One of the many pleasures of summer reading is the serendipitous discovery of new authors. Since I have raley read much science fiction since my boyhood, I had missed the ascendance of Jerry Oltion (born 1957). Fortunately, I have just come accross his delightful 2001 novel, The Getaway Special.
Few books would better define summer reading than The Getaway Special, the very theme of which is escape. It is the story of NASA space shuttle pilot Judy Gallagher and what happens when research scientist Allen Meisner tests his new invention, a hyperdrive that enables spacecraft to travel light-years through space in the blink of an eye.
Meisner is a member of INSANE, the International Network of Scientists Against Nuclear Extermination. He believes that hyperdrive technology available to the masses will drive humankind’s pioneer spirit, and people will travel through the vastness of space in homemade space craft, populating the universe and ensuring that humanity survives possible nuclear extinction here on earth. While on the shuttle, and with Gallagher’s help, Meisner broadcasts the secrets of his hyperdrive, which can easily be made with parts at the local Radio Shack.
Instead of being hailed as heroes upon their return, Gallagher and Meisner become fugitives – it seems that the US wants to cover up the whole thing as a hoax and keep the technology for themselves; similarly, governments around the world believe that easy access to off-planet escape technology would greatly reduce the control of people entrapped by their own nations and governments.
Hiding in the American Midwest, the couple are befriended by a redneck cowboy libertarian, his wife, and a friendly Robin Hoodesque bank robber. With their help -- and with some easily available around the home parts and a well-stocked septic tank (don’t ask) – they leave the earth in search of habitable planets.
In space, further than any human being has ever traveled before, they encounter a race of super-intelligent, space-travelling butterflies, sentient trees that uproot themselves and move around, and … a submarine full of belligerent Frenchmen.
As you can tell from this quick synopsis, The Getaway Special is a lark, designed to amuse and entertain – which is does wonderfully. It is a very funny book (a rarity in science fiction), and is ultimately extremely humanistic and optimistic (a rarity in contemporary science fiction).
While reading The Getaway Special, I had the curious feeling of renewing an acquaintance, and then it hit me – in mode of storytelling and imaginative prowess, Oltion was writing a book very much in the vein of L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels. Like the Oz novels, our heroine and her male friend (often inadequate in some way), travel far and meet a serious of outlandish peoples, who eventually help them return home and resolve the problems that sent them on the road to begin with. In short, Oltion has written an extremely amusing children’s book for adults.
When looking at Edgar Rice Burroughs yesterday, we said that science is really always about the time in which it is written, and not the future. That is certainly true here – released before September 11th, The Getaway Special is frank and honest about how severe a compromise to American interests would be viewed. However, Your Correspondent read it with a trace of nostalgia – there was still some semblance of law and checks-and-balances of power at play in the novel, and one imagines that today that our heroes would have been shot out of space while broadcasting the hyperdrive specs.
Also interesting is the politics at play. Oltion seems to appreciate the often good sense of the Right to perceive real and present threats, while also giving credence to the Left and its belief that the vast majority of human beings want the same things. (And with a forest of sentient trees, Oltion is literally a tree-hugger.) And one of the more heroic characters (indeed, the one perhaps most responsible for humanity’s eventual survival … is a beer-guzzling libertarian in a cowboy hat.
Oltion’s work is new to me (though he has been active for some time), and I will happily seek out other books. I was also amused to learn that there is more than a little Allen Meisner in him. Oltion is the inventor of the trackball telescope, an equatorial mounting system with an electromechanical star tracking drive. He has put the patent-able portions of it on his Website, making his invention accessible to other telescope makers.