retaliators of luna
alan m steele's
avengers of the moon

critique by
dylan jeninga

I’ve been putting this one off for a long time.

It may appear I’ve forgotten it, but I will be finishing Old Mars - planning a wedding keeps one busy and I’ve not yet reread the next story. But I need to get this out of my system, so here it is: 

Allen Steele’s Captain Future novel, Avengers of the Moon, is dope. Seriously, I loved it. But it isn’t OSS. It takes place in a realistic version of our Solar System, albeit with a bit of artistic license.

I know that right now some of you, especially a certain webmaster, might feel compelled to unplug your computers in disgust. Captain Future, whose nemesis is the Magician of Mars, who travels with a moonpup and a flying brain, has somehow been blasphemously ripped from his native setting? How could this be allowed to happen? Who does Steele think he is?

But before you do that, read this quote from the back of the book:

“If you want intelligently done, scientifically scrupulous (well, nearly) space opera, old-style and hot off the griddle, this is it.”

-James Gunn, Science Fiction Hall of Fame Grand Master 

Or this one:

Avengers of the Moon is the concentrated jolt of old-school story-telling that today’s science fiction needs.”

-Paul Di Filippo, Author of Neutrino Drag 

To put it another way: yes, the setting mostly matches our modern understanding of our sibling worlds, but the spirit of Captain Future now inhabits them.  Steele wanted to keep the heart of Ed Hamilton’s universe alive while updating it for new readers.

I’ve never been one to romanticize the past at the expense of the present, but I don’t think I’m out of line to say that it isn’t hard to find science fiction with a cynical streak these days. It’s easy to understand why, with space being as harsh as it is, Earth’s climate deteriorating so, and a general increase in public awareness when it comes to systemic social ills. Anyone trying to imagine a plausible future must be compelled to take these facts into account. Captain Future, by contrast, lived in a Hugo Gernsback paradise, with art-deco spaceships, safe atomic power and a welcoming (mostly) solar system. His world was optimistic where series like The Expanse are grimly realistic. 

To clarify, I love The Expanse, Luna: New Moon, Hunter’s Run, and all books like them. Now and then, though, the world-weariness can make one, well, world weary. If things are so rough all around, what’s the point? Is humanity capable of success, of being better, or will we always struggle against a universe which cares not for us?

Avengers of the Moon’s answer to that question makes it a breath of fresh air. 

For the Solar System we are presented is one in which humanity not only survives, but thrives, finding engineering and scientific solutions to climate change and space colonization. Venus has cloud cities, Mars is being terraformed, the Moon is dotted with domes and human settlements flourish all the way out to the Kuiper Belt.  Eco-cities float on Earth’s oceans, laser-propelled starships traverse the void between worlds, and basically every cool concept that ever graced the cover of Popular Science has come to pass. We’ve even branched out biologically, with each major planet and moon hosting natives genetically engineered to better withstand the rigors of their homeworlds. Social injustice isn’t completely eradicated, but it does seem to have moved on from our current hangups, which is in itself an encouraging thought.

That’s all well and good, but what of the story? Curt Newton remains the noble hero we know, but as this is an origin story, he’s not quite the infallible champion he used to be (a change I appreciate) and he has a lot to learn. In the spirit of the pulps, the villains are classically villainous if slightly more complicated, and the adventure is just as blood-pumping as you remember. The classic feel is also maintained by preserving scientifically outdated scifi tropes and finding up-to-date explanations for them; for example, Netwon’s pistol still fires “smoke rings” as it did in the old cover art, but it’s explained as being a “plasma-toroid” gun, which magnetically fires rings of blazing plasma. 

If any doubt remains in your mind that this book is a Captain Future novel through and through, take a look at this passage here:

Freezing out by Pluto,
Roasting near the Sun,
Burned by the rains on Titan’s plains,
It’s all a spaceman’s fun…!

Those words are written by Hamilton himself, and they appear in Avengers as a song Curt hums to himself after a bit of trouble aboard the interplanetary starship The Leigh Brackett. It’s included in the story, along with a few other verses, and it reflects the love Steele has for the source material.

So, yeah, Avengers of the Moon isn’t a good OSS novel, but it is a good Captain Future novel. I definitely recommend it. 

May the spacelanes rise up to meet you,


PS: I just found out about an old series of young-adult OSS novels by Joseph Green. One of them, at least, is called The Lost City of Uranus.  Anyone ever heard of them?

Note from Zendexor: see the Diary comment, genre definitions.