Daniel Graham, Jr.
The Gatekeepers (1995)
Reviewed: 1997-09-13

Not bad for a first novel. Daniel Graham, Jr., son of one of the originators of the American SDI project (Strategic Defense Initiative, also dubbed Star Wars), tells the story of one determined industrialist seizing space using only (almost) presently available technology. A bit too far-reaching for a mainstream techno-thriller, a bit too unspectacular for the SF readers, and encumbered with politics weighing it down like lead, The Gatekeepers may turn out to be a book looking for its audience.

Rolf Bernard is the president of BAP Inc., a large aerospace company and long time NASA and U.S. defense contractor, which developed the Felix SSTO (single stage to orbit, i.e. fully reusable) space craft. (Felix's resemblance to McDonnell Douglas's DC-X is certainly no accident, and, interestingly, MacDac is the only major American aerospace company never mentioned by name in the book.) Obstructed by the government's monopoly on access to space, NASA's sluggishness and effective inability to advance America's space program, harassed by hare-brained Washington bureaucrats, Bernard takes matters firmly into his own hands. Combining BAP's Felix craft, the Brilliant Pebbles anti-ballistic missile defense system built as a secret government contract, and a long-neglected solar power satellite, he aims to replace the government's monopoly with his own: offering incredibly cheap transportation to low Earth orbit thanks to a small fleet of Felix craft; providing cheap and safe solar power collected in space, beamed down and collected as microwaves on Earth; and shutting out any competition with the deployed and armed Pebbles intercepting any non-cleared rocket to rise into orbit.

The list of institutions and companies whose vested interests Bernard's plan runs counter to is long and self-evident, providing for some theoretically formidable, in practice embarrassingly dumb opposition. The scheming, plotting, and superficial introduction of the technological goodies is supplemented by the obligatory human interest story, in this case Bernard's relationship to his estranged wife. Graham adds to the already rich choir of voices in the American space enthusiast community criticizing NASA as the biggest impedance to a successful start into the space age. By its very subject, The Gatekeepers is open to political controversy. Who should hold access to space and thus to the future of the nation or even mankind? Can the government monopoly be justified any longer considering the growing record of mismanagement? Free enterprise versus state control? Rolf Bernard's outbreak likening government to organized crime, an interesting comparison I have occasionally entertained myself, moves the political component from implicit to explicit.

There are shortcomings to the novel. It is marred by an unjustifiable American patriotism that may go down well with its U.S. audience but is a slap into the face of readers elsewhere, and there is an anachronistic lingering Cold War attitude. The references to current world politics will read stale in a few years time. The novel is disappointingly short on exposition of the technology it rests on, casting doubt on the claim of its current availability. The spy stuff is clichéd, and some details, like detecting a phone tap in the central office by waving around a few instruments like a magic wand, while taken for granted in the genre, are just too ridiculous. As the last page is turned, the reader is left with an unsatisfyingly ambiguous ending. Most of all, The Gatekeepers looks like a bad case of preaching to the converted.

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