Daniel Graham Jr.
The Gatekeepers was a book I eyed for some time in Forbidden Planet before actually buying it, despite the extremely good cover. (Baen has a long history of excellent covers.) I thought the plot sounded fascinating and I have to admit that I enjoyed reading the book. At the same time, in retrospect, I am also far too aware of its flaws.
As the story starts, the hero of the book – Rolf Bernard – is developing a viable form of Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) technology. Unfortunately, Bernard is having financial problems caused by obstructive bureaucrats from NASA, the Pentagon and the rest of the government. His company, BAP, is in serious danger of losing everything before he manages to get into space – to stay. Luckily, Rolf has a plan.
Reasoning that space is unclaimed, Rolf manages to use his spacecraft to put a Brilliant Pebbles system in orbit, one capable of shooting down any rocket launched without his permission. Once installed, his plan is to charge a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) access fee to anyone who wants to get into space without using his spacecraft. He also launches a Solar Power Satellite to prove that the concept of SPS actually works. Naturally, things don’t go entirely according to plan.
I have mixed feelings about Rolf himself. I share the space dream (see this article) and I fully understand his determination to push ahead with getting into space, no matter what the bureaucrats have to say about it. On the other hand, Rolf skirts outright treason once or twice and may well cross the line completely when he launches the Pebbles into orbit. He does get good lines, though; when a Congressman demands to know if he is showing contempt, he counters that he is trying hard not to show his contempt. A bit later on, he compares government to organised crime, a view I have some sympathy with. On the other hand, however, Rolf could attempt to change the government and this is one thing he doesn’t even try.
Problems arise when the author tries to weld other plotlines into the main story. Rolf’s wife is estranged from him and, after the Pebbles system is placed in orbit, she has to be rescued from France by Rolf’s best friend. This and a brief espionage plotline adds nothing to the overall plot, apart from a chance to take some cheap digs at the French.
I also have mixed feelings about the ending of the story. It is dramatic, but so ambiguous that it is hard to tell if Rolf came out ahead or not. It could be argued (as one of the characters does) that Rolf won; the new age of space has begun, no matter what NASA may say about it. On the other hand, he doesn’t get to keep his position of total power. But then, maybe that is for the best.
The book reads rather dated in some ways, unsurprisingly. (It was published in 1995.) There are nods to Cold War politics that no longer apply and other details that are probably just best skimmed over. Mind you, it does note the rise of Islamist terror (a valid concern in 1995, even though it is tempting to ignore it until 9/11) and speculates on how they would react to a chance to lock the world out of space.
Overall, the book does have problems caused by switching between genres. It tries to be a SF novel, but also a technothriller and political novel – neither fish nor fowl nor good red hen. But it is definitely worth at least one read.