My review of this unpublished book was written in the fall of 1996 and appeared in both L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise and Prometheus, the newsletter of the Libertarian Futurist Society. After several reviews equally glowing, and after several established science fiction writers badgered their publishers on Victor Koman's behalf, three publishers expressed a desire to consider or reconsider the book. As of October 1997, however, it's still available only in electronic form from pulpless.com.
KINGS OF THE HIGH FRONTIER
By Victor Koman
Reviewed by Claire Wolfe
Scenario: A talented novelist gives up his art after 20 years of struggle. His books have had only slim success, and their controversial, freedom-oriented themes have sent publishers scurrying for cover. When, frustrated and beaten, he disappears from public view, he leaves behind one, last, sweeping novel -- by far his greatest work -- which no publisher will touch.
If this sounds like a premise from an Ayn Rand novel...if you'd expect to find this guy healing his heart in Galt's Gulch, think again. This is real life. This is science fiction writer Victor Koman, who has, in fact, given up his craft after working 10 years on a great, unpublishable novel. And this is a tragedy. But it's a tragedy you and I could reverse though application of some good old Randian self-interest and a little networking. (More about that in a minute.)
Koman's first two solo novels, The Jehovah Contract and Solomon's Knife, deserve a place on every libertarian's bookshelf . For that matter, they deserve to reside on the bookshelves of iconoclasts of all persuasions. The Jehovah Contract, which follows an assassin as he carries out a contract to kill God, and Solomon's Knife, which proposes a medical solution to the abortion debate, operate in a realm of ideas where there's something to bust anyone's paradigms.
Go find them if you haven't already. But that's the past. Now, the future. And the future as Koman presents it in his latest (and last?) book, Kings of the High Frontier, is...well, it's just darned flipping awesome.
Kings is about the death of NASA and a rowdy, energetic, free-enterprise scramble into space -- specifically, about a race to launch the first manned, single-stage-to-orbit rocket.
THE NEAR FRONTIER
The time is the very near future. The characters are a crowd of independent souls ranging from a flamboyant billionaire pilot to a young NASA astronaut, torn between loyalty to her agency and a deeper passion for space. Davy Crockett IV, distant relative of the original, strides around New York City in a buckskin jacket, stealing materials and recruiting a crew of graduate students and gang members to carry out his vision of a space vehicle. (Rarely has a crew been more motley.) Quiet, respectable Gerry Cooper labors decades in obscurity to get financing for his more conventional project. Crusty Ace Roberts plods away, alone, building a rocket from surplus parts.
If you're a libertarian, SF fan, or follower of private rocketry, you'll recognize many real-world characters. (I won't give any away, except to say that a certain Ft. Collins, Colorado "journalist" and firearms aficionado named Joseph Lester should be pretty familiar.)
Private-enterprise space buffs will also recognize the various rocket designs lovingly described in the book. I didn't. I stopped paying attention to current space efforts after NASA managed to make them boring, so I thought the rocket designs in Koman's book were fantasies -- until I learned that every one of them is either on the drawing board or in prototype somewhere in the free-enterprise world.
Will these real-world rockets ever make it off the ground? Or will they be halted by NASA machinations, EPA regulations, security agency paranoia, congressional shenanigans and journalistic turpitude? It is these very real, very pertinent, very now questions Victor Koman answers in Kings of the High Frontier.
The book is a scorching indictment of NASA that would, in any just universe, bring that agency to its knees and set off precisely the kind of race to freedom Kings posits. Koman describes all the "routine" ways in which NASA has delayed and damaged space exploration while pretending to promote it. Then with gut-twisting truth he tells the grisly, hidden stories behind the deaths of the Challenger crew members and Apollo astronauts Chaffee, Grissom and White. With horror and compassion he describes a future NASA disaster -- a fictional event so vivid you'll want to run from the exploding mass hurtling toward you across the spaceport.
Kings is a novel that inspires all the typical reviewers' cliches. It's "sweeping," "magnificent," "a brilliant romp," "audacious," "outrageous" and "powerful."
But I'm going to go farther than that. I'm going to go way out on that limb. I'm going to utter that cliché we libertarian bibliophiles have heard before -- and have always heard wrong: Kings of the High Frontier is the Atlas Shrugged of the nineties. This time, I think its true. It's the one we've been waiting for. The one that could make a difference.
AYN RAND LIVES?
Kings is close in size to Atlas (but without the 65-page speeches -- Oh, thank you, Victor!). The action is as sweeping. Most of the characters are more believable. The philosophical grounding is as strong. The plot is as much a page-turner as Rand's masterpiece.
But the most cogent comparison lies in what each of these books has the power to achieve. Kings isn't just about space flight, any more than Atlas was just about the railroad business. It's about what human beings can accomplish in freedom, and about what human beings must accomplish if we are to survive and thrive. As one character says, "The earth has been my backyard and now I want to jump the fence! Humans are nomads. We have been for millions of years....we can't fight it now that we've made the planet a sardine can. If we resist the urge, we'll go insane. We are going insane. As a race, as a people."
Like Atlas, Kings has the power to open one's eyes to possibilities and fill one with the desire to fight for the dream of living free.
You'll feel Rand's influence in every chapter -- something Koman readily admits, and which in no way detracts from his accomplishment.
The Fountainhead is definitely here. There are moments when rocketeer Gerry Cooper could be Howard Roark. (And other moments in which he emphatically is not.) The egregious "elder statesman of space," Barry Gibbon, is Ellsworth Toohey reborn. Atlas Shrugged also makes an appearance. Look for a mysteriously Galt-ish character, and enjoy the moment in which would-be space tour operator, Leora Thane, (echoing the memorable cry first applied to Rand's John Galt Line) declares, "Build the damned thing so we can gouge the bastards!"
Look also for Victor Koman. "[The character Paul Volnos's] childhood is my childhood," he says. And so are Paul's aspirations toward space. Koman's personal desire for the stars and sense of betrayal by NASA give power to every word he writes: "I remember as a child the awe of reading Rocket Ship 'Galileo' and marveling at the idea of building a spaceship in one's own backyard. I wanted to be an astronaut and was one of NASA's most fervent supporters. Then came the inevitable statist letdown: the end of Apollo. I knew then that there was no chance of the government ever getting me into space....I became a writer instead."
Is this book perfect? No. In a few places, characters' motivations are muddy. In another, a minor character appears full-blown, having never been introduced. By the time Koman reveals the identities of two mystery characters, an alert reader will already have solved the puzzles. But these are small awkwardnesses.
Unfortunately, one of Kings' greatest virtues is -- in the eyes of those would-be publishers -- a huge flaw indeed. Kings is an explicit, unapologetic, radical, hardcore libertarian work. Furthermore, it doesn't stop to justify its philosophy to the uninitiated. (If you can't figure out how a drug smuggler could be one of the good guys, too bad.) Rand's endless philosophy lessons are replaced by a few stunningly eloquent statements and a lot of action. Koman's message to political newcomers is: Get on, take the ride, and you'll find out what its about along the way.
But now. I said no publisher would touch this book. "Too long," they've told its author. "Not futuristic enough." "No interest in NASA." So why tease you about a book you can't buy at any bookstore?
Well, thanks to our blessed Internet, we who give a damn about freedom -- and about good writing -- don't have to pray at the shrine of New York publishing houses to enjoy Kings. We can go get it for ourselves. Kings is available in HTML format from pulpless.com, the tiny online book dealership operated by writer and past Prometheus Award winner, J. Neil Schulman. The price is only $3.50.
Few people have read Kings; few know about it. When I downloaded it in August , I was number eight on the list of buyers. The list is still far, far too small. We can do ourselves a favor, create a publishing revolution, and maybe even get Victor Koman back where he belongs, by going to the site, buying the book, and telling everybody we know about this hidden jewel.
To access Kings, you'll need web browsing software like Netscape. Payment an be made online via credit card or e-cash. Other payment options are available by special arrangement with the webmaster.
Once you've got Kings in your computer, you'll need a couple of long evenings without any early a.m. alarms. Because I guarantee you, you're going to be up all night reading this one.© Claire Wolfe.
Permission to reprint freely granted, provided the article is reprinted in full and that any reprint is accompanied by this copyright statement.
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20 November, 1997