It takes a lot of moxie to decide you’re the one to take a character beloved from pulp magazines and anime and update it for a 21st century novel. Allen Steele has already proven that he has that moxie, having given us a novella on “The Death of Captain Future”, but that story wasn’t about Captain Future so much as about a fan of the pulps in which that hero first came to life.
Twenty-odd years later, he’s at it again, but this time he’s gone all out to make Captain Future a hero for our times. Did he succeed?
If by “succeed” one means creates a perfect pastiche of the hokey and wholesome tales of yore while subtly correcting for modern advances in scientific knowledge and attitudes about the Other, then he more than succeeds. Avengers of the Moon has all the feel of an early 20th century planetary romance, without any of the “mistakes” that let us smile behind our hands when reading the originals he draws on. It’s not set in the “distant future” year of 2015. There are no aliens living in caves on the moon or on the other planets in our solar system.* Weapons and gadgets and space travel are more plausible for modern readers (and cool as heck!). The nom-de-guerre of Captain Future remains but is treated as a childish embarrassment that others gently rib Curt Newton for adopting. Etc.
The novel is written as a retelling of our hero’s origin story, which has already led many to speculate that we might have more Captain Future adventures coming from Steele-or-someone if this does as well as it deserves to. From the birth of Curt Newton and murder of his parents by the dastardly Victor Corvo, to how Simon Wright became the eerie cyborg he is to the development of Otho and Grag as Curt’s android and robot companions, it’s all there, and again, it’s all made plausible for modern readers, which means it includes a lot of material concerning the nature of artificial intelligence mixed in with the action scenes and gadget porn and awkward romance.
For yes, beautiful Interplanetary Policewoman Joan Randall is along for the ride (as is her boss, Ezra), and she fulfills her traditional role as love interest and… doesn’t do as much else as a modern reader might wish for her to do, but at least she doesn’t become a damsel in distress. In this the book is a teeny bit disappointing: Joan and the other female characters could pretty much be removed from the plot altogether without affecting its shape, and they’re never even given a chance at taking the Bechdel test, but at least they’re competent and sort-of-self-willed and not at all terrible. Just, sort of a missed opportunity.
That disappointment is fleeting, though, compared with the delights this new-old pulp adventure has in store. Steele drew on some neat ideas for this world’s technology, for one; the “photon railroad” between planets is super-cool and provides the backdrop for the novel’s most dramatic and heart-stopping scene, and don’t even get me started on the Light Deflecting Fantome device. Yes, it’s an invisibility machine, but it’s plausibly realized with limitations and disadvantages that are both plot-relevant and nerdgasmic. As for Captain Future’s ray gun, it’s straight out of your favorite B-movie space opera, shooting plasma rays that, in atmosphere, resemble translucent smoke rings. Zounds!
Where the book really shines is in its development of the characters of the Futuremen, especially of Otho, who is not a comic-relief shapeshifter, here, and Grag, who steals every scene “he” is in, even before he acquires Eek. Oh, Eek. I love Eek. I don’t want to spoil Eek for you, dear readers, but the Grag and Eek show is one I’d buy many, many tickets for.
If you’ve been looking for a way to introduce the young people in your life to the delights of the pulps of your childhood (or your parents’) but have shied away from the hokeyness, Avengers of the Moon is your book. If you’re in the mood for a bit of new-old nostalgia with robots and ray guns, Avengers of the Moon is your book. If you’re looking for a feminist response to the old sci-fi tropes, maybe Avengers of the Moon is not your book, but you should probably give it a try anyway, because A) Not every book has to be that and B) Did I mention it’s fun? It’s fun. It’s lots of fun, and the fun is Good and Clean.