Oceanspace, Allen Steele

Ace, 2000, 375 pages, C$30.99 hc, ISBN 0-441-00685-X

All throughout his SF career (now spanning 11 books in little more than a decade) Allen Steele has shown a remarkable writing talent somehow not fully exploited.

From the orbital space station of Orbital Decay to the watery depths of Oceanspace, Steele has made some progress, but it’s hard to say if he’s a better writer now than before. His books always seem to struggle at the “good read” level (eg; Clarke County, Space), never somehow going further than that (Labyrinth of Night), or when they do, they contain a crucial flaw that destroys the book (A King of Infinite Space, his best but also his most frustrating work). Fortunately, his short stories are usually more satisfying than his novels, proving once again that some people are simply more suited to shorter-length stories.

Part of it has to do with his point of view. Steele is one of the few staunchly liberal SF writers in a genre traditionally dominated by conservative ideology. He has written stories praising drug usage (Orbital Decay), blasting eeevil governments (The Jericho Equation) and his stint as a journalist on an alternative weekly paper has left indelible marks on his fiction (again, see The Jericho Equation and, to a lesser extent, All-American Alien Boy). In The Tranquillity Alternative, one of the characters is revealed early on to be a lesbian, virtually ensuring her of a “get out of jail free” card: No way is Steele going to pin the bad-guy role on such a target.

That’s not the biggest problem with The Tranquillity Alternative, but it’s emblematic of Steele’s lack of sophisticated plotting. Set in an alternate world where the Americans had a space program much, much earlier and then stopped after establishing a moon base, The Tranquillity Alternative is a travelogue in which a last mission to the moon base is perturbed by a terrorist plan. Most of the book is spent travelling to the moon, waiting for something to happen. Then the terrorists do something, the heroes fight back, win and go home. The end.

The alternate space program is well thought-out (inscribing itself in the steps of Stephen Baxter, another writer who’s spent a lot of time in parallel space expeditions) but the rest of the world isn’t as well put-together. The synchronicity of events between the two universes (going as far as having identical dates to similar events) is either eerie or sign of a hasty world-building, depending on charitable you feel at this moment.

The result is interesting, and readable as always, but given Steele’s talents, may we not expect more? That’s also pretty much the tagline to any review of Oceanspace, the latest of Steele’s novels.

Here, Steele leaves space and goes undersea, again mimicking a minor SF trend (what with the undersea novels of Arthur C. Clarke—to whom the book is dedicated- and Peter Watts’ recent Starfish), which is fine as long as he’s got something new to bring to the genre. Unfortunately, Steele hangs a few standard plots and characters to the ocean setting for a result that’s quite entertaining, but at the same time very familiar. Nipick: The presence of CD players in 2011 is unexpectedly jarring; what about MP3?

But give Steele some credit; here, the journalist isn’t a good person, marital harmony is praised and the traitors are punished. Oceanspace has the characteristics of a good paperback read, though it is definitely overpriced as a hardcover; the idea density simply isn’t there. There’s a sea monster, true, but don’t get too excited as it only make incidental appearances.

Briefly put, Steele remains at the threshold between good entertainment and good SF, hovering between the two as if he’s unable to find the really good idea and build the really exciting plot to take his books to the next level. You can’t really go wrong by buying a Steele paperback (except, perhaps, for King of Infinite Space) because they’re always exact, fun and readable, but don’t bother springing for the hardcover.

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