I have no idea how I haven't come across the name of W. Michael Gear before now. He's an anthropologist and archaeologist who has written extensively; his primary series, about 'North America's Forgotten Past', written in collaboration with his wife, Kathleen O'Neal Gear, is published by Tor and is about to reach twenty-five volumes. And that's just his primary series! His fifty-plus books have sold over seventeen million copies worldwide so, whatever he's doing, he's apparently doing it right.
Instead of looking backwards, 'Outpost' looks far forward and in a very interesting way. As much as the cover strongly suggests a science fiction/horror hybrid, this is really a space western, a neat mixture of future tech and frontier survivalism. It's also very much the beginning of a series, with the second volume, 'Abandoned', due in November and book three, 'Pariah', already with DAW. I don't know how long Gear plans to take the series, but there's massive potential here for many books.
We find ourselves on the planet Donovan, the furthest colony away from Earth, thirty light years from home. It has found itself isolated because, of the seven ships that had been sent out since the initial colonists arrived, only one arrived and that never made it back home. It's been six and a half years now since the Mekong visited and a new ship has finally made it through, the Turalon, with new colonists, new equipment and new problems.
You see, with no apparent support from Earth, the colonists shed the yoke of the Corporation, which financed the colonisation as an investment and ran it on site, and went effectively rogue. The planet may be a paradise to those in acquisitions and accounting, with its abundance of rare earth minerals and other natural resourcesit's a very rich environment for a business keen on making money back homebut it's also a highly dangerous place, where humans have to struggle to maintain their status on top of the food chain. Without communication or frequent support, technology breaks down and civilisation follows suit, unless it's run by those who know how to live on the frontier. That means that the Supervisor is long gone and a triptych of colonists are ostensibly in charge.
So, as the Turalon arrives with Kalio Aguilar, a new Supervisor for the Donovan colony, there's a serious and potent clash between those who know and those who don't; those who have experienced the dangers inherent on this planet and those who have no idea what they even are because the Corporation never told them, if it ever really believed in the first place; and those who have ruled the one remaining town, Port Authority, for years and those who have just showed up to take it over. What a fantastic setting for a science fiction novel!
Gear doesn't stop there. While we're introduced to Donovan and Port Authority first, proceedings gradually allow us figure out who the key players are. Aguilar is certainly one, with her powerful ambition and dangerous tendency to assume, but the lead is surely Talina Perez, the tough-as-nails sheriff, who is a fantastic creation, a Mexican lady of Mayan ancestry whose mother was an archaeologist. She's not your usual sheriff but she does the usual things, albeit in a rather new way, as befits the landscape and the fact that the book starts out with her being possessed, if that's the right word, by the soul of one of the local predators, a quetzal, and Talina doesn't like it one bit!
There's also Max Taggart, the captain of the marine detachment being delivered by the Turalon, on the grounds that the lack of returning ships surely meant that the colony had gone rogue and killed them all. They hadn't, but nobody back home could know that until they come to visit and perform due diligence in investigation. It has to be said that all these characters have fantastic story arcs, Taggart (generally known as 'Cap') especially. Finally, there's an outright psychopath, Dan Wirth, who snuck his way onto the Turalon under another man's credentials to avoid a death sentence; he's the one man on the ship who finds himself rather at home in the wild west planet that is Donovan, which is a truly scary thing for everyone else.
Gear, perhaps unsurprisingly given that he's been so prolific over the last few decades, writes very comfortable prose that's very carefully structured. Oddly, given that he weaves various stories into each other with panache, 'Outpost' feels like two books rather than one. At 422 pages, perhaps it would have been a few decades earlier.
The first follows the oldtimers and the newcomers as they struggle to find common ground and get along with each other and especially to get their own perspectives across. These new arrivals, 'Skulls' (as they're all shaved for the journey) or 'soft meat', find that Donovan isn't remotely what they were told. I'm not just talking about the dangers about which they weren't warned; many came specifically to do certain specialised jobs that simply don't exist anymore. If the previous ship carrying the tech on which you're a specialist never arrived, then there isn't anything there for you to support. If the cattle for which you have special expertise were eaten long ago by the local wildlife, then they're not there for you to take care of. And so on. Everyone has to adapt and reinvent; they can't just turn around and go back, especially now they know the low odds of making it home. Or can they?
That first book ends when one of those previous ships finally arrives, albeit very late indeed and in bizarre circumstances. Something went horribly wrong on the journey and the investigation of that flavours the second half of the book, as does a trip to one of the outlying farms, leaving Talina and Cap, hardly the best of friends, in the middle of nowhere, struggling to survive together.
Where all this goes, you'll need to find out for yourself, but there are a whole slew of plot strands set in motion and, while Gear doesn't wrap all of them up yethe has to leave something for the sequelshe does keep them all churning along nicely. I liked where he takes all these characters, believably following those who choose to stay and those who leave; those who live and those who die; and those who merely change and adapt. There's a great deal of contemplation here on what 'home' truly means, which is appropriate for what is really a western at heart. Nobody of any importance stays the same person throughout; these are tough times and those who don't adapt to events don't survive them. This leads for believably quick character arcs and Gear doesn't shy away from that. Some are wild and some aren't but they're all fascinating.
With acknowledgement of a couple of fantastic chapters that had me almost applauding aloud, I'll just comment that I liked this a heck of a lot more than I expected to and I'm eagerly awaiting the second volume. I may never have travelled thirty light years from Earth, but Gear made me feel like I was at home on Donovan. That's not a small achievement, especially for an author whom I've never before encountered. I have a feeling I'll be reading a lot more of his work in the next few years. ~~ Hal C F Astell