‘The Death Of Captain Future’ by Allen Steele
A very odd story, this. ‘The Death Of Captain Future’ is dedicated to Edmond Hamilton (who opened the anthology) and is a sort of tribute to his Captain Future stories. In the introduction, Steele is quoted as taking pains to point out it isn’t a lampoon or a parody but rather an exploration of “what a ’90s version of an SF pulp hero would look like”. The answer turns out to be a mentally ill, physically grotesque fantasist. Hence “sort of” tribute.
Bo McKinnon is a rich idiot who gets his stepfather to buy him a spaceship. Cosseted by this wealth, he comes to believe that he actually is Captain Future, the shining cover star of the priceless pulp magazines he collects. Our protagonist, who has unwillingly signed on as Second Mate, has a rather different perspective on the man: “Squat and obese, he filled the chair like a half-ton of lard… There were old food stains on the front of his worn-out sweatshirt and dark marks of his crotch… he smelled like a fart… a butt-ugly, foul-looking son of a whore… He had little respect for personal hygiene and fewer social graces.” There is no empathy or sympathy in the story at all; Steele makes McKinnon the butt of an unpleasant joke and I can’t work out why. The story concludes with McKinnon catching space plague which gives him space madness (tragic) on top of his existing madness (comic), our protagonist sends him to his death in a way that saves Mars from catastrophe and ensures he actually does become a hero. The legend of Captain Future lives on.
How does this meet Steele’s stated aim of producing “a pulp-fiction story for the 90s, one that reflected upon the classic space-op of the past while, at the same time, reworking it for the present”? I can’t find any reflection in this nasty little story and perhaps the only way in which it sticks to the pulp brief is in its treatment of women. The only female character is a beautiful, intelligent, highly competent woman. Obviously, she used to be a prostitute. She once propositioned McKinnon in a bar and he turned out to be her white knight, declining sex and instead installing her as his First Officer. He has been the perfect gentleman and showed no sexual interest but “if he ever asked, I’d do so without a second thought. I owe him that little.” Obviously, our protagonist fancies her; obviously squared, he gets her in the end (he just needed to kill her employer and saviour).
The true punchline to the story is that ‘The Death Of Captain Future’ won the 1996 Hugo Award for Best Novella and was shortlisted for the Nebula. In-jokes, warmed over nostalgia, bluntly bad prose and unexamined sexism are always a winning combination.
So, not a good story. I’d also quibble about whether it is space opera, rather than being the sort of near-space hard SF which Steele made his name with and never leaves the Solar System. The author himself describes space opera as “the adventure-oriented category of hard SF” which seems to be a fundamental mistake. Space opera is not a category of hard SF; it can come in any flavour of hardness from Alastair Reynolds to Star Wars and is defined by its scale and sweep. Having a spaceship in your story is not enough. Steele’s definition does, however, explain the constant slurry of exposition.
Hartwell and Cramer Political Commentary Watch: “his fiction has been called “working-class hard SF,” because of his regular choice of ordinary people as characters, and because of his generally left-leaning politics.”