Lunar Descent, Allen Steele

Ace, 1991, 325 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-50485-X

All too often, catching up on an author’s entire oeuvre is an exercise akin to completing a puzzle. You’ll read the most available/important/distinctive works first, then work your way to, eventually, the rest of the picture. Whenever you do complete your work, though, you might find out that the smaller pieces illuminate something unexpected in the panorama.

So it was that I began to read Allen Steele with his ninth book, and gradually worked my way to the rest of them in time. With Lunar Descent, Steele’s third novel, I finally put in the missing puzzle piece, and it all forms an interesting portrait.

Orbital Decay was about a semi-rebellion among workers building a space station. Clarke County, Space was about a semi-rebellion among residents of a space station. Lunar Descent… is about a semi-rebellion among workers on the moon. Okay, so the details differ (Clarke County, Space isn’t about the rebellion, though it happens shortly after in the same timeline and Lunar Descent is about a strike action), but at this stage we’re merely playing with words. Suffice to say that some recurring themes do figure pro-eminently in Steele’s fiction.

The style, too, has similarities. Most of his novel are built around straight-ahead prose supplemented by other forms of writing; interviews, oral testimonies, media articles, etc…

Both of the above similarities, make sense when you know about Steele’s background as an investigative journalist before he started writing SF full-time. It’s no accident if he’s one of the most liberal SF writers in the business. His blue-collar characters like to have chemically-influenced fun, disrespect authority and do the job their pointy-haired managers have assigned them.

The protagonists of Lunar Descent are no exception. Our “moondogs” are the few, the brave, the proud men and women mining ore on the moon for the Solar Power Satellite projects back on Earth Orbit. Think about those hard-workin’ oil rig personnel and you’ll have a fair idea of their mindset. Sure, they get high and mean from time to time, but -wink, wink- work hard, play hard, right?

Apparently, the evil corporate villains of Steele’s fiction don’t think so, and before long they tighten the screws on operations, replacing half the personnel, finding a wholly unsuitable station manager, clamping down on “non-essential” imports and generally doing everything in their power to be completely unlikable. Boo! Hiss! Fight da power!

So our guys strike, and unfortunately, their evil managers declare their SPS work crucial to national economic indicators, and send in the space marines to quell the rebellion. So it’s exoskeleton-boosted marines against weaponless marines. Who will win? Well, yeah, but not in the way you’d expect, fortunately.

All and all, even though we’d seen this before, Lunar Descent is a success because of its likable characters, the vivid description of life in a workplace 300,000 kilometers away, the snappy writing and the good humor with which Steele nails down the essential details. Some stuff doesn’t ring true (why is it, for instance, that characters born in the 80s or 90s will always be fascinated by the same classic-rock enjoyed by the author? Hmm.) and Steele’s usual biases make the action predictable at times, but no matter; here’s another solid hard-SF book well worth your time and money. Lunar Descent is what the SF mid-list is all about.

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