APOLLO’S OUTCASTS by Allen Steele
Allen Steele has turned out a marvelous YA SF novel called Apollo’s Outcasts that reads like a modern-day Robert A. Heinlein. That’s kind of an oxymoron because Heinlein wrote about space and the future (even some that’s set in the halcyon days of the 1990s!).
When I was a kid, I read every Heinlein juvenile SF novel I could get my hands on at the library. A librarian took me over to a shelf filled with Heinlein and Andre Norton, and I lived quite happily on those books for all that summer, and summers afterward. My first Heinlein novel was The Rolling Stones.
But I digress. Steele emulates Heinlein’s plot devices in this novel: 1) young hero – check, 2) thrown into action almost immediately in an adventure that takes him out of this world – check, and 3) there’s a boatload of political overtures that’s definitely slanted. If you want to see that last quickly, examine the villain’s name. Lina Shapar is an anagram of Sarah Palin. I don’t think Palin would ever turn out to be the villain Shapar is in the book, but the point is clear.
Jamey Barlowe is an immensely likeable character. Because he was born on the Moon, his bones are too weak to support him on Earth. He’s a cripple, only at home in the water. Instead of being depressed and lost, Jamey is a vibrant individual. Only a smidgen of his life on Earth is revealed in these pages, but it doesn’t take much to figure out the parts that aren’t there and what it’s been like for him.
When the President dies and the Vice President assumes office while accusing others of murder, Jamey gets shipped to the Moon with other kids. The journey to the Moon, like the rest of the book, has a lot of scientific reality in it. Steele knows his stuff as a scientist, and he knows how to give just enough details to the readers without stopping his narrative dead in its tracks. The science underscores the threat and the majesty of Moon living.
Enough real life is wrapped into the adventure that the story “feels” real. The lunar world is easily imagined and filled with wonder and potential hazards. While dealing with the transition to the Moon, getting his legs under him for the first time, Jamey ends up becoming a major player in the political arena even though he considers himself just average.
That feeling of normality about the characters is a staple in Heinlein’s juvenile science fiction novels, but the truth of the matter is that they’re all exceptional kids. Jamey is too in the end, and it’s a lot of fun watching him discover that for himself in this book. He goes from broom pusher on the Moon to being one of the Rangers, an elite security team formed to protect the colonies’ interests.
I’ve got a 15 year old at home and I have often wished I could give him that sense of wonder I had when I was a little younger than him and discovered Heinlein’s books. But I can’t. His world is already too close to all the science that Heinlein reveals in his stories. The effect just isn’t the same. However, Apollo’s Outcasts hits all the same buttons with a fresh perspective that I’m sure he will enjoy. The book is a great starting point for reluctant young males readers.