Clarke County, Space Critical Essays

Allen Steele


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Clarke County, Space is Allen Steele’s second novel, following Orbital Decay (1989). It shows many of the same strengths and weaknesses as the earlier book. Its strengths include unique protagonists with ordinary, believable attitudes and stories that exhibit hard science fiction’s traditional virtues of fast-moving, problem-driven plots. At its best, Steele’s fiction resembles that of Robert A. Heinlein, with beer-drinking beam-jacks substituted for engineers. In Clarke County, Space, the obvious parallels with Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) ensure that veteran readers realize that Blind Boy Grunt is a computer long before McCoy does.

Steele’s weaknesses primarily center on a tendency toward self-indulgent insertion of references to the counterculture of the late 1960’s. These lessen the verisimilitude of both his characters and his milieu. Steele extrapolates his futures as if nothing of any cultural importance has occurred since the early 1970’s. In Steele’s 2050, for example, an American Indian space colony sheriff eats peyote in his hogan, there are 1960’s-style Italian Mafia kingpins and hit men, top secret computer codes to direct missiles are found on floppy disks and can be used easily by hackers, the first and only space colony is run by refugees from a hippie commune, a religious cult deifies Elvis Presley, and a spontaneously generated artificial intelligence is fixated on Bob Dylan. Steele exhibits much of the same cultural ambience as Spider Robinson. It is particularly noticeable in a segment of the novel in which Bigthorn searches for leads to Westmoreland’s whereabouts by questioning gamblers and prostitutes along Clarke County’s commercial strip. Steele writes the scene, however, without Robinson’s humorous style. Steele’s straight-faced earnestness makes the reader wonder whether he might actually think the future could turn out this way.

Steele’s fiction matured in his later novels, moving away from self-indulgent anachronisms to more believable futures while retaining his compelling narratives and fast-paced plots. Clarke County, Space can be viewed as the last of the early Steele novels, and it provides entertaining reading despite its weaknesses.