Something's been nagging me ever since I began reading Allen Steele's Coyote series. I enjoyed both Coyote and Coyote Rising, for the most part, yet something was missing. Coyote Frontier brings that missing piece of the puzzle to the series, for we finally get to see Earth with our own eyes, and Steele reminds us why space travel isn't just for science fiction.
In Coyote Frontier, a starship belonging to the European Alliance, rivals of the collectivist Western Hemisphere Union who tried to take over Coyote in the last book, arrives at Coyote claiming peaceful intentions. The ship, commanded by Captain Anastasia Tereshkova, reassembles itself into a "starbridge," your typical science fiction hyperspace wormhole device. Now that Coyote and Earth are mere hours apart instead of decades, Coyote has been thrust back into the spotlight of the fragmented, struggling survivors of a global climate holocaust. The colonists and various representatives of Earth's government jockey for position, each one trying to defend their own best interests. But who is looking out for humanity's interests?
Coyote Frontier had better writing than Coyote Rising and was pretty much on par with Coyote. My major dissatisfaction with Coyote Rising was how shallow made all of the political motivations of the main characters seem. There's a little bit of this shallowness in Coyote Frontier, particularly in the sections that deal with Susan Montero, Hawk Thompson, and Lars Thompson as they argue over the possible intelligence of Coyote's indigenous hominids, the chirreep. None of the characters of this series seem very deep or well-developed; the possible exceptions are Wendy and Carlos, whom we've seen mature from teenagers in Coyote to middle-aged and elderly by Coyote Frontier, and Hawk, who has to choose between family or higher principles. Otherwise, most of the characters aren't burdened with complex emotions or anything resembling moral dilemmas. Susan is unswervingly devoted to preserving Coyote's natural habitat and indigenous wildlife. Tereshkova and most of her crew are so enchanted with how pristine Coyote is that they "convert" to Coyote's side; former first officer Jonathan Parson embodies this philosophy to a tee.
Where this series excels is in the struggle to colonize another world. The first two books covered the actual effort to construct—and keep—a colony. In Coyote Frontier, we see the inevitable re-establishment of regular contact with Earth, and the consequences this has for both Earth and Coyote. Naturally, the Coyote Federation wants to become a sovereign nation and control who emigrates to their world. All the Earth governments are anxious for new, unexploited land. Steele is far from coy about the novel's role as an allegory for European colonization of the New World; it even includes an indigenous population that some colonists would rather wipe out than accommodate (notably, however, the chirreep are primitive homonids, whereas the indigenous peoples of the Americas were modern humans who merely had primitive technology). Some governments, like the European Alliance, are amenable to negotiating with Coyote on the latter's terms. Others, like the Western Hemisphere Union, are openly hostile. Although the story's main plot does come to a head before the end of the book, these overarching issues aren't fully resolved, to good effect.
For Steele may be writing a story set in the future, but he's writing about the present. The chief moral of the Coyote series is that humanity seldom learns from its mistakes; with each new frontier, we scramble for control as we quickly fill and consume all the resources we can. We've already seen the dangers of unchecked development and witnessed the horrors of genocide, yet with a fresh new world to exploit, suddenly the cautionary tale of our history is forgotten. Despite the futuristic technology and fictional political entities, the situations that Steele creates feel real and plausible. Fortunately, Steele doesn't present a uniformly bleak picture of our destiny. In fact, it's fair to say he's more than optimistic—as long as there are still good people to stand up for human principles, rather than the political principles of any particular country, we still have a chance. And if Steele is right, and we aren't alone in the universe, then it's even more vital that we put our best foot forward.
I would happily recommend the Coyote series to anyone. It's not my favourite series by any means, but it's still a wonderful treatment of important themes. For Coyote Frontier is a ringing endorsement of the necessity for us to strive for the stars. Especially in times of economic tension, people question the utility of space travel, especially attempts to establish manned space travel. What's the point? Simply put, as Coyote Frontier and its ilk do, we have outgrown this world. We need more resources and more room than the Earth can offer. If we can continue to avoid total environmental catastrophe, great; space is a bonus. If not, however, and like the denizens of Coyote's Earth we all become environmental refugees, then escape to the stars may be our only hope for survival as a species. Either way, we need the knowledge and the know-how to get there, preferably sooner rather than later. Coyote Frontier makes a compelling case for this argument, wrapped in an exciting story of old problems on a new world.