Book Review: Fallen Angels – by Niven, Pournelle and Flynn

This book is copyright 1991, and I found it in one of my book boxes and the garage when I was looking for something else. I looked at the cover, read the back, and could not remember reading it. Only as I got into it I could miraculously predict a few of the plot twists, but nothing ever solid. What 20 years does to memory!

This book is from the days of Niven and Pournelle’s fruitful collaboration which lasted from the mid 1970s to the beginning 1990s. They still collaborate now, as far as I can tell, although less frequently. Pournelle is 76, and Niven 71. Of their collaboration, I read: The Mote in God’s Eye, Lucifer’s Hammer, Oath of Fealty, Footfall, The Legacy of Heorot and The Gripping Hand, all by Niven and Pournelle.

The story relates to today’s events surprisingly much through unexpected twists of history. It plays now, or approximately now, perhaps any time between 2010 and 2030. The only way I can tell is because the year 2008 is referenced as the past. You have to remember, though, that this was written around 1990, so to them they went some 30 years into the future and projected what it would be like.

Saddam Hussein is mentioned, only as a dictator who “covered the Persion Gulf with oil” in the context of being a polluter. The space stations Mir (Russian) and Freedom (International) play a core plot role. And there is global warming as the central political theme, along with the movement of the environmentalists, greens, tree huggers and environmental extremists, like Earth First.

Imagine a world where the environmental movement got the upper hand in about 1990 when global warming first started appearing as a buzzword and the pollution in the US was at its peak. You could set the Cuyahoga River on fire. Imagine that the environmentalists became the dominant power. Strict legislation curbing pollution of any kind had several effects: First, the world quickly became clean and the greenhouse gases were reduced to the point where global cooling started setting in, and a mini ice age started. Glaciers covered most of Canada and encroached on South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Every year, new towns were overcome by the ice, new freeways were covered by the relentless and rapid push of the glaciers. A side-effect, of course, was that commerce and entrepreneurialism was reduced, the economies shrunk and widespread poverty overtook the country. Anarchy ruled in townships, despots abused the local resources and their people. Finally, the government became powerful and controlling, with the Green Police, a corrupt branch of the executive, wielding power along with the FBI, NSA, Secret Service, the military and of course the various local police forces. Ordinary people were harrassed by the Green Police for violations of the thermostat laws (you could not turn them above 55 F). People routinely froze to death in their homes in winter, and this was accepted as normal. Let’s not cut down wood for fire, waste valuable trees and pollute the air.

The most poignant side effect of this movement was a general hate of technology, science and industry. Scientists were prosecuted unless they worked on “appropriate science” or “appropriate technology.” Appropriate was determined by the government, and you might guess that it included everything that the government needed to control the masses: police cars, helicopters, weapons, communications devices. You see where this is going: Inappropriate technology was any space technology (what a waste of resources), flying, computer science, anything not directly related to survival and law enforcement. This conjures up images of Atlas Shrugged, where the government alone decides what is good for the people. It also has a few parallels to Soylent Green. People who love science fiction, the readers as well as the writers, are reviled and actually outlawed. Science fiction books are banned and burned. Science fiction becomes an underground movement, promoted by “fans” of  science fiction. And it’s the fans that are the protagonists in Fallen Angels.

Eventually, the earth and its inhabitant lose, among many other capabilities, the ability for space flight. However, when this happened, the two space stations Mir and Freedom were orbiting and thriving, and there are dozens of people who permanently live in space. People are born in space. Many have not been on earth for 30 years or more. Young people have never been on earth. They call themselves floaters. On earth, they are called “angels” by the fans and sometimes by the populace, since they “fly” in the “heavens.” The spacers mine the moon for minerals and particularly oxygen. But it is difficult to recycle everything, so shortages are severe and the completely closed system of the space stations is dangerously out of balance. One resource they need to get from earth is nitrogen. So they have fashioned scoopers, which are spacecraft that can dip into the atmosphere, scoop up some air, and skip back out into orbit without losing too much velocity to meet up with the stations again. Alex and Gordon, two angels, fly such a scooper when they are shot down by a missile, since the governments of earth consider the scoops stealing of air and therefore an act of war.

Alex and Gordon crash-land on a glacier in Minnesota. There are no spaceships on earth, and there are no spaceships in space that actually can land and take off again. To make matters complicated, due to having been in free fall all their lives, they cannot walk and are certainly not familiar with the ways of the world on earth.

This is the story of what happens to the fallen angels.

Rating: ***

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