Review: Avengers of the Moon
Sherlock. Queer Eye. Sabrina. An endless parade of Spider-Men (is ‘parade’ the right collective noun for spiders? Update: the internet informs me it might more correctly be called a ‘cluster of Spider-Men’).
Reboots are everywhere and Allen Steele’s AVENGERS OF THE MOON is one of them, a reboot of a classic, pulpy sci-fi series called Captain Future. I’m going to date myself by saying it was WELL before my time and that I’ve never read the previous series; regardless, I think the reboot criteria are clear:
A reboot should stand on its own.
A reboot should make characters and story arcs more accessible to modern audiences by updating the piece’s sensibilities.
A reboot should retain some of the essential qualities that made the work popular in the first place.
So does Steele deliver?
Curt Newton is a socially awkward orphan who’s about as weird as you would expect for someone raised in secrecy by an android, a human brain preserved in a flying drone, and a robot who’s developed emotions. Otho (the android), Simon Wright (or The Brain), and Grag (you guessed it, the robot) have cultivated Curt’s intellectual and physical skills to the best of their abilities while living in a secret base under the Tycho Crater.
It’s Curt’s complete social awkwardness that makes Interplanetary Police Force officer Joan Randall suspicious when she sees him at an event where Victor Corvo, a terran senator, is speaking. Also, Curt hypnotizes Joan, so there’s that. Upset that she’s been duped, Randall suspects there’s more to Curt than the naÏve yokel stchick he gave her and her suspicions are confirmed when she’s assigned to tail him and he disappears.
Curt unexpectedly reappears in Joan’s life when he stops the assassination of the President of the Solar Coalition. What Joan doesn’t know is that Curt was there to save the president only because he was attempting an assassination of his own. Curt has just learned that Victor Corvo, the man the president was meeting with, is also the man responsible for murdering his parents.
Saving the president embroils Curt in a much deadlier, interplanetary scheme and soon he must choose between his assignment from the president and personal vengeance.
So does AVENGERS OF THE MOON stand on its own? Steele dedicates (what feels like) a large portion of the book to Curt’s backstory. While his parents’ deaths motivates Curt to kill Victor Corvo, they do not necessarily motivate a reader to keep reading. I’m usually of the “I believe your parents’ untimely demise is your reason for vengeance, no need for extensive explanation” camp (this is a camp that exists). Steele’s insistence on exploring the background to Curt’s unusual upbringing is a little slow, but once he engages with actual plot, it’s a fun space romp, with the promise of a bigger universe waiting behind it. If you were to pick up AVENGERS OF THE MOON with no prior knowledge of Captain Future, you might be aware that there are occasional jokes that go over your head, but it certainly stands on its own.
Steele has clearly invested a lot of time and energy into updating the world of Captain Future. Instead of jettisoning outdated or ridiculous tech, Steele grounds even the silliest of gadgets with at least some technological basis, aided by his careful and precise prose.
So now the hard part: does Steele successfully update the story for modern audiences? While Steele put a lot of thought about bringing the story and plot elements into the 24th century, he took no thought about bringing gender representation or relations into the 21st.
Steele even acknowledges this outdated representation. Curt describes one woman like “a Martian princess from one of the old Edgar Rice Burroughs novels he’d absorbed when he was a child” (215).
Exactly, you cry. Highly sexualized but goofy representation of women are part of the pulp experience! The ladies in the pointy brass bras! The lovely green Venusian gals! The radiant moon nymphs!
But if this is your defense (that this gendered portrayal has always been part of pulp, and is essential to it going forward) then I argue: what’s the point of doing a reboot? What’s the point of Steele thoughtfully and meticulously transforming Captain Future into something more tasteful to modern palates, just to drop the ball by having not revamped the gender dynamics?
It’s not just the femme fatale character, who is totally fine, but men consistently get descriptions like “hard-eyed” (88) while women are described in terms of their attractiveness. They are “pretty but vaguely repellant” (88) “athletic yet sensual” (25), etc.
It feels like a wasted opportunity.
AVENGERS OF THE MOON preserves a lot of the fun and silliness of pulp, but without updated gender dynamics I’m not sure it’s a reboot that worked for me.
- Recommended Age: 11+
- Language: A few swears
- Violence: A few shoot-outs; mild peril abounds
- Sex: Very chaste