By Ralph Kern
by Charles Sheffield
by Ryk Brown
by Jennifer Foehner Wells
I am always on the lookout for solar system exploration fic, which is difficult to find, because aliens are king in contemporary space opera. I wish I liked classic SF more than I do; a lot of the old stuff was solar system specific. The oldest I’ll go back is 1990’s/ turn of the turn-of-the-millennium, and even that stuff seems dated. To a book, late 90s solar system fic is cynical. Not the writers; but their characters. The writers are desperate and sad: “We’ve given up on space!” They produced desperate and sad fantasies about characters fighting to get back to space against big odds. Nowadays, we get gee-whiz stories like The Martian, reflecting the greater optimism of the SpaceX and ISS era.
This book, written in 1996, tries hard to inject the pessimism with optimism, but the author has a political ax to grind, and the book has more than a little Fountainhead subtext, a naive belief in the benignness of privatizing not only space ventures, but public education as well.
Although I have my doubts about privatization as some panacea–removing ventures in the public interest from public oversight and lock-stepping the evaluation of their success with the profit motive–I’ve always shared the particular frustrated impatience with government progress in space. It is too cautious, too hamstrung by goal-lessness. But this book peppers its privatization with potshots at NASA, environmentalists, and straw-man liberals.
Which is too bad, because underneath that peppering is an complex near-future (now alt-history) world peopled with interesting characters, and despite me, I’ll probably read the next book in the series.
I give this tour-de-force exploration of one possible answer to the Fermi paradox a 3.5. Better than a three, but not as good as a four. However, there is no 3.5, so four it is. It reminds me, in structure, of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312–a long, meandering novel with multiple characters and story lines, where the plot eeks along at a snail’s pace while entire chapters are turned over to philosophical musings.
Then, in the last quarter of the book, the myopic detail of the story lines is dumped to take a different point of attack on resolving the larger story, leaving the emotional payoff of the original story lines hanging, to be resolved by various, off the cuff “tellings,” rather than “showings.” This is frustrating, although you do find out what happened to the characters, and the ultimate message of the novel is positive.
I’ve decided that, “My science fiction is pasted on, yay!” stories make me cranky. These are stories that could just have easily have been set in early 21st century Earth, but are instead plopped onto another planet, or a ship or station in space. The mechanisms of travel between stars aren’t even hand-waved, they’re just not mentioned at all. The aliens are Obscure, or are referred to as “human.”
Renata Ghali is a complex character, and even I was taken in by Sung Suh’s mild manner, but that doesn’t make this story any less an episode of Hoarders set in a town so small it’s boggling that no one could have known about a community leaders/home-builders problem for over twenty years.
Yes, buried secrets (literally). Stress. A mysterious alien artifact. But all that leads up to one of those obscure endings that leaves you not satisfied, but scratching your head wondering how to interpret exactly what happened.