Apollo’s Outcasts by Allen Steele. Pyr, $16.95, 311pp, hc, 9781616146863. YA science fiction.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Robert A. Heinlein wrote a series of twelve “juvenile” novels that were hits, and remain popular today (perhaps moreso with the adults who remember them fondly than with modern youngsters). Even though we’ve far outstripped the science, the stories he told still hold the attention, even for multiple re-readings. Science fiction authors continue to try to emulate that success, to provide gateway novels to get more youngsters to read science fiction. And we’ve learned that it can be done, though the current superstars are fantasy rather than sf (J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is the 900-pound gorilla in the field).
But now we have Allen Steele — multiple Hugo winner, experienced adult sf and non-fiction author, and all-around good guy (I have the fortune to publish some of his adult works through my Fantastic Books) making his foray into the young adult marketplace. Apollo’s Outcasts can easily rank with Heinlein’s best juveniles. Indeed, it reads like one of them… if it had been updated for modern science and modern sensibilities (unlike Heinlein’s young heroes, Steele’s recognize the existence of females, and their potential interest).
As the novel starts, Jamey Barlowe is awoken at midnight on his birthday by his father, intent on taking the family on an unexpected trip in the dead of night. Secrecy and fear rule the midnight ride to a space-launch site outside of Washington, and before he knows it, Jamey is on his way to the Moon with only one of his sisters. As he travels, he (and we) learns the reasons for the escape (his father’s political activism), his elder sister’s self-sacrifice, and just what is happening in the White House with the suddenly deceased President and his successor.
Steele’s emulates the writers’ tools that Heinlein learned and perfected, and as a result, the short and punchy chapters with cliff-hanger-esque endings keep one reading long past bed time. Steele’s explanations of the wonder (and mundanity) of this not-too-distant future grab the reader and pull him in to the gripping adventure story. And, as with Heinlein, our young hero is going to have to grow up a little faster than he’d intended if he’s going to survive and find his own place in a world suddenly as alien to him as it is to us.
Apollo’s Outcasts is an excellent introduction to science fiction novels for the young adult reader, and also an excellent introduction to Steele’s own, extended (more adult) tales of the near-future (see, for example, Sex and Violence in Zero-G). Highly recommended.