization in the face of the grim truths of Social Collectivism. Political exiles, geniuses, drifters, and misfits have all found themselves on another world. Their struggles feature many harsh realities, as the chapter "The Garcia Narrows Bridge" clearly illustrates. Plus, in the background, the other sentient inhabitants of Coyote have started to notice they are no longer alone upon the world. Along with Social Collectivism come the twin troubles of exploitation and sabotage. Like the tyranny last seen on Earth in the first book, this form of government does not embrace the freedom that the Alabama colonists typify. Guerilla raids led by Carlos Montero soon develop into open conflict between the two factions. The second part of Coyote Rising details the revolution that ultimately leads to the planet's independence from Earth. At this point, Coyote is a changed world on the verge of a new era of exploration.
As a storyteller, Steele has established his name with his ability to create compelling, everyday characters in a hard science-fiction setting. Like Joe Haldeman, Steele writes such accessible prose that we're willing to go along wherever it may take us. The first two novels abound with believable and well thought out technologies. There's nothing that reads as out of place, and Steele has found a framework upon which to investigate the mythology of his country. As it turns out, this is both a curse and a blessing. On one hand it's a mythology in need of exploration, but on the other hand it's just too easy to have things turn into "the American Revolution in space." But Steele is attempting to do more than that. He's concerned with the nature of governments and the personal freedoms of the individual. Throughout the series, he's shone a wary light upon methods of social control. We've seen a repressive future America that pays lip-service to personal freedoms, the threat of Social Collectivism, misplaced trust in leaders and technology, and the birth of a new community. By the end of Coyote Rising the stage is set for the adventure to continue, even if the main story has been told. Things can move forward. The characters are free to explore the world. Thus, it was with great expectation that I awaited the third book, Coyote Frontier. And it was with some disappointment that I put it down. Too much of it reads as a rehashing of Coyote.
We're returned briefly at the beginning to the days of the United Republic of America and the dissident intellectual Jonas Whittaker who never reached the Alabama. On Coyote the characters we remember as victorious are now twenty years older and approaching middle age. Steele has chosen to skip that era of exploration and summarize the ensuing years over the course of several paragraphs. So a third ship, the Columbus, arrives from Earth, this time from the European Alliance. It carries a recently revived Whittaker and his "Starbridge" technology, which has the potential to change the balance of power once more. Increased colonization is once again set to begin, but by now the colonists on Coyote need Earth almost as much as Earth needs them. The advanced technology that came aboard the Alabama has deteriorated almost beyond repair. Replacement parts are needed if the colony hopes to pass on its technical heritage to the next generation. Eager to avoid a repeat of the past conflict that occurred against Social Collectivism, Wendy Gunther and Carlos Montero return to Earth in order to negotiate a trade agreement.
The novel once again breaks into two thematic sections. One concerns the continued development of the planet, while the other details the negotiations between the governments of Coyote and Earth. By now the dynamism of the initial stories and novellas has receded into the background. Where I had hoped for another chapter to rival "The Days Between" or "Benjamin the Unbeliever," Steele chooses to keep the novel on more conventional ground. Wendy and Carlos become our focus and there's some satisfaction in seeing them again. Much of what they witness on Earth is depressing, and Coyote could be the salvation for our damaged planet. However, they are in over their heads and forced to make odd allegiances in order to maintain some semblance of autonomy. In this way they enter into conflict with those who would prevent Coyote from suffering the same treatment as Earth.
Ultimately, the new characters like Jonas Whittaker and Jonathan Parson never have a chance to stand out beside the more established ones. Others we've met in the earlier books filter into the background, recognizable by their names and nothing more. Those characters that we've wanted to hear from—like the sole Savant remaining upon Coyote, Manny Castro—never get their chance, though his story could rival that of Leslie Gillis's in the first novel. Unfortunately, the intriguing possibilities inherent in the technologies to build the Savants or to inspire a Church of Universal Transformation are hustled offstage as quickly as possible. Steele returns to his infatuation with the myth of America, and these technological ideas interfere too much with his investigation. And that is where Steele becomes constrained by the theme he's chosen to impose upon the series. At this point, I have to wonder if the setting could serve as the home for other thematic ideas.
In the end, it takes an extreme act of deus ex machina to allow Steele to tie everything together, and even this reads like a weird hybrid of Arthur C. Clarke and Mark Twain. The thread of this ending did exist throughout the series, but it's a thread without bearing upon the rest of the story. Possibly, Steele faced the choice of either continuing Coyote as a series (potentially winding up with such future absurdities as God Emperor of Coyote) or shutting things down. He chose the latter course and walks away from the trilogy with a satisfied conscience. Maybe he found himself bored and wanted to move on to other projects and stories. Maybe the prospect of God Emperor of Coyote was too frightful to imagine. Whatever the case may be, too many ideas that appear in these novels remain unexplored. The potential for countless more stories exists. I would enthusiastically welcome his return to the setting, and it is my hope that those blank spots he left behind get on his nerves. Regardless of whether or not he does return, Steele continues to be a compelling storyteller and a visionary, gifted both in examining our history and the inherent possibilities within us.
Let’s hope that Coyote is only the first stop in a wider exploration of ideas.