Fallen Angels by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Michael Flynn
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Tis a proud and lonely thing to be a fan.
And a dangerous thing, in the grim new future of scarcity and the ever-advancing Ice which is creeping further southward into the United States every year, having already consumed most of Canada. The deep-ecologists have won the culture wars and pinned the blame for the world's troubles on science, which is now anathema. Fantasy is grudgingly tolerated because it's about elves and dwarves and taking care of the earth, but science fiction is the work of the devil. Even if the First Amendment officially protects the literature, there are other ways of destroying people who persist in reading of rocketships and other mechanical wonders, including psychiatric abuse of a sort that would make the old Soviet Union proud.
But there are a few who keep the dream alive, who look up with pride instead of loathing at the space stations Peace and Freedom where dwell the Angels -- descendants of the last astronauts and cosmonauts to go up into space even as Earth shut down space programs as wasteful and destructive to the environment. And when two Angels on a desperate mission to scoop volatiles from the Earth's atmosphere are shot down and stranded on the Ice in what was once the wheat fields of northern Minnesota, the fans are determined to rescue them before the technophobic government comes to "help" them." So off Sherri, Bob and some other fen head on a hare-brained scheme to get past the government agents looking for them.
It's quite an adventure, and they've no more than located Alex and Gordon than they realize just how carelessly they've prepared. Life isn't an adventure novel, and planning one's return from a mission can be as important as planning how to get out there. But just as things look hopeless, Alex is able to get a radio message up to the Angels and they re-orient their microwave transmitter to provide much-needed warmth. And of course the science-clueless government, unable to distinguish between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation, then claims that it's a nuclear death-ray that was being used to attack the government forces pursuing the spacemen.
There is also a delightful and well-researched encounter with a band of Inuit. These are no idealized Noble Savages, but people with strengths and flaws and a thoroughly pragmatic willingness to use the white man's goods when it will help them live in a harsh and unforgiving environment -- they even have long underwear that was clearly ordered from a Sears catalog (this novel was written back before Sears discontinued their catalog division, making it a slightly dated reference). As Alex watches them, he considers the parallels with what his own people will face as irreplaceable resources wear or run out -- the grim choices that will have to be made as the margins of survival become steadily thinner, leaving less and less surplus to sustain the weak, the aging, the otherwise non-productive or even just low-productive when everybody's continued existence is constantly at hazard.
But it isn't enough just to get the Angels off the Ice and hide them from government agents, for the simple reason that they can't stay hidden forever, and there's no reliable way to integrate them into Earth society with its endless cross-checked documentation. At the super-secret, shrunken Worldcon held in the mansion of a Minneapolis-St. Paul area fan, the rescuers decide that the only real hope for Alex and Gordon is to return them to space. So off everyone goes in pursuit of a rocket that may or may not still exist, and the wherewithal to launch it into orbit.
Except America has changed, and not for the better. It's not just the loss of weather forecasting satellites, leaving Wisconsin farmers continually vulnerable to being caught in the open by unexpected snowstorms, a problem brought home by the funeral our heroes attend -- and hide in when government agents unexpectedly show up. The stick-together spirit of the farmers isn't that different from that which has informed Midwestern rural culture for over a century, and the loss of weather forecasting is just one more challenge to be dealt with. Far more disturbing is the rise of warlordism in Milwaukee, where they're burning whole sections of the city in an effort to keep the rest warm and treating the neighboring farmers much like feudal lords did the peasants under them.
But even there our heroes find friends. Wisconsin may be the home of unimaginative squarehead farmers, but it's also Simak country, and the fans who eke out a living there have their coded ways of letting fellow fans know who they are. References meaningless to mundanes but filled with significance for those who've read the right books. Thus what nearly turned into disastrous captivity instead becomes their way to Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry.
Except it's now the Museum of Science and Appropriate Technology, which means not just extreme Green propaganda, but various woo-woo pseudoscience and things better regarded as religion mixed in with and often displacing the real stuff. And Ron Cole, who was curator of the Henry Crown Space Center, has been given a dose of re-education and is barely functional, babbling bits and fragments of poetry and the literature he loves. Not that there really was any hope for using the Titan rocket in their exhibit to send the Angels back home -- it was cut up in the process of putting it on display and can't be made spaceworthy.
But just as it seems that all is lost, Cole reveals that there's another spaceship, the Phoenix. Not a multistage rocket like the Titan, but a Single-Stage-to-Orbit, or SSTO. Reusable, landing on its tail like the rockets Bob Heinlein wrote about back in the Golden Age of Science Fiction. And here in Chicago they have tanker trucks full of the necessary fuels -- or fuels to make the fuels -- to launch it.
So the novel becomes a road story in earnest as our heroes set out on a cross-country trip along the roads that were once Route 66, roads now crumbling as a government impoverished by Green regulations no longer have the money to maintain bridges and overpasses that no longer receive any appreciable amount of traffic. And all the time they are being pursued by the government, including an Air Police agent who is increasingly troubled by memories of a life she abandoned years ago, a life that won't leave her alone.
After being helped at several key points by local fans, including a warning that would be meaningful only to someone familiar with Heinlein's Future History, the arrive at Edwards Air Force Base and the real fun begins. Running across country in a tanker truck can be disguised as an ordinary long-haul delivery, but it's rather difficult to hide a sudden flurry of activity around the old rocket test stands. But things may not be as desperate as they had seemed -- remember that old fan who was trying to keep the old memories down? Perhaps fandom is really more of a way of life than she has wanted to admit -- and she can't bear to let the dream die when there's still a possibility it can be saved. Even if it means leaving behind the life she's built for herself here -- and perhaps rediscovering the dreams she had previously put away as childish things.
Although this book can be read and enjoyed by anyone, people with strong ties to fandom will enjoy the wealth of in-jokes that have been planted throughout the story. A large number of the characters are based upon real prominent fans, either under their own names or humorous plays upon their names. And many of the songs that are sung by the characters are well-known filk songs, especially the notorious "Banned in Argo," which has an endless supply of verses referring to everybody's favorite science fiction stories and whatever current events the singer wishes to satirize.
I have to admit that this novel is comfort reading for me -- whenever I feel like the dream is slipping away, that the short-sighted in our society have allowed the seed corn to be eaten and have doomed us to an ever-narrowing future of dwindling resources and no hope, I take it out and re-read it. After the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003, I spent over a week just reading it over and over again, trying to tell myself that while the dream may have been stalled, it wasn't necessarily dead forever, that somehow somebody would pick up the pieces and get us moving forward again. And as the Space Shuttle program is winding down with nothing in line to replace it, I feel the need to read this novel again to try to convince myself that it really isn't over, that even if NASA is dropping the ball, that Richard Branson or somebody will pick it up and keep the dream alive for the next generation.
Review posted May 11, 2010.
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