Orbital Decay, Allen Steele

Ace, 1989, 324 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-49851-5

Science-Fiction, for all its vaunted capacity to extrapolate logically into the future, is often an awfully unrealistic literature. Consider one of the genre’s flagship universe: Star Trek. In the first two television series, everything ran smoothly on the Enterprise: Few crewmembers disagreed with each others (when they did, it was a sign of alien possession), everyone had comfortable living space (no one complained about cramped quarters, at least), nobody was bored or burnt out, the food was great… In short, quasi-utopia in space. From Star Trek, we were meant to interpret this as a better future, with better specimens of humanity that never bickered, bawled or belched.

Our “real” future is likely to be very different.

Allen Steele is not your typical Science-Fiction writer either. His “real job”, before writing SF, was being an investigative journalist for an alternative paper. This, to say the least, differs somewhat from the usual SF writer, who either goes through science, engineering or Eng.Lit. degrees before putting pen to paper. This difference has permeated his fiction: Steele is interested in the blue-collar guy, the working man who makes it happen, not the scientist, the engineer or the politician who makes grandiose plans.

Orbital Decay might be the novel that most clearly illustrates this difference yet. It’s the story of the blue-collar workers who actually have to build those fancy new solar power satellites and space stations. These workers aren’t exactly very bright, nor completely at ease with the law. Stuck away in a tin can without sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, they’ll soon rectify matters…

Orbital Decay distances itself with glee from the squeaky-clean futures of SF: The only engineer in the novel is a space-sick spoiled brat who’s there for maybe three scenes. The commander of the construction project is a picture-perfect astronaut who believes that space is for a superior breed of man: he becomes insane. The government is installing a device to overhear all telephone conversations across the globe. The new hydroponic technician brings up marijuana seeds. Two (2!) of the main characters are on the run from the law.

The resulting book is a novel that has plenty of potential to annoy the readers more comfortable with the “good old (conservative) stuff” of SF. Your reviewer (a straight arrow if there was one) anticipated the drug subplot with dread, even though it finally wasn’t as bad as expected. (The characters come to the same conclusion as anyone with a brain would foretell in five second: Drugs are dangerous in space, for even worse reasons than drinking is dangerous in a car.)

Unfortunately, the stupidity of the drug subplot brought this reviewer to reflect on the other absurdities of the novel. So Bruce can’t request a tape deck for weight reasons, but can bring in a lot of cassettes? So none of the construction wroekrs can communicate down there while ham operators can do it with our current-day astronauts? So they’re limited to PG movies tapes while satellites around them are broadcasting the Spice Channel? Granted, the novel is now ten years old, but the concept of next-generation launchers like the Delta Clipper has been kicking around for a while… are we still supposed to believe that it still costs X,000$ per pound to ship stuff into space? Add to that the unlikeliness of a corporation signing up the first-arrived (like, uh, criminals on the run?) as space construction workers. What do they do now for oil rig crews?

Don’t be mistaken: For all its faults, Orbital Decay is an acceptable novel, bringing a unique perspective to SF’s assumption. But it isn’t as good as it think it is. To challenge the basics, one must be sure to understand them correctly. But that, would say Steele, is exactly the kind of reaction he was aiming for. So don’t be discouraged by this review and pick up Orbital Decay. If nothing else, it’s a darn good read.

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