Space Cops: High Moon

Space Cops: High Moon by Diane Duane and Peter Morwood
Avon Books, 1992
Price I paid: $1.50


THEY DREAM OF WORLD CONQUEST: The Red Dawn—a radical band of space outlaws dedicated to destruction.

THEY HOLD THE TOOL OF CHAOS: A decoder prototype stolen from the Solar Patrol—rendering the security apparatus of the elite, interplanetary peacekeeping force ineffective. Now, unless Rangers Joss O’Bannion and Evan Glyndower can recover the device, their home world, Mars, is doomed.

THEY WAIT IN TOMBSTONE: A violent and lawless “Wild West” ghost town reborn on the dark side of the red planet—drawing O’Bannion and Glyndower, outmanned and outgunned, into a high-powered shootout that threatens to put Star Wars to shame.

Here it is, the shocking finale to the Space Cops trilogy! Hooray! Finally! It’s here! Huzzah! Etc!

And only a day late! Sorry about that! I have a litany of excuses and I will spare you all of them.

So I was going back over the previous reviews and I noticed something kind of funny. It turns out that I started reading the second book, Kill Station, after having started another book and then giving up on it because of reasons. I know there’s no way to prove it, but the same thing happened this time! Entirely by coincidence! In fact, it’s slightly more complicated than that, because I had decided to read the third Space Cops novel, but then I realized that review day this week was Valentine’s Day, so maybe I’d ought to put it aside and dive back into the romance genre, right?

So I started looking around, rather on short notice. Nothing was jumping out at me. I finally narrowed it all down to something paranormal, but I wanted to avoid vampires and werewolves and see about something more interesting like a mummy or a Frankenstein. And lo, I did find something neat! I don’t want to call it out so I won’t say what it was. But it wasn’t one of those things. I will say that it dated to 200X.

Anyway, I got about five pages in and it was so mean spirited and insulting on a purely personal level—namely it started by mocking an overweight balding guy in his thirties who likes to play video games—that I decided to give it up and go back to Space Cops. It probably says something unflattering about me that I’m able to read all sorts of books that are hateful to people who aren’t like me and look at them objectively, but whatever. I was in no mood, and for what it’s worth, I’m getting sick of those kinds of book as well. It’s been over a year since my last Penetrator novel, I just noticed.

Anyway, enough about that.

No, this week we’re going to talk about the conclusion of a series that I have found consistently entertaining and delightful. Yeah, they’re nineties as hell. And yeah, they’re at least borderline copaganda. But they’re also well-written and engrossing, with good characterization and plotting. I’ve said it before but I’ll repeat it, I have a ton of respect for Diane Duane as an author and as a human being, since I follow her social media and have enjoyed a few of her Star Trek novels. I can’t don’t know as much about Peter Morwood, and perhaps I ought to change that. Still, based on these novels and the fact that Diane Duane has been married to him since 1987, he seems like he’s probably an good fella.

While High Moon certainly has an excellent title, that title, along with everything else on the cover, is misleading. That title makes it sound like the book will take place on The Moon, or perhaps at least A Moon, but no, it in fact takes place entirely on Mars. Phobos and Deimos make appearances, but they do not have any role to play in the plot.

And the back matter is wrong as hell. I’m going to have some fun today and break it down bit by bit.

The Red Dawn—a radical band of space outlaws dedicated to destruction.

For something that leads the back matter, it turns out that The Red Dawn was barely a plot element at all. It comes up in the last fifty or so pages of the novel, and it feels entirely unearned. For the rest of the book, Rangers O’Bannion and Glyndower (pronounced Gloondooer because he’s Welsh) are running around in various directions, getting pulled by failed assassination attempts, liquor bootlegging, protection rackets, successful assassination attempts (I guess those are just called assassinations), missing persons, a stolen communications satellite, and some very large deadly guns.

It’s a lot.

And the fact that all of this stuff gets rolled up into “There’s a group called The Red Dawn” behind it in the last 20% of the book feels kinda cheap.

Yes, the book does reference the fact that there was once a movie named Red Dawn. One of our space cops, Joss, is big into 20th century pop culture.

And are they space outlaws, dedicated to destruction? I don’t know! These folks are so barely developed, I don’t know what their deal is. It’s never explicitly stated, just hinted at and recollected. They’re a political organization, that much is certain. They are at one point called “democratic socialists,” which is kind of funny, considering that their chief motivation is “Mars for Marsmen”-type isolationism. I’m not here to start any leftist infighting, but I’m a member of DSA and the IWW and my particular brand is pretty internationalist. Borders are a fake idea!

Some fearful thinking on the part of our protags led me to figure that they were expecting these particular socialists to be a bit more, uh, national. Images of “fake Martians” being rounded up, and so forth.

But none of that is justified by anything The Red Dawn actually does in the book, which consists almost entirely of having a big scary gun and losing.

A decoder prototype stolen from the Solar Patrol—rendering the security apparatus of the elite, interplanetary peacekeeping force ineffective.

So this is what kicks off the book. O’Bannion and Glyndower are on vacation on Mars when they get told that a piece of advanced communications technology has disappeared, along with the Solar Patrol ship that was carrying it, in Martian orbit. Vacation is cancelled.

I don’t think that the technology would render anything ineffective, however. It’s more of a prototype, very expensive and high-tech, the next step in making sure that communications are super secret, but losing it won’t likely do anything to the systems currently in place. Just a bit of hyperbole.

Now, unless Rangers Joss O’Bannion and Evan Glyndower can recover the device, their home world, Mars, is doomed.

I might be wrong but I don’t think anywhere does it state that Mars is the homeworld of either of these guys. Evan seems to be more familiar with it, having had missions here in the past. Joss is pretty much out of his element for most of the book when it comes to Martian stuff.

And is Mars doomed if they don’t find the communications satellite? I’m pretty sure that’s somehow more hyperbolic and less hyperbolic at the same time. I guess the word for that is just wrong. I already established that this particular bit of tech isn’t, like, a giant bomb or anything. It’s just expensive and techy. I do believe as the book progresses we discover that the bad guys have figured out how to use it to send fake messages to our guys that look like orders from home base, so yeah, I guess it’s bad that the communications network of the Solar Patrol is cracked, but it’s not going to kill anything directly.

And at the same time, the danger there is bigger than just Mars. The Solar Patrol covers the whole blinkin’ Solar System, so even if “Mars is doomed,” it’s only doomed because everywhere else is.

A violent and lawless “Wild West” ghost town reborn on the dark side of the red planet

So a good bit of the book does take place at a Martian settlement named Tombstone. But it’s not violent and lawless. There’s a sheriff who apparently did a good job until he’s killed near the start of the book. The people there are friendly enough, and generally seem to take care of one another. The Martian police are pretty useless though, mainly because they’re underfunded. Or maybe they’re funded perfectly well and just complain a lot and don’t do their jobs except to brutalize people and uphold the status quo. That would be a twist.

I guess the violence and lawlessness turn out to be a gang called “Harry Smyth’s Boys” or something like that, who ultimately turn out to be a front for The Red Dawn. All that largely has to do with the price of liquor on Mars. It costs a lot to ship it up from Earth, and for some reason that I might have missed, it’s illegal to make it on Mars? Like, I recall nothing about any legal Martian distilleries springing up anywhere—everybody post fun names for Martian liquors in the comments!—so everybody is doing at-home illegal distilling. But the authorities are so far away and/or ineffective that it’s basically okay to sell it to the bar in town. But also the “Smyth Boys” want a monopoly on the homebrew liquors and so threaten and extort people to work for them. That’s the trail we’re led down for the first half, two-thirds of the book, and ultimately it turns out not to matter very much.

And finally, there is no “dark side of the red planet.” What the hell does that even mean? Mars isn’t somehow tidally-locked with Earth. A Martian Sol is a little longer than an Earth day, about 24 hours and 37 minutes. There’s not some mysterious side of Mars that we never get to see. To be fair to Duane and Morwood, this bit of scientific poop is limited to the back of the book only, and I’m sure they had nothing to do with it.

drawing O’Bannion and Glyndower, outmanned and outgunned, into a high-powered shootout that threatens to put Star Wars to shame.

Geez book, don’t undersell yourself!

After running around Mars looking at various plot threads until they all kind of come together unsatisfyingly when one of the guys reads a political broadside in a dry goods store, they do end up in a big shootout at Red Dawn’s underground base. But it’s more than just our fellas involved. They get the Space Forces involved, so we end up with a big spaceship and some dudes in mech suits. Their suits are even better than the one that Evan wears, because they’re military, but it’s okay because Evan’s suit breaks down in the book so he gets to borrow a military one. Also Joss, who is completely untrained in mech suits, gets to wear one because it’s safer, I guess? They could have just left him on the spaceship.

For their part, the bad guys have got railguns. Two, in fact, mounted on tanks. They’re big and scary guns that’ll punch a clean hole right through a spaceship, accurate enough to hit it in orbit, and, uh, swively enough that you can hit other stuff with it too. Like dudes in mech suits. Also, armored.

And that’s largely what the shootout features. Lots of dudes get punched straight through by railgun bullets. Other than that, this threatens Star Wars about as much as a kitten would.

 I WIL PUT U 2 SHAME; STAR WARS | made w/ Imgflip meme maker
Cat source

In keeping with the relatively light-hearted nature of this series, the day is saved when Joss—the one who never uses a mech suit and has a couple of hours’ training in one—jumps around a lot because he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He basically uses the same strategy to survive this firefight that I use to play chess. He comically bounces around, trying to figure out how to pick the gun he wants, and sure enough, his bounces land him right next to one of the bad guy tanks, just in time for him to learn how to use the suit’s minigun. He blows off the door of the tank and then uses that tank to shoot the other tank, and the day is basically saved.

There’s a mop-up operation of the Red Dawn base, and in a surprise twist that I guess was hinting at yet another sequel, it’s revealed that this base is extremely old and full of Martin artifacts. Like, nonhuman Martians. Whaaaaat!?

Actually the book hints at stuff like this throughout, but there’s so much other stuff going on that it’s lost in the pile. The biggest hint we have at pre-human activity on Mars is the existence of a thing called The Strip. The Strip is a piece of metal, kilometers long and about a half a foot wide, of rusty iron, stretching across the Martian surface. Nobody knows where it came from and plenty believe that it’s some kind of a hoax. The fact that it’s rusty means that it’s been there a long time, though. It’s a source of debate, of tourism, and in some cases, of profit for people who pirate pieces of it to sell to artifact hunters.

There’s also a reference to the famous Face on Mars, and the fact that it’s gone now and nobody knows where it went.

But these artifacts in The Red Dawn’s base are (apparently) undeniable evidence of a Martian civilization. At least, no arguments to the contrary are presented. Personally, I think it would be a solid propaganda move for this Mars First organization to manufacture a fake history that they could hearken back to and emulate. If only there were some examples from Earth history to prove my point…nah, it could never happen.

Anyway, that’s all the stuff I can think to mention just based on the outlandishly wrong back cover text for this book. I must say, this one disappointed me a little. The story flagged pretty bad compared to its predecessors. I get the feeling that Duane and Morwood had a three-book deal on this series and hammered this one out to get on to the next project. Either that, or they just ran out of steam and chose not to write another one based on that. Either way, no shade. I get it.

And for all that, the book did have plenty of competence to admire. Our space cops are presented as good friends who respect each other’s differences even while they get on one another’s’ nerves. It’s a buddy cop book, in space! And it’s fine for all that. The tone works, lighthearted while not being over-the-top goofy. Joss makes a ton of references to 20th century culture that Evan doesn’t understand (he keeps calling them “obscure quotes” but they’re stuff like the tagline to Alien) and that’s fine. It doesn’t turn into Ready Player One. And there’s a bit that made me legit chuckle when Evan was trying to remember a “vid” that Joss made him watch about a guy in a “TURDIS.”

I guess I was hoping that, as a finale, this book would be a bit bigger in scale or drama or something. Maybe do something with all those hints toward Martian civilization. But it never really resolved that way and I was left cold. Maybe if The Red Dawn had ever felt like a credible threat beyond having a couple of weird guns, or if they’d been in the book longer than the last fifth of it, or something. It just felt like they showed up and I was supposed to be scared of them for no reason. It felt like maybe our authors were gunning for that kind of threat increase at the last minute, but misjudged it.

I don’t want to throw too many complaints on these authors because I really do think they’re great. The first two books in these series were actual bangers, and I do recommend them. Two out of three ain’t bad! And of course Diane Duane has plenty else to read and admire. I just happen to have a Pocket Star Trek with her name on it, one that I’ve never read, sitting right here waiting for me to start…

5 thoughts on “Space Cops: High Moon

  1. Copaganda? Another new addition to my list of smart-ass neologisms.

    Diane Duane’s work is generally not in my wheelhouse, but I enjoyed Spock’s World. Then again, I’ll read anything about Spock.

    I like the kitten.

    Liked by 1 person

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