Dan Dare – Operation Tau Ceti


They're back!!!
They’re back!!!

Thanks to the ongoing endurance and excellence of Spaceship Away, two more complete Dan Dare adventures are now available to be read, and their worthiness to be incorporated in the canon be assessed.
The first of these is another prose novel from New Zealand fan Denis Steeper, whose Report of the Cryptos Commission, with its carefully devised chronology of Dan Dare’s career tends to be my bible for such things. This latest novel has been included with the last five issues of Spaceship Away, comprising five A5 booklets, each of twenty pages.
I was heavily critical of The Invaders of Ixx, which was set well after the Hampson/Watson continuity, for the aggravated cynicism and, to be frank, rampant interculture racism on display so far ahead. Operation Tau Ceti is not unmarked by such things, but is Steeper’s first extended story set within the Dare canon: our hero is still no more than Chief Pilot of Spacefleet, and though the story is set post the Treen Holocaust, with what that implies about the loss of the original Hampsonian innocence, we are still in a world easily recognisable as that we are most used to.
The story is set in 2015. Two years have passed since the return of the Terra Nova expedition, during which time Earth’s World Government (in which the Liberals are still clinging to post-Holocaust power) have been locked in mortal combat with Cosmic over the Halley Drive and every possible offshoot from its discovery. In Thork-space (i.e., Saturn’s sphere of influence) Red Tharl has finally won the Secession Wars and is in control of the Nine Moons.
Though it’s only three years since the end of the Holocaust, Earth is recovering faster than could have been expected. Saturn is still the dominant power in the Solar System, but the signs are already there that Earth will catch it up and surpass it in a decade, and Saturn will never catch up. Despite the legal stalemate with Cosmic, and with the benefit of the many discoveries made among the wrecked spaceships of the Sargasso Sea of Space, Earth has reverse-engineered the Halley Drive. The first starship has been named the William Dare, in honour of Dan’s father, the second will be the Copernicus, after his McHoo co-pilot on the original starship. And, at a secret asteroid base in the Belt, Cosmic have duplicated the Galactic Pioneer.
Unfortunately for all concerned,these developments are not as secret as they ought to be.
The action is precipitated by a clash of Spacefleet and Grand Union ships in the Asteroid Belt, Disputed Territory between the official boundaries of the Inner and Outer Planets. Given that the Thork culture is a richly feudal one, complicated by racial differences between the various colours, there is a certain degree of autonomy among Admirals, continually looking for advantage which, combined with the natural instinct to see the flatfaces as innately inferior, rapidly escalates towards war between Numidol and the Inner Planets.
Actually, it would usually be quite easy to defuse this situation: just get Dan Dare on the line to his old friend Tharl, who probably (and actually) knows nothing of this, and it would all be switched off. But Dan’s not here. At the same time as this skirmish has begun to escalate, a secret thork attack on Cosmic’s secret base has succeeded in space-lifting out of here the Galactic Pioneer II. And it’s gone out-system, towards Tau Ceti. And Dan is commanding the William Dare on immediate instructions to get out after it.
The absurd thing is that, after much thought and calculation, Spacefleet were about to launch on a survey mission to Tau Ceti, as the best of all the potential stars at a similar distance to Terra Nova, with the best prospect of an Earth-type planet. Now, the survey aspect is pushed way down the list: Dan’s top priority instructions are to recover or destroy the Galactic Pioneer II.
Thus the set-up. Steeper deploys his usual technique of multiple, multi-viewpoint scenes, each identified by date and place. He has two parallel strands in motion and flicks backwards and forwards between different elements of each story, which become further entwined when, after Cosmic are placated in order to retrieve Dan via the confiscated Galactic Galleon, Sir Hubert is forced to join the McHoo team. This brings Controller USA Wynard Spencer in as Acting CIC, due to it being Buggins’ turn, and Spencer is an absolute cretin whose completely wrong-headed tactics threaten to open the door to massive Thork victory.
Both stories are built up by confident detail and a careful assembled extrapolation of the real mechanics of Dan’s universe. Steeper is very good on this, and very good also in his imagination of the convoluted Thork personality, which keeps the home system story bubbling along nicely.
But we are here for Dan Dare and, not unincidentally, Earth’s first official interstellar adventure. For crew, he has the old gang, that is, Digby, Anastasia, Hank, Pierre and the Professor. There’s no Flamer Spry (too busy studying for exams) nor Lex O’Malley (too far underwater) and it’s no disrespect to either to say the story is better for not having their implausible presences along, even if much of the action takes place on a substantial moon, named Poseidon for the fact it’s primarily ocean.
Apart from the renegade thorks, who get wiped out eventually by Dan, along with the Galactic Pioneer II, there are two alien races in the Tau Ceti system. Both are colonists. One, the Krevvid, are insignificant in terms of this story, though Steeper takes time to intimate that they could be a problem if their race ever gets to hear of the Solar System. The other are the Pescods, and they’re a problem.
As if this weren’t enough, Steeper takes him to add a related subplot, in the form of a Treen attack on Formby aimed at capturing details of the Copernicus, which gets foiled thanks mainly to former Astral Senior Cadet and SF Resistance leader, Mark Straight. Apart from its illustration of Earth post-Holocaust, this slim subplot is of no great moment, except that it amply demonstrates the sheer panic at the thought of the Mekon getting hold of any information about building a starship.
And not just the Mekon, but any Mekon. The one we know has neither been seen nor heard of since seemingly committing suicide in the Silicon Mass as long ago as The Ship That Lived, but that still doesn’t mean he isn’t out there – or that somewhere, somehow, the Treen breeders have cloned a New Mekon (remember that, as far back as ‘The Venus Story’, twenty years previously in Steeper’s chronology, the next Mekon was fifty years away from coming to maturity.)
Overall, Operation Tau Ceti  was enjoyable, and sat well within the Dan Dare stories to which it is supposed to be contemporary. The post-Holocaust cynicism is there, as is the abrasion between the lifeforms of the Solar System, but it is at an entirely less well-developed stage: Hampson’s original utopianism is still the primary influence. I’d like to see how Steeper might tackle a pre-Holocaust story: there’s still room in the long gap between ‘The Venus Story’ and The Red Moon Mystery, even after allowing for Tim Booth’s The Gates of Eden.
And speaking of Tim Booth, his is the other new story completed in this past eight issues of Spaceship Away, which I’ll be considering next.

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