Nov 7 2012 6:00pm

Giant Steps Are What You Take: Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele

A book review of Allen Steele’s Apollo’s OutcastsJamey Barlowe was born on the Moon, but moved back to Earth as an infant following his mother’s tragic death. Because his fragile bones can’t handle Earth’s gravity, Jamey needs a wheelchair to get around, but he has learned to live with his disability and lead a normal teenage life. Then, on his sixteenth birthday, Jamey’s father wakes him up in the middle of the night and sends him back to the Moon to escape a military coup in the United States.

Jamey arrives in the lunar mining colony Apollo with five other refugees, including his kid sister and a young woman who seems to be more than she appears. At first it’s a challenge to start a new life in an unfamiliar environment, but thanks to the lower lunar gravity, Jamey can now walk independently for the first time in his life, so despite everything he flourishes and finds himself taking on new challenges. Meanwhile, tensions on Earth continue to rise, and the lunar colony soon becomes the world’s focus as the new U.S. President sets her sights on the Moon’s crucial He3 reserves...

Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele is a charming Young Adult novel that should go down well with readers on the younger end of the YA scale as well as older science fiction fans in the mood for a nostalgic trip back to their own Golden Age of SF. Anyone who doesn’t fall in one of those two categories may end up disappointed because the novel’s plot and characterization are so straightforward and basic that it borders on the pedestrian, but for the right reader this book will be a blast.

Jamey is a great YA protagonist: a disabled teenager, woken up in the middle of the night and immediately cast in an unfamiliar situation. He narrates Apollo’s Outcasts in the first person, so it’s almost impossible not to empathize and, later, to cheer when he finds his bearings and discovers he can actually walk. (In his own words: “I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or join the nearest basketball team.”) His enthusiasm is infectious, and his willingness to make the best of a difficult situation and contribute to the greater good as he explores the lunar colony is admirable.

At the same time, there are a few aspects to his character that occasionally grate a bit. It quickly becomes clear that Jamey has more than a touch of Gary Stu in his DNA, for one. However, when it’s convenient for the plot, his usually sharp intellect seems to fail, e.g. when it comes to discovering the identity of the mysterious sixth refugee—something almost every character figures out immediately, as will most readers. He also ends up in the obligatory YA love triangle—yep, his best friend likes the girl he likes—while at the same time remaining stubbornly blind to the fact that his future true love is nearby and very much into him.

The supporting cast consists of characters who are, for the most part, either too faceless or too recognizable. Jamey’s younger sister goes through an all too predictable transformation as the story progresses, and the same goes for a bully who is introduced early on in the novel. Jamey’s best friend is a complete blank aside from making up one side in the aforementioned triangle. A cheerful pilot continues to pop up at improbable moments throughout the story to lend support. The villains are introduced early on and never achieve any depth.

Speaking of one of those villains: the name of the Vice President responsible for the coup in the United States is Lina Shapar. Even if that anagram isn’t obvious enough, Allen Steele makes it abundantly clear who he’s referring to: a former beauty queen from the more extreme wing of her party, who ran on the presidential ticket with an older, more moderate candidate. Surprisingly, there are many more political references in the novel, including thoughts about globalization versus sovereignty, scarcity of critical resources, and China as a rising superpower. I have absolutely no problem with politics in YA novels, but in Apollo’s Outcasts it simply feels out of place, maybe because this novel reads like it was geared towards a much younger audience than say, Cory Doctorow’s YA novels, in which the political message feels more natural and integrated.

Still, this is a minor problem compared to the novel’s characterization and plotting, which rarely rise above the level of a below-average light SF Hollywood movie. Because of this, it may be surprising to read that Apollo’s Outcasts is actually a fun read, as long as you’re okay with overlooking some of its problems and just letting yourself getting swept along by the adventure. It may be small-scale and a bit thin and predictable, but at the same time, Allen Steele is a talented storyteller who paces the novel expertly and often makes it very hard to stop reading, even when he takes the occasional detour to lovingly describe the lunar colony setting or explain the science behind the story.

Still, the biggest strength of this novel is its sheer innocence: from Jamey’s perspective, Steele writes convincingly about the adventure of going into low orbit and experiencing zero-g like it’s something brand new and exciting. Jaded SF fans may roll their eyes at this small-scale stuff, but if it catches you at the right moment, you may end up enjoying it and feeling more than little nostalgic. For a new or young SF reader, Apollo’s Outcasts will be a captivating adventure and possibly a great gateway into the genre. Older readers should probably approach it like one of Heinlein’s juveniles: sure, it may be easy to poke holes into it and point out its flaws, but if we’re being really honest... wasn’t reading SF more fun back when we were gobbling these books up as quickly as we could find them? 

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. His website is Far Beyond Reality.

Marla J.t
1. Marla J.t
I'm sorry, but I don't understand what "Lina Shapar" is an anagram for. Could you please explain? Thanks.
Marla J.t
2. James Davis Nicoll
Hillary Clinton but only if we assume Steele has a really serious problem with spelling. More likely it is Sarah Palin, failed VP candidate from the US election in 2008.
Shelly wb
3. shellywb
*sigh* I guess Allen Steele is dropped from my buy list. I'm sick of RL politics intruding into my entertainment, and am refusing to buy any book, song or movie whose writers insist upon shoving it in my face. Political situations and ideas? No problem. But the above is just annoyingly trite and disruptive to a reading experience.
Marla J.t
4. Mike G.
@3 shellywb: I agree, I'm sick and tired of this kind of thing, too, from either side of the US divide. See also David Weber's Safehold series, where the evil leader of the evil opposition is a sex fiend named "Clintahn"....
Marla J.t
5. Mike G.
Argh, and to make it worse, this is another silly publisher that's releasing the ebook version later than the hardcover... Can't even sample the book
Marla J.t
6. James Davis Nicoll
Personally I find it a pleasant change from the thinly disguised Hillary Clinton villains I've seen in SF.
Marla J.t
7. James Davis Nicoll
Didn't Weber lumber the Safehold books with wacky spelling so while the name of the evil villainous bad guy who is not nice is a homophone for Clinton, it's got more letters?

Zhaspahr Clyntahn, that's the name. The spelling is very Horseclans. Still more subtle than the Power-mad Evil Lesbian Gay Socialist Homosexual Commie Sex-With-Women-Having Abortionist version of Hillary from Kratman's State of Disobedience or the Evil Insane Socialist Commie version of Hillary from Ringo's
The Last Centurion.
Stefan Raets
8. Stefan
To be clear: my issue here isn't with the politician or politicians Steele refers to. I would have felt the same way if he'd picked someone from the other side of the political fence. I just felt that the political aspect of the novel was tacked on to the story. It felt out of place in this fun YA coming-of-age space adventure. It's as if Heinlein had put a thinly disguised reference to a contemporary politician in Farmer in the Sky, to blame Earth's overcrowding on. It just wasn't necessary to connect this to the real world and drag real politics into it.
Stefan Raets
9. Stefan
@7 - If you want to want to see something even more blatant, try Tom Kratman's "A Desert Called Peace".
Marla J.t
10. James Davis Nicoll
There's an advantage to reading older SF or SF by people in unfamilar contexts; either you get to avoid making the real world connections or discovering them is at least a less familiar process. It took me decades to realize one James White story, for example, can be seen as commenting on the official process that followed the Bloody Sunday massacre (in a much more subtle way than the Baen books make their commentary). White was from Northern Ireland.
Marla J.t
11. James Davis Nicoll
I would like to register my sadness that lunar 3He seems to have embedded itself into SF's mind. A: sifting it out of regolith takes a lot of energy, B: you may well be better off dropping robotic refineries into Saturn or one of the ice giants, C: the reaction isn't actually aneutronic because deuterium side reactions, D: the pay-off between energy in and energy out is not that great and E: 11B + p (which is also not aneutronic but less not aneutronic than 3He+D) has to look pretty competitive if you're going with 3He and there's lots and lots of 11B on Earth.

I freely admit unless you handwave something like lunar 3He there does not seem to be an economic reason to put humans on the Moon. Even with it, I have to wonder if robots and telefactoring would not be cheaper (free idea to SF writer: do a John Henry story of human 3He miners struggling to deal with robotic 3He miners).
Marla J.t
12. Meghan Quinn
Hi Mike! This is Meghan from Pyr. The ebook is actually available on November 13, the official pub date for Apollo's Outcasts. I hope that helps!
Marla J.t
13. James Davis Nicoll
By the way, my comment re: White is not to discourage people from reading him. I am not a huge Sector General fan (although I don't dislike it) but I am a big fan of some of his other work.

Despite the fact most authors fall into the abyss of total obscurity almost immediately after dying and although White died in 1999, Tor at least has kept some of his books in print. Not Monsters and Medics, sadly; I expect if one was to confront a Tor editor about this they would use some specious excuse like "Actually, that was from Ballantine before Tor even founded."
Marla J.t
14. Mike G.
@Megan: thanks. I guess that means Amazon jumped the gun on the hardcover - they claim the pub date for that was the 6th :)
Stefan Raets
15. Stefan
@12,14 - I guess this is somewhat my fault! I couldn't find the press release that came with my review copy, so simply checked Amazon and saw the Nov. 6th date, which I passed on to my editors here at I know they always try to shoot for as close to the publication date as possible, so that's why the review went up this week. I should know better than to trust Amazon's release dates by now!

(By the way - Amazon has the release date for the Kindle version yet another date, 11/27...)
Marla J.t
16. Meghan Quinn
Yes, the problem is that Amazon's dates are preselected way ahead of time (when we first "launch" the book months in advance and before we know production realities) and we cannot revise it. So these dates are usually quite unreliable! Long story short, it's annoying. : )

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