Forgotten Book: Orbital Decay by Allen Steele

this is the 260th in my series of forgotten or seldom read books

Orbital Decay by Allen Steele, Ace Science Fiction 1989 mass market paperback – science fiction – Near Space series, book 1.

I’ve liked the books by Allen Steele that I’ve read, Apollo’s Outcasts (2012) and Avengers of the Moon (2017). Though Steele is probably best known for his Coyote series, I decided to try his Near Space series, and this is the first book in it. Here’s the set:

Near-Space series (also called Rude Astronauts series

  • Orbital Decay (1989)
  • Clarke County, Space (1990)
  • Lunar Descent (1991)
  • Labyrinth of Night (1992)
  • A King of Infinite Space (1997)

By “near space” we’re talking about within the solar system, in this case the book is  set at a space station under construction in Earth orbit. The novel starts out with an unnamed narrator telling us his space suit is soon going to run out of either power or air. He’s not sure which will happen first, but either way, he’ll die. But before that happens, he wants to tell us a story. The rest of the book, with occasional look-ins on our narrator, is that story.

Like any construction gang, the beamjacks on Olympus Station lead a regular life, much of it the same day after day, except that monotony is multiplied by the tight quarters, crowded conditions and the inability to go anywhere. Same white walls, same narrow bunk, little or no privacy, lots and lots of rules and restrictions. Yet they suit up and do the work day after day, having signed up for a 2 year term working for Sky Corp.

Orbital Decay reads a lot like Arthur C. Clarke at his didactic best. That’s fine, but as I read, I wanted a little more action and a bit less exposition.

At about the halfway point, I realized that the work, life and personalities of the beamjacks, and the other personnel on the station are the action, and as pressures slowly build it becomes apparent something’s got to blow. The discovery of a clandestine program called Big Ear, intended to implement eavesdropping on a massive, world-wide scale and to such a fine focus that any conversation on any radio, telephone or electronic device can be identified, monitored, recorded. The heart of this system is to be installed on Andromeda Station, in near orbit to Olympus, and the beamjacks decide they have to do something, anything, to stop it. There’s plenty of action then.

To say more would be to spoil the book, but that action I was waiting for came, and though not space opera battles or alien attacks, it was satisfying, and I liked the ending.

I have the next book in hand and plan to read it soon.

About Richard Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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19 Responses to Forgotten Book: Orbital Decay by Allen Steele

  1. realthog says:

    I’m surprised that anything by Allen should be regarded as “forgotten”! I’ve read just a couple of his books (not this one) but they’ve both been right up there.

  2. Jeff Meyerson says:

    Sounds pretty interesting. If only I had time… .

  3. I’ve read a number of Allen Steele books. I like him in small doses. As you point out, his books have a didactic aspects.

  4. Sounds good. I really enjoyed Apollo’s Outcasts, and have Avengers of the Moon on my shelf awaiting a read.

    • He rises from the depths… nice to hear from you, Carl. I think you’ll enjoy Avengers, but I suggest you don’t bother with going to the old original Captain Future pulp stories (currently being collected by Haffner Press), as they are really just so-so pulp.

  5. Jeff Meyerson says:

    I liked Apollo’s Outcasts too, and a couple of his short story collections.

  6. Jerry House says:

    I haven’t read anything by Allen Steele although I have several of his books in Mount TB R. Maybe it’s time to move them closer to the top. Thanks for this post, Richard.

  7. Steve Lewis says:

    I read a book by Steele quite a long time ago, so long ago I don’t remember the title. It might even be this one, but since you didn’t go into the ending (which I do remember, as it knocked my socks off), I can’t tell. It probably isn’t, but the setup does sound familiar.

    Here’s a question: Hard SF like the kind that Steele writes has the disadvantage of dating awfully fast. This book is almost 30 years old. Did you find anything in the story not predicted properly, such the lack of ubiquitous smart phones and so on (just as an example), that caught your attention and took you out of the story?

  8. tracybham says:

    Allen Steele may not be forgotten, but he is new to me, so I am glad you featured this book. It sounds good and I will look for this or other books by him when we go to the annual book sale (coming up in September).

  9. publicmurders says:

    Allen Steele is a new sf writer for me. Thanks for the review, Richard.

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