Do you ever read a book only for it to be exactly what you expected? Not exactly what it promises, mind you, but to have all your expectations confirmed. That’s what happened here with Coyote Horizon. With only vague memories of Allen Steele’s first colonial SF adventures, I was vaguely optimistic about this book. I was looking forward to some politics, some wilderness, some alienness—and that’s what I got. Coyote Horizon, like its predecessors, aptly demonstrates that science fiction books do not need to be “literary” to have great themes.
Looking at this book as a science-fiction story, it’s striking how Steele uses the science-fictional elements. There are spaceships and starbridges/wormholes, and some mention of quantum computers. There are gyrocopters and some advanced medical technology. Yet Steele contrasts this with a very strong frontier, western feel: rifles, sailing vessels and boats, slums, taxi services by the indigenous equivalent of a donkey or camel. Very often characters talk about how certain technologies are only available to those with the money to afford it. So Steele retains an extremely “colonial” feel to a story that is set in our relative future.
It might be possible to describe the main plots of the story, but they are all intertwined. So let’s talk about themes.
Hawk Thompson is on parole for horrific crimes. (Remember, I don’t remember much from the first trilogy, so I forget how they were portrayed there.) Then a hjadd hands him a holy book which is actually an AI in a quantum computer, and he gets the idea into his head that he’s a teacher who should spread this higher system of ethics to the rest of humanity. Alien religions going viral, hmm?
Hawk’s gradual transformation into the chaaz’maha is, of course, your typical “finding oneself” journey for a protagonist. It’s also an example of one of the dangers of exploring the universe: finding new ideas. New ideas are scary! Or so the Dominionist preacher who opposes Hawk thinks. To be honest, I was disappointed by Cosenza. Although people like him undoubtedly exist in real life, fanatics just aren’t as interesting characters as people who are a little more rational but nevertheless disagree with you. To me, the most interesting conflicts are the ones where people who might otherwise get along feel it’s necessary to take opposing sides.
The difficulty of such thorny politics is right at the heart of the Coyote stories, I think. What began as a unified colony of exiles/criminals who hijacked the Alabama was quickly transformed by the arrival of the subsequent ships. Even so, they all shared in common that desire to distinguish themselves from Earth. With the ongoing collapse of the Western Union propelling even more refugees to Coyote, the very identity of the colony is in question.
We also see this question of identity writ large in the Exploratory Expedition’s journey to circumnavigate Coyote. Though Steele only shows us the beginning of the voyage, it is an important symbol for the ongoing colonization of the planet. Several characters are quick to point out that there are less-than-idealistic motives behind such exploration, however. With more people immigrating to Coyote, the colony needs to expand. But if it doesn’t take such expansion slowly, then it will be difficult to forge a cohesive colonial identity. There will be fractures, and division, and the planet and society will both suffer for it.
So there are a lot of big ideas floating around in this book. For the most part, Steele addresses them in interesting—if not entirely original—ways. His portrayal of Sa’Tong as a nonviolent system of ethics is cool. It will be interesting to see if that nonviolence aspect lasts among all of Hawk’S followers. I guess I’m mostly just concerned that a lot of this ground seems to have been tread before—I hope Steele can manage to put a somewhat unique spin on things, or else it’s just going to feel a bit like Dune Messiah all over again. We get it. You can’t control what you started.
Mostly, though, Coyote Horizon works because it doesn’t attempt to be too grandiose. My copy is a mass market paperback from the library: the spine is giving in, the print is so tiny even my young eyes protest … and that feels right. Steele has come up with a solid cast of characters, each with their own prejudices and priorities, and put them in a pressure cooker. As time runs out, we get to watch what happens. It’s at times exhilarating, at times infuriating—but it’s never dull, I can give it that.