Rude Astronauts, Allen Steele

Ace, 1995, 263 pages, C$6.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00184-X

As a self-proclaimed Hard-Science-Fiction fan, it seemed a bit strange that I came to discover Allen Steele only recently, several novels after his debut in the SF field. But I’m finally catching up, and read A King of Infinite Space last spring. While that novel suffered from a cheapening conclusion, the remainder of the narrative was so good as to encourage me to read other material by Steele.

Which brings us to Rude Astronauts, Steele’s first collection of short stories. Ten stories, five short science non-fiction articles. Not even a dollop of fantasy in sight.

A collection always offer a good portrait of an author’s common themes and approaches. If nothing else, Rude Astronauts convinced me that Steele was an author worth reading. Steele obviously knows his science stuff: The technical details are impeccable, the science is integral to the stories and the attitude is quintessential hard-SF. Furthermore, Steele writes with a style that’s both journalistic-clear and with a potent stylistic kick. The Diamondback Jack’s story trilogy, in particular, represents Steele at his best.

The fun thing is that Steele writes hard-SF but, contrarily to other practicers of the art, knows the real world. His stories are not about the scientists who think about stuff, but about the mechanics, the technicians, the grunts who take the scientists’s plans and make them into tangible reality. This working-class perspective is unique and refreshing.

Rude Astronauts is divided in three parts. The first, Near Space, is easily the best: Pure hard-SF, with a perspective far removed from the usual squeaky-clean portrayal of space exploration. Here, stories about beer in space, retired astronauts, work-caused deaths in space and Martian music. There’s the Diamondback Jack’s story trilogy, a series of tall tales heard (where else?) in Diamondback Jack’s, a rough bar catering to the Cape Canaveral blue-collar crowd. They make interesting companions to Spider Robinson’s fudgy-goody Callahan’s sequence.

The second part is Alternate Space, two stories about an alternate history where the Americans and Nazis first competed for space exploration and humans landed on Mars in 1974. Both stories are told in an appropriate pseudo-historical-journalistic style. “Goddard’s people” will probably make more sense with people already familiar with wartime american scientists, but “John Harper Wilson” is a good tale of… well, why spoil it?

The third part is not quite as hard-SF. It’s called “Contemporary Space” and presents, quite appropriately, contemporary tales. One, “Hapwood’s Hoax” is a clever examination of the uneasy relationship between SF and the lunatic UFO fringe. Some will see it as a retelling of Scientology; I just consider it a pretty good yarn. “Winter Scenes of the Cold War” is a run-of-the-mill techno-thriller about spies and advanced technology. “Trembling Earth” is a thriller in the vein of Jurassic Park, but nastier, and with a lovely kicker that catches you by surprise.

Interestingly, “Live from the Mars Hotel”, “Hapgood’s Hoax”, “Winter Scenes of the Cold War” and “Trembling Earth” all share a common storytelling structure, which is of either a series of interview of people connected to events, or the “official” version of events (usually during a testimony) intercut with what “really” happened. Coupled with the Diamondback Jack’s trilogy and the pseudo-journalistic approach to the Alternate Space stories, it makes a slightly repetitive effect when read back-to-back like this.

But even then, Rude Astronauts is a good collection. Easily readable, well-written, in the mould of the best classical hard-SF but with a modern varnish of its own, it’s the kind of short fiction that I’ll read again with pleasure.

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