Walt Richmond & Leigh Richmond’s 1970 Gallagher’s Glacier is a standalone science fiction novel.
Humourless, by-the-book Captain Harald Dundee isn’t keen on hiring free-wheeling space engineer N. N. “Dublin” Gallagher, but circumstances give Dundee no choice. Their association is short. Gallagher only wants the gig so that he can strong-arm young Dundee into dropping Gallagher and some equipment on an unremarkable ice asteroid.
His curiosity piqued, Dundee checks in on Gallagher to see what the Space Irishman is doing. It’s straightforward enough: the iceteroid + an obsolete space drive = the first successful non-corporation-owned free trader: Gallagher’s Glacier .
The corporations own both the colonies and the means to reach them.
A) Deploying indenture and monopolistic company stores, corporations maintain control over the colonies while seeming to offer prospective colonists a chance at freedom and prosperity.
B) The corporations control spaceport fees, so can prevent free traders from even leaving the ground. Yes, corporation ships have to pay as well, but those fees go into corporation pockets. It’s a wash for them but a huge barrier to independents.
Gallagher has managed to escape both traps. No doubt some of his methods are not entirely legal (since the regulations are written with corporation welfare in mind) but for the moment, he’s OK. There’s a niche for a loner and Gallagher has found it.
Space captain Dundee (the one who dropped off Gallagher) makes his own discoveries on the colony of Stellamira. He’s outraged at conditions there and resolves to do what he can: write a firmly worded letter to the UN Space Commission. Too bad that he lets this be known before leaving Stellamira. To his immense surprise he is immediately detained and tossed in a cell, where can expect the standard corporation treatment: torture dissidents until they go mad, then institutionalize them for life.
Providentially for Dundee, Gallagher was keeping an eye on the naïve young man. Even better, Gallagher has allied with prostitutes with revolutionary tendencies … as well as their madam, Suzie. Suzie breaks Dundee out of jail (before he can be driven insane) and she and her ladies stage a short, bloody revolution. The entire colonist population flees Stellamira on the Glacier .
Gallagher and his allies have grand plans that extend far beyond rescuing the virtual slaves of one hostile mining world. Dundee didn’t intend to be a revolutionary but it looks like he is one now.
The Richmonds had an interesting working relationship. Leigh reportedly did the light work of typing up their stories while Walt did the heavy lifting of sitting in his chair, telepathically beaming story ideas at Leigh. If I recall the details correctly, such was Walt’s faith in Leigh’s ability to follow his mental direction, he didn’t even double-check the manuscripts before they were mailed off.
I started reading this book with very low expectations. Back in the Disco era, I picked up Richmond books only if there was nothing better to hand. They were purveyors of stock plots and straightforward characters. (Perhaps I was being unfair to the couple; I see one of their pieces, “Poppa Needs Shorts,” made it into Merril’s The 9th Annual of the Year’s Best SF. ) To my surprise,the book was better than I expected. It’s not the greatest SF novel ever, but it turned out to be a pleasant distraction from unpleasant times.
What I liked: the authors paid attention to the engineering challenges of a space ship made mainly of ice. Even in the icy cold of deep space (Glacier avoids spending too much time in habitable zones, to avoid sublimation), the craft isn’t exactly solid. Metal components bend and migrate as the ice flows (which ice does).
The authors also have a fair grasp of the miseries of company towns and the unfairness of systems under which the little guy is free to fail while the government is forever poised to bail out the fat cats if need arises.
(As a result of such systems, Stellamira seems to feature lots of [very indirectly described] brothels, brothels staffed by widows who had no other employment opportunities. There are reasons why Suzie’s sex workers are revolutionaries.)
What I didn’t like: Dundee, the main POV character, is basically an observer. He reports on events which he may not have directly witnessed. He’s also the least interesting character in the book, a cork in someone else’s current. This may have been the authors’ plan; it allows Gallagher to spring some grand surprises, both on adversaries and the reader. But I didn’t think the authorial plan worked. Any one of Suzie’s employees, who fight and die on the front lines, would have made a more interesting POV character than bland Dundee.
The plot itself is rather perfunctory. Having established that company rule is bad, and asserted without much evidence that Earth is Doomed! Doomed, I say! If things keep going as they are, Gallagher and company proceed to up-end corporation rule on another world. Which they do by crashing planetary infrastructure (something that may have triggered catastrophe off-stage). But hey, this is the happy ending!
How the Earth and the corporations react to losing a colony thanks to what amounts to a WMD is up to the reader’s imagination. I couldn’t imagine anything positive, but that’s me.