Cole, Allan & Chris Bunch. Sten.

NY: Ballantine, 1982.

Neither Cole nor his late writing partner, Chris Bunch, ever really reached the big leagues among science fiction authors — even though they published more than forty novels (and sold more than 150 screenplays) between them — but this book, the first volume in a series of eight, ought to be rediscovered by fans of high-quality space opera. It’s a big canvas with several larger than life characters and the action hardly lets up for a paragraph. Except, perhaps, when the Eternal Emperor is busy in the kitchen or is reconstructing Kentucky moonshine.

Vulcan is an artificial world, a huge space habitat, really, constructed in a planetary system crammed with rare metals and dedicated to extractive industry on a monstrous scale. The Company that owns it has considerably more concern for the replacement cost of a machine part than it does for the safety of its contracted workers, whom a savage company-store system holds captive for life. And so the young Karl Sten, son of a machinist, watches as his family and several thousand other “migs” are dumped into space, because that’s the cheapest way to repair the accident in which they were caught up. And that experience focuses him on his goal of revenge. An escape into Vulcan’s ductwork system leads him to the Delinqs — the “Lost Boys,” sort of — which leads him to the Emperor’s military, which leads him to Mantis Section, a combination military intelligence service, agent provocateur corps, and political assassination operation. And that’s going to give Sten his leverage against the Company.

We don’t learn a great deal about the shadowy Emperor (though much is hinted at), except that he’s been around for 2,000 years (it’s the 40th century now), and he controls his vast empire through his monopoly on Antimatter Two, the energy source behind everything. But you know he’ll be developed further as the saga progresses.

The far-future science here is astutely dealt with by not explaining things in too much detail (always a useful out if properly handled), the social and moral lessons are painted in large letters, and the whole thing is a good deal of adventurous fun. Because the galloping action is the thing. The later books in the saga have become somewhat difficult to locate, but you should make the effort.

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