Space Opera, Tragedy, and Revenge: Sten by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

One of my favorite things is finding an enjoyable series that the author has already finished—that way, I can read the whole thing from beginning to end without ever having to wait for the next book to be written. The Sten series, which started back in the 1980s, is one of my favorites from that era, and stands as a fine example of the space opera subgenre. With lots of action and adventure, interesting characters, and a little humor thrown in here and there, it is a quick and enjoyable read. Re-reading it for this review, I found that it held up very well in the three decades or so since it was written. If you’re looking for a series that won’t run out before you get to the thrilling conclusion, The Sten Chronicles has my highest recommendation—starting from the very beginning, with the first novel, Sten

Finding this series again was a happy accident. I recently noticed some of the paperbacks on the top shelf in my den were stacked in two-deep, and wondered what was hiding in that second row. I removed the action figures and the first row of books and found some hidden treasures, including the entire Sten series, from the first book to the last.

I had discovered the Sten novels in the late 1980s, probably around the publication of the third or fourth book, my eye drawn to it on the shelves of the local Waldenbooks store by a catchy David Mattingly cover. The Mattingly covers were filled with action, with lots of lasers lasering and explosions exploding. But that store didn’t have the first book of the series, which I am pretty sure I found at a nearby Borders Books (in its day, the best place for completists to shop). And when I found the first book, I realized why I had overlooked it when it first came out. It had a rather generic white space station on the cover, done by Ralph Brillhart in a style which reminded me of Vincent Di Fate’s work, but wasn’t anything that would attract my attention to a book written by two authors whose names were not familiar to me. Back in those days, when publishers were pumping out paperback books in mass quantities, an attractive and compelling cover could make all the difference.

 

About the Authors

Allan Cole (1943-2019) was an American writer of science fiction and fantasy. He wrote or co-wrote a number of television and movie scripts in several genres, including science fiction, mystery, and action/adventure, and acted in small parts as well. His father was in the Central Intelligence Agency, and Cole lived all around the world growing up. He spent fourteen years as a newspaper reporter and editor. With Chris Bunch, he wrote eight volumes of the Sten series, and wrote another two volumes by himself after Bunch passed away. The two also co-wrote the first three of the four-book Anteros fantasy series, the historical Shannon series, and a fictional book set in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. He and Bunch stopped working together during the mid-1990s. After they parted ways, Cole wrote the last volume of the Anteros series, three books in the Timuras series, and a number of other fiction and non-fiction books.

Chris Bunch (1943-2005) was an American science fiction and fantasy author. He wrote or co-wrote scripts for several television episodes, some with his long-time collaborator Allan Cole. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam early in the war and became an opponent of the war upon his return. He wrote for a number of periodicals, including Rolling Stone and Stars and Stripes.

With Allan Cole, he wrote novels in the Sten science fiction series, the Anteros fantasy series, the Shannon historical fiction series, and a book set in Vietnam. As a solo writer, Bunch wrote books in series’ that included Shadow Warrior, Seer King, Last Legion, Dragonmaster, and Star Risk, and also wrote several stand-alone novels and a variety of short fiction.

 

The Sten Series

The Sten series began in 1982 with a book centered on a working-class protagonist named Karl Sten, born and raised on a hellish far-future space station, who sought revenge against a powerful industrialist after his family was killed in a massive and preventable accident. By the end of the book, Sten had entered the special forces of the Eternal Emperor, and the later books followed his adventures in an elite unit known as Mantis. The Emperor was initially presented as a sympathetic figure—a benevolent despot—but later books questioned whether any despot could truly be considered benevolent. There were eight books in the original paperback Del Rey series, including Sten, The Wolf Worlds, The Court of a Thousand Suns, Fleet of the Damned, Revenge of the Damned, Return of the Emperor, Vortex, and Empire’s End. In researching this article, I also learned that after Chris Bunch passed away, Allan Cole wrote two more books—Sten and the Mutineers and Sten and the Pirate Queen—set between the second and third books in the original series. Both new books are available from Wildside Press, which has also issued the original books in three omnibus editions, the first of which collects the first three books of the series, the second collecting the next three books, and the third collecting the last two books. The novels are also available in e-book and audiobook formats. (I am in the midst of reading the two new books, and am enjoying them immensely.)

Food and the art of cooking were often given affectionate attention in the series, to the point where Allan Cole assembled and released The Sten Cookbook in 2011, which featured dishes and recipes mentioned in the books.

 

Sten

On an industrial space station called Vulcan, what starts out as a minor accident spirals out of control, threatening an entertainment area called The Row. The owner of the station, Baron Thorensen, has a choice. He can allow the accident to threaten a research and development effort called the Bravo Project…or he can jettison The Row, killing 1,400 people. He chooses to save the Bravo Project. Among the people killed in The Row are the family of young Karl Sten. And a life has been shaped to pursue revenge.

Thorensen’s Company is chartered by the Eternal Emperor, an apparently immortal man who is the only person who knows the location where AM2—the energy source that makes the empire possible—can be found, The Emperor does not exercise tight control or oversight over his domain, however, and all sorts of abuses exist. If you listen to the old Tennessee Ernie Ford coal mining song, “Sixteen Tons,” you will understand Thorensen’s business model for Vulcan. Workers earn what appear to be reasonable wages, but then must pay for food, lodging, and entertainment at exorbitant rates, and before long, all they can say is, “I owe my soul to the company store.” Sten finds himself replacing his father as a Migrant-Unskilled worker, or Mig, the lowest category of worker on the station, trapped in the same hard and futile existence.

Sten finds comfort with a young joygirl called Leta who tells him some hard facts about life on Vulcan but soon disappears, because no dissent is tolerated on the station. Sten rebels, attacking a company counselor, and tries to go on the run, but is captured and ends up in the Exotics Section, working in a highly toxic environment where worker mortality is high.

We then meet the Eternal Emperor, who likes to go out among his subjects in disguise. He has summoned Colonel Ian Mahoney, head of his military intelligence organization, the Mercury Corps. He has suspicions that Thorensen is up to no good, and sends Mahoney to Vulcan to investigate undercover.

Skimming materials from the Exotics Section, Sten constructs a vicious crystal dagger and convinces a local doctor to surgically implant a sheath for the weapon in his forearm. The sheath is covered by his own skin, and drawing the dagger causes a puncture wound, but he now possesses an undetectable hidden weapon—something that will come in handy throughout his life. The dagger reminded me of the adamantium claws of the comic character Wolverine, who was popular about the time Sten was written. Also, upon re-reading, I found that the process used to make Sten’s dagger sounds a lot like 3D printing, a technique that has since moved from science fiction to science fact. When Sten finds that Company thugs have murdered a friend, he uses his new dagger to kill them and then goes on the run again.

Sten encounters a young girl named Bet, who takes him to a community of runaways called Delinqs, and soon Sten and Bet are lovers. Mahoney runs into trouble on Vulcan, and Sten rescues him. He wants off Vulcan, and helping an off-worlder might be the key to his wishes. Mahoney enlists the aid of the Delinqs, and they get teasingly close to the secret of Project Bravo. But things go sour, Bet falls down a deadly deep passageway, and Mahoney spirits himself and Sten off the station, enlisting Sten in the Imperial military so that he doesn’t feel like a kidnapper. Baron Thorensen knows that Sten has gotten close to his secrets, and tasks his minions to begin hunting him down.

We see a glimpse of Sten in combat with the Imperial Guard’s First Assault. We meet Mahoney’s psychological advisor, a walrus-like being called Rykor, who says that Sten will make a lousy soldier, but a good intelligence operative. And then we get a long flashback describing Sten’s training. Here, you can see Bunch’s military service and firsthand knowledge paying off, as the military sections of the novel feel very true to life. And, progressively for the time when the book was written, the authors portray a military where men and women serve together, and which demands that its troops not judge others for their sexual orientations. Sten, toughened by his hard youth, thrives in the training environment while others wash out. Thorensen hires an assassin to infiltrate the military and kill Sten, and the authors keep the identity of the assassin from the reader—teasing us with hints that, whoever it is, they are very close to Sten. Sten ultimately ends up in the super-secret Mantis section of Mercury Corps. On the planet Saxon, we meet the new team Sten will be working with; ruthless Vinnettsa, the heavy-world Scot Alex Kilgour, the teddy bear-shaped alien Doc (whose diet consists of blood), the Romany woman Ida, the human computer Jorgensen, and the flying alien raptors Frick and Frack.

Rykor scans Sten’s memories, and finds that the secret of Project Bravo was there in his subconscious all along. The Baron is close to developing a way of fabricating AM2, which would break the Emperor’s hold on the empire. It is time for Mahoney’s Mantis Section to thwart the Baron’s plans on Vulcan, and they have the perfect local guide to assist them: Sten.

I’ll leave the rest of the story untold to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that we get a gripping tale of revenge that is worthy of Rafael Sabatini. Sten returns to Vulcan to face old friends and enemies, and his new Mantis team will need all their strength, fighting skills, and cunning to achieve their mission.

 

Final Thoughts

As I said up front, if you’re looking for some fun and exciting space opera that has withstood the test of time, in a series that is complete and ready to enjoy, then Sten is for you. The setting is compelling, the military action convincing, the characters are well drawn, and there is a lot of humor to balance out the grimness of the tales.

And now I turn the floor over to you: Have you read Sten, or any of the other books in the series? If not, is there another action/adventure science fiction series you can recommend to others? And what elements do you think make for a good space opera tale?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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