Review of Spindrift by Allen M. Steele
by Allen M. Steele
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Does every science-fiction writer have to write a Big Dumb Object novel? (TVTropes) Is it some kind of rite of passage? That’s basically what Spindrift is, or at least what it starts out as. Later it becomes a novel about first contact and an attempt to evoke that kind of humble, “we are not alone” sensation other such stories play with. Perhaps what sets it apart from similar novels is Steele’s smart decision to set it within the Coyote universe, which automatically lends the novel a rich backstory full of political and social issues.
The first part of Spindrift is fun but almost nauseatingly par-for-the-course with BDO/first-contact stories. A SETI telescope (this time on the moon) finds an object it concludes must be of extraterrestrial origin, and it sends back a response to our signal! Of course there is only one man (man, mind you) who can possibly make sense of this, and so what if he’s in prison? Rules are made to be broken in situations like these! Genocide? What genocide?
And then we fast-forward several chapters to actually get to the thing we’re investigating. We stomp around on it for a while until we attract the attention of an alien species, first contact goes horribly wrong, and it looks like everyone will die.
And then … it’s exposition time.
Seriously, Spindrift builds up to a dramatic point where you would expect some kind of turn. Stranded on this BDO, the survivors of the starship’s destruction have no choice but to forge valiantly on! Except, no, they wake up and get to listen to an alien give them some kind of orientation lecture.
For thirty pages.
It’s as if Steele was writing the first two thirds of this book while watching some of his favourite first-contact movies and mashing them up into a Coyote-fuelled version of the same. Then someone interrupted him (I’m looking at you, robocall!), and when he sat down again, he forgot what he was doing, shrugged, and started writing about how humanity meets the hjadd.
Trouble is, the hjadd are really nice people. Like, unfailingly polite. And so all the conflict gets sucked out of the story. The characters sit and listen to the first hjadd any human has ever met tell them all about the wonderful alien species in the galaxy and nasty black holes and how one day humanity too might travel the stars. It’s a great sales pitch. But there is no existential threat, either to humanity at large or just these three people. There are no consequences for anyone for the mistake of firing a nuclear warhead at an alien ship—the aliens are just all, “It’s cool, brah; sorry we blew up your ship in response. Buds?”
On one level, I applaud Steele for showing us an optimistic vision of first contact where the aliens are more advanced than us and treat us like the primitive species we are.
On another level, it’s just … well, boring.
Spindrift starts with a kind of borrowed promise—if you don’t expect it to feel original but instead treat it as another variation on the theme of first contact, then you’ll be happy for a while. Alas, it never seizes any opportunity to grow and become more than that. In fact, it actively seeks out such opportunities and throttles them off-stage before they become an issue.
I don’t know if it’s worth reading. It’s not bad, just more unoriginal shading into dull. A Coyote completist would, obviously, find it essential. And it fills in some of the gaps in that sense, as a kind of plot primer for the Coyote series. But as far as characters and story goes? Nah. This is not so much a novel as it is a half-baked concept wrapped up in a tortilla shell of tropes.