Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘The Death Of Captain Future’ by Allen Steele

with 5 comments

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.

Quality: *
OOO: *

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.”

Written by Martin

13 January 2013 at 13:39

5 Responses

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  1. …his generally left-leaning politics

    I’m not a political scientist, but this came as a bit of a surprise to me, since I always thought of him as a perhaps center-right libertarian? I guess I am not Amerikin.

    Peter Hollo

    13 January 2013 at 23:39

  2. > In-jokes, warmed over nostalgia, bluntly bad prose and unexamined sexism are always a winning combination.

    Sigh. That’s the sort of thing to be observed which makes me wonder if there’s another science fiction fandom I could jump over to. (I don’t fault your observing it; I fault the fan base that makes it so.)

    Joseph Nebus

    14 January 2013 at 01:08

  3. Peter: Yes, a bafflingly broken chain of logic there. I’ve seen no evidence Steele is generally left-leaning and, even if he was, how is that equivalent with working-class? I can’t trust the editors on politics at all – a pretty fundamental complaint.

    Joseph: It does make me wonder if fandom is getting better and if there is anyway of measuring that. Since social attitudes are increasingly liberal, you would hope that would carry over to fandom as new blood enters. But young fandom seems just as nostalgic as old fandom, just for a different era. As for quality, well, if the Mormon space whale story can win the Nebula then nothing much has changed. I’m not sure ‘The Death Of Captain Future’ would wash on the Hugo shortlist these days though (not least because whilst it is sentimental, it is sentimental in the wrong way).


    14 January 2013 at 10:36

  4. […] ‘The Death Of Captain Future’ by Allen Steele (everythingisnice.wordpress.com) […]

  5. Read the story. It was one of those dark and gritty stories that were popular for a little time. Not the style I enjoy although the quality of writing and semi dry humor were ok. When I read this review I was mystified. The review seems almost as if the writer has an agenda. I read for something entirely different from anything this reviewer is interested in, in fact what zir leaves me with is the impression that anything ze did not like I would enjoy.

    Th3o Moore

    28 January 2016 at 09:25

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