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REVIEW: Dropnauts – J. Scott Coatsworth

Dropnauts - J. Scott Coatsworth

Genre: Sci-Fi, Solarpunk, Hopepunk, Action-Adventure

Reviewer: Lee

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About The Book

Life after the Crash.Over a century after the end of the Earth, life goes on in Redemption, the sole remaining Lunar colony, and possibly the last outpost of humankind in the Solar System. But with an existential threat burrowing its way into the Moon’s core, humanity must recolonize the homeworld.

Twenty brave dropnauts set off on a mission to explore the empty planet. Four of them—Rai, Hera, Ghost and Tien—have trained for two-and-a-half years for the Return. They’re bound for Martinez Base, just outside the Old Earth city of San Francisco.

But what awaits them there will turn their assumptions upside down—and in the process, either save or destroy what’s left of humanity.

The Review

Dropauts by J. Scott Coatsworth begins en media res, with Rai and his three fellow astronauts / dropnauts launching from their home on the moon to a war and climate scarred earth. This engenders both a sense of curiosity and excitement. We wonder what has happened to the earth in the hundred years since it was abandoned, and we worry about the sustainability of the moon base, named Redemption, which appears to be suffering some sort of man-made catastrophe of its own. J. Scott’s crew is quite diverse, including gay, bisexual, and transgender members. Sam, the AI mechanoid, has also undergone change, having reached true sentience during its operational lifetime. There is a noticeable sense that dropnauts is about bridging worlds, personal change and doing better.

The dropnauts envision themselves as saviors or stewards of the earth, the early workers sent to prepare the ravaged, empty, planet for the return of humanity. Redemption is on the dropnauts’ minds. But it seems as though the redemption of the planet is also about humanity. The earth was “screwed up” by people; its redemption will also redeem its failed former stewards. It can be no accident that Coatsworth’s would-be-redeemers have possibly created some sort of problem on the moon as well. Human beings may change, but they remain human, their knowledge limited, their natures imperfect. And so it makes sense that the dropnauts would be wrong about an important thing: there are humans alive on earth.

The narrative style is fast and informal. The third person limited point of view (POV) shifts between multiple characters within most chapters. The switching happens between scenes in the chapters, which is an unusual frequency to employ book-wide, but it is not confusing. There are trade-offs to these rapid changes in POV. On the negative side, interpersonal tension and any sense of mystery between POV characters is sometimes undermined, since we so quickly find out what each character is thinking and feeling. On the pro side, Coatsworth’s writing is nimble, so this POV style often aids in action scenes, particularly towards the end of the book. Even more importantly, Coatsworth’s POV switches create a well-crafted intra-chapter holism.

The characters speak in a quick, modern vernacular that will likely be welcomed by most readers. Even the complex parts of the book—such as space launches, where the correct use of orbital mechanics could make the difference between life and death—are exceedingly sparing with technical jargon. I was pulled out of the story by a few small scientific errors, which I feel will go largely unnoticed. One, the impossible skydiving trick, is really more of an action trope that readers might both expect and accept. Despite these few glitches, Coatsworth handles other technical concepts more adroitly, for example an improved carbon-capture tree that is being air mailed or “dropped” down the gravity well to earth. The idea of such a tree is well considered. Such research is ongoing in the real world, and the complex assessment of a particular species’ amount of carbon capture versus its use of water and space could fill a book on its own. But Coatsworth introduces the concept quickly and lets it grow in the background. He has clearly made a conscious choice not to bog his readers down with unnecessary detail. J. Scott is more interested in character and theme and sidesteps any pedantic mathematical exposition through his shifts in POV. Coatsworth’s narrative style and technical depth differs from hard science fiction writers such as Neal Stephenson, who is a rocket scientist and lets the reader know it. Coatsworth cares about people, and his focus stays there and on moving the plot along. It keeps the read easy, too.

The characters all suffer from the trauma over a lost world, and a sense of isolation. Rai and the others from the moon must endure agoraphobia as they move from the confines of lunar lava tubes to the wide-open spaces of the earth. The earthlings, Ally and Aiden, suffer from their situation as members of a steadily dwindling, competitive, and socially regressive sub-culture. Their numbers are so few that it is no joke that these siblings may be expected to repopulate the world with each other. They say “ew” to this, too. One part of the story uncomfortably reminded me of the madness of Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog.This dark element may have been the best part of the book, though, because it added needed shading to the sometimes too sunny disposition of the main characters. The world has ended; this is a dark thing and will create at least some darkness.Trying to make sense of the earth’s environmental disaster has engendered in the characters an understandably reductive viewpoint on a complex matter. This is in keeping with human psychology, and although the characters’ viewpoints are not initially very nuanced, this may be a starting point for potential future discoveries, epiphany and, perhaps, wisdom. 

Matters are tied up on a high note as the book ends—with a shocking level of forgiveness for some—but that is in keeping with the overall tone and intent of the work. I am curious to see how Coatsworth’s earnest messages about the environment and about the characters’ bridging between worlds might develop through this series.

Takeaway: This book is for progressive science fiction fans who care about human beings as well as the environment, and like a fast, optimistic, and entertaining read with high concepts but no headaches.

The Reviewer

Lee has a background in physics and applied science, but has always enjoyed reading fiction. His first serious forays in writing came from dungeon mastering and high school drama club, although for nearly three decades as a geophysicist, he wrote only non-fiction. At the age of 25, Lee spent a prolonged period of time on the edge of death, had the last rights read to him, and enjoyed several near death experiences. Not even all the morphine could make him forget those. Lee enjoys rock climbing, cycling, hiking, swimming and writing. He is an Ironman Triathlete.  

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