Though full embracing it requires a very particular frame of mind, the joy of early popular science fiction is often its sheer, utterly shameless absurdity. Even though we have infinitely far to go, the past half-century or so has seen exponential leaps in our knowledge of the universe beyond the atmospheric confines of our small planet. For many of us, our grandparents came of age in a world not even observed by simple satellites; landing a man on the moon was truly the stuff of science fiction. While I love SF that works hard to get the science right, those earlier works, while less constrained by concrete knowledge of the laws that govern the universe, were also less restricted by ideas of what the genre could and should be. Buck Rogers-style stories might look a little silly to our contemporary eyes, but even now, it’s hard not to be drawn in by their boundless imagination. They also serve as a nice reminder that time will make a mockery of even the most cutting-edge ideas of today, so it’s best not to get too snotty.
One of writer Allen Steele’s earliest works was the 1996 Hugo Award-winning novella The Death of Captain Future, which rescued the title character from the ash heap of pulp SF history (we’re talking the 1940s here). That story was billed as a tribute to the original stories by Edmond Hamilton, though it took a meta approach to the character that was more about the ways in which storytelling had changed over the decades since Hamilton sent him off on a mission through space. Unlike the stalwart, Flash Gordon-esque adventurer of the pulps, Steele’s Future is rich, out of shape, and more than a little delusional, though he does become a hero after a fashion. Interesting, then, that Steele has returned to the world of Captain Future with the novel-length Avengers of the Moon, and done something surprising in the process: he’s chosen to play it straight.
Barely out of his teens, Curtis Newton leads a shy, quiet life in an isolated lab on a little-visited corner of Earth’s moon, though not without a few friends: intelligent, though boxy, robot Grag; and Otho, an android with human-like sensibilities. There’s also the Brain: a brilliant scientist whose gray matter was transferred into a flying drone by Curt’s parents, who were murdered for their scientific knowledge years earlier; the survivors have lived in generally happy seclusion as a decidedly non-traditional family ever since. As the novel opens, Curt learns new details about the deaths of his parents, including the identity of the man responsible: a powerful senator. Vowing revenge, Curt reluctantly adopts the code-name Captain Future and makes plans to assassinate the senator to avenge his parents’ deaths. His relatively simple plot leads him into an encounter with James Carthew, president of the Solar Coalition, who winds up recruiting Curtis for a more complicated scheme to uncover the dealings of U1 Quorn, a criminal mastermind behind all manner of dirty deeds.
All of these elements—including the group of allies Curt picks up along the way—were present in the vintage Captain Future stories; Steele has only rejiggered them a bit for modern audiences without betraying any of their old school charm. This isn’t a continuation so much as a reboot (one officially authorized by Edmond Hamilton’s estate), but the author is nevertheless incredibly respectful of the source material. What he does do is provide a bit of polish: the workmanlike prose of the original material is replaced by the words of a more deliberate writer (that’s no slight to Future’s creator Hamilton: he was producing work for a medium with a much quicker turnaround time). Steele, who has gone to great lengths in past books to ensure his books pass muster with their science and engineering concepts, also makes the science a great deal less fictional, and the space travel a bit more believable, at least by modern standards. (He’s also naturally moved the timeframe ahead of the original’s ” distant future” setting of 2015.)
As he did in last year’s Arkwright, another loving tribute to Golden AGe SF, Steele revives the style and ethos of an era without the result feeling too much like a pastiche, and too little like a novel. I’ve focused a lot on how it compares to the original, which is inevitable, but the book is wonderfully entertaining even if you know absolutely nothing about Captain Future. There’s real heart to the story, outside of all the action and intrigue; I found myself drawn to Curtis’ largely mechanical, bickering, but ultimately loving family. Even if Steele didn’t create these characters, but he rightfully puts their quite non-traditional arrangement at the center of his hero’s adventures. Avengers of the Moon is unapologetically old-fashioned, truly sincere, and, most of all, enormously fun science fiction adventure that takes us from the Moon to Mars alongside a wonderfully bizarre crew.