| | |


Review © 2000 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover art by Romas.


It always seems to happen. The books that are the least pretentious, the most modest and unassuming, usually turn out to be the ones that kick your butt the hardest. Orbital Decay is hard SF at its gritty best. Its episodic yet cohesive narrative takes place in the early 21st century aboard Olympus Station, unaffectionately known as Skycan by the crew of blue-collar riffraff living aboard it while they labor to contruct a massive power satellite designed to capture solar energy and send it to Earth as electricity. Unbeknownst to no one, really, is the fact that Skycan also houses a trio of NSA agents masquerading as meteorologists. But the real nature of the NSA's work, a mysterious communications surveillance system codenamed Big Ear, is a secret until a brash young hydroponics engineer turns up for duty aboard Skycan and starts upsetting the applecart, so to speak.

Steele juggles a lot of balls with this debut novel and, impressively, doesn't drop any of them--or at the very least, he recovers his rare fumbles so gracefully you don't really notice. I mentioned that this story is episodic, but moreover, it's focused squarely on its characters, whom Steele manages to make colorful (to put it mildly) and real without lapsing too lamely into typecasting or cliché. Many of the hardworking "beamjacks" puttering about in the vacuum have escaped dismal and shadowy pasts back on Earth, and Steele reveals his cast's histories gradually as the tale unfolds, creating rich, three-dimensional human beings whom you come to admire and know intimately despite—in fact, even because of—their personal failings. Only in one case, that of the terminally morose "Popeye" Hooker and the Dark Secret he hides from everyone including himself, did predictability stain the proceedings. But even Popeye, along with "Virgin Bruce" Neiman the ex-biker and Hamilton the pot-growing hydroponicist, ultimately registers along with all of the cast as the coolest bunch of space opera heroes you're likely to find—mainly because they're such believable ordinary guys, rather than the mythic archetypes of space opera.

At a visceral level, too, Orbital Decay delivers. The last hundred pages or so move like greased lightning as our small cadre of unlikely heroes discover something they shouldn't and go right outside of their league in trying to do something about it. Action, suspense, and genuine human warmth combine to make Orbital Decay one of SF's strongest debuts, from an author whose future novels are only likely to take him higher and higher into orbit.