by Allen Steele
Review by Karen Burnham
Ace Hardcover Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0441014712
Date: 03 April, 2007 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In 2084 Lunar telescopes have spotted an object out beyond the solar system, two light years away. The telescope initiates its automated program and sends out a radio message of prime numbers. When it actually receives a response, a mission is quickly launched. They must first rendezvous with, then attempt to understand the object known as Spindrift.
Steele starts this story at the end. In the prologue of Spindrift, we meet the survivors of this mission arriving on the moon Coyote (far away from our solar system) with new alien companions. So we know that of the fifteen crew members, only three - Jared Ramierez, Theodore Harker, and Emily Collins - will survive to the end. The mystery then is not in the ending but in the journey. Ramirez is an astrobiologist and convicted criminal, who assisted in a genocidal plot that resulted in thirty-five thousand deaths. However, he is somehow the only qualified expert to deal with this situation (belief in alien life being scientifically unfashionable in this future), and so is released from his Lunar prison. Finding out about his crime and his motivations makes up a mystery almost as great as that of the alien artifact itself. Harker, the executive officer, is an excellent commander, beloved by his crew, passed over for command in favor of an incompetent captain with more social rank and pull. We already know that most of the crew will die, and it will be no surprise that the unredeemably stupid captain will be a large part of that. The captain's character is barely two dimensional, offering only a target for Harker's frustrations. Emily, the shuttle pilot, is Harker's lover. She is also perfectly competent, and obviously sides with him at every opportunity. She plays faster and looser with the rules, helping the action move forward.
The main portion of the novel involves getting the mission ready to go, then getting out to the alien object. En route, their communication system is misdirected by the captain (no good reason is ever offered for this), and to Earth it seems as if they have disappeared. They find the Spindrift, and orbiting around it a starbridge, one end of an FTL connection. Our heroes plus one expendable extra (since we know he won't make it) go down to examine the asteroidal object, which Ramirez is convinced is a generation ship. The rest of the crew takes the ship to examine the starbridge. As these explorations proceed, we find out how our surviving characters survive. Once everyone else is dead they are met by aliens who explain things to them, Ramirez's character is explained, and they are sent onward to Coyote.
At its heart this is a novel about exploring a Big Dumb Object, and it does that tolerably well. However, it takes a very long time to get to the BDO, and uses a lot of clichéd characters and plots to get there. Some common tropes include incompetent officers, political games going on behind the scientists' backs, criminals released on condition of cooperation, etc. Once the aliens are met, the imagery instantly turns religious, with the aliens representing higher beings judging us as a species, a sort of secular Reckoning. In the end, Ramirez's character background doesn't seem to add up to much, which is disappointing. The framing device of knowing who is going to live and die ends up being an excuse for under-developing all the characters who aren't going to make it. In terms of alien contact and BDO literature, I would recommend going with Arthur C. Clarke in either Childhood's End or Rendezvous with Rama instead, both classics of the field.
After a stirring re-telling of American history in Steele's Coyote novels, Spindrift left us feeling let down, if only because we know the author is capable of better work.
The Coyote Novels: