The Getaeway Special by Jerry Oltion
Cover art by Vincent di Fate
Published by Tor Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
I actually came to this novel by the back door, having found Anywhere But Here at my local library and reading it. That novel is complete in itself and can be enjoyed without having read this one, but there were enough references to the events surrounding Allen Meisner' invention of the hyperdrive that I wanted to read the full story. However, our library didn't have a copy, so after a while I talked to one of the librarians about getting a copy sent to me from another library that also used the same online catalog.
The story begins with Judy Gallagher, an astronaut who's considering a rather puzzling scientist she's taking up on the Space Shuttle Discovery to run an experiment. She's feeling rather frustrated by the routine nature of the missions she's flying, a feeling she shares with Rick Spencer, the protagonist of Oltion's earlier novel, Abandon in Place. And like him, she is a civilian.
When I read Abandon in Place, this element of the protagonist's characterization didn't bother me, since I knew that the second astronaut selection group had included civilian pilots. However, as I did more reading about astronautics, I learned that while Neil Armstrong and Elliot See were technically civilians, this was true only because they'd both resigned their commissions as officers of the US Navy to fly with the NACA, the predecessor to NASA. After Apollo gave way to the Space Shuttle program, NASA recruited the people who would actually fly the spacecraft from the military aviation community, and civilians could only get roles as mission and payload specialists.
However, given some of the other details that were clearly contrafactual (for instance, the other nations having bailed on the International Space Station, so that the US took it back over and renamed it Freedom), I was able to maintain my suspension of disbelief by reading it as an alternate timeline in which, for whatever reason, NASA recruited from commercial aviation circles as well as military, perhaps as a result of international political pressure not to militarize the pilot-astronaut community.
In any case, it doesn't take long to get the story moving forward. Allen fires up his laptop and activates his computer, and the next thing Judy knows, the orbiter is in an unknown location, which Allen identifies as somewhere between the orbits of Earth and Mars. Suddenly the flight deck is in an uproar and they've got a traitor astronaut trying to hijack the orbiter and the hyperdrive to sell to the Russians, or the French, or whoever will pay him for it. Judy manages to restore order and gets Allen to take them back to low Earth orbit, but it makes things worse instead of better.
Now they've got a damaged orbiter that can't survive re-entry without major repairs, so they can't get home even after they return from the distant orbit to which they fled. And even if they weren't, Earth's nations are in an uproar as a result of Allen's experiment and the information he released on the Internet, schematics and instructions so that anyone with a modicum of technical skill can build their own.
If anyone's more upset about this turn of events than Judy, it's Allen. He'd created the hyperdrive as a way to give humanity space travel so cheap and easy that ordinary people could do it, with the idea that once humanity was no longer bottled up on a single world, the release of pressure would result in international tensions going down. But like so many idealists before him, he overlooked the will to see a threat in what one cannot control.
However badly Allen's scheme has gone awry, the fact remains that they cannot wait indefinitely for the situation to resolve itself. Soon the orbiter's consumables will run out, leaving them without the means to sustain life in the ultimate hostile environment. So they approach Space Station Freedom for refuge, but rather than surrender for probable arrest and prosecution, Judy and Allen take one of the escape capsules, a design based upon the Gemini spacecraft (apparently there was some serious consideration of such a design for the actual ISS, but it got scrapped as a cost-cutting measure and ISS crews depend on Russian Soyuz capsules for lifeboat purposes).
Thus begins a wild ride to the surface, where they probably won't be a lot safer, but at least they'll have shirtsleeve environment and a lot more cover in which to hide. The capsules are intended for a water landing, but the hasty nature of their flight combined with mechanical difficulties from corner-cutting in a design that was never really expected to be used means that they touch down on land, somewhere in mountainous wilderness.
They are rescued by a young couple in a customized pickup. They are of course Trent and Donna, the protagonists of Anywhere But Here. They were out doing some off-roading, but they're not going to leave people in distress in the wilderness. So they take Judy and Allen to their home in a nearby Wyoming small town. Determined not to be a burden, Judy and Allen head out only to encounter an unexpected benefactor in the form of a bank robber, Dale Larkin (this is the same guy who uses a hyperdrive to break into a bank vault at the beginning of Anywhere But Here).
Soon our intrepid astronauts are gathering supplies and refitting a plastic septic tank as an interstellar spaceship. Even as they're making their preparations, an eccentric tinkerer takes off in his own makeshift spacecraft. Such is the uproar that it's only a matter of time before their own preparations attract the attentions of Federal agents.
Our protagonists' only option is to flee at once, and flee they do, to the Alpha Centauri system. There they find a habitable planet, only to discover the eccentric tinkerer Nick Onnescu has beaten them to it. Disappointed, they decide to forge onward, and encounter their first alien, a butterfly-like creature who is part of a distributed-processing hive mind. Tippet is not native to this world, but has come on an exploratory voyage by a hive community that couldn't get along with the other hive minds of their homeworld and decided to leave rather than subsume their identity by exchanging members with other hives until their differences are erased.
However, Earth's troubles come following our protagonists in the form of a French military submarine that's been sent to establish a saving remnant of humanity. In the process they manage to alienate the actual locals, a species of sentient trees who become aware and ambulatory only at night, when they aren't photosynthesizing. Thankfully Judy and Allen had been careful not to do the trees any damage, having a sense that there was something extraordinary about them and it could be lost forever through careless violence.
And thus we get to the endgame, a frantic race against time to convince Earth's governments to stand down and give humanity a chance to spread in peace to other worlds. It's a close-run thing, but there is a happy ending that makes the novel complete unto itself while setting the stage quite nicely for Anywhere But Here.
As I read it, I couldn't help but consider the parallels and differences between The Getaway Special and Travis S. Taylor's freshman novel, Warp Speed. Both of them feature scientists working on the fringes of science to invent faster-than-light travel, who perform the initial tests on a Space Shuttle orbiter and who develop a romantic relationship with the female mission commander. However, while Oltion's writing exudes a hippie peacenik aura, Taylor's writing is straight-up pro-military conservative, not surprising for a Baen author. While Judy Gallagher is a civilian, Tabitha Ames is a colonel in the US Air Force, with a military officer's view of the world, and when malefactors use Anson Clemens' space warp to make a terrorist attack on the US, the two of them make an unabashed military strike upon the nation's enemies. not to mention the fact that Clemens' warp drive is kept a military secret and the public is told fairy tales about meteor strikes to explain the devastation. The central idea may be the same in both novels, but the worldviews of the two authors produce very different novels.
Review posted December 14, 2012.
Buy The Getaway Special from Amazon.com.