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Book Review: Up Against It, by M. J. Locke

A Heinlein-esque adventure that skirts the boundary between hard and soft sci-fi and between adult and YA fiction.

Up Against It

Tor, 2011, 416 pages

Geoff and his friends live in Phocaea, a distant asteroid colony on the Solar System's frontier. They're your basic high-spirited young adults, enjoying such pastimes as hacking matter compilers to produce dancing skeletons that prance through the low-gee communal areas, using their rocket-bikes to salvage methane ice shrapnel that flies away when the colony brings in a big (and vital) rock of the stuff, and figuring out how to avoid the ubiquitous surveillance motes that are the million eyes of 'Stroiders, a reality-TV show whose Earthside producers have paid handsomely for the privilege of spying on every detail of the Phocaeans' lives.

Life isn't as good as it seems, though. A mysterious act of sabotage kills Geoff's brother, Carl, and puts the entire colony at risk. And in short order, we discover that the whole thing may have been cooked up by the Martian mafia, as a means of executing a coup and turning Phocaea into a client-state. As if that wasn't bad enough, there's a rogue AI that was spawned during the industrial emergency and slipped through the distracted safeguards, and a giant X-factor in the form of the Viridians, a transhumanist cult that lives in Phocaea's bowels.

In addition to Geoff, our story revolves around Jane, the colony's resource manager - a bureaucrat engineer in charge of keeping the plumbing running on an artificial island of humanity poised on the knife-edge of hard vacuum and unforgiving space. She's more than a century old, and good at her job, but she is torn between the technical demands of the colony and the political realities of her situation, in which the fishbowl effect of 'Stroiders is compounded by a reputation economy that turns every person into a beauty-contest competitor. Her maneuverings to keep politics and engineering in harmony are the heart of the book.

Up Against It is evidence of what's wrong with the publishing industry, and not because the book is bad -- quite the contrary.

While it's being billed as a "debut novel," this is a bit of a publisher's white lie: "Morgan J. Locke" is actually the pen name of SF author Laura J. Mixon. Mixon has published several SF novels previously (which I have not read), but evidently they did not sell well, and nowadays an author with an inert backlist is kind of unsellable. Pretty much the only way to rejuvenate your career is to publish under a new name. And in Ms. Mixon's case, under a name that implies a male author. ("M.J. Locke's" web presence is also carefully gender-neutral.)

I'm not judging her for taking that route, I just think it's a sad commentary. Also, to be clear, I'm not accusing her of being dishonest. It's obviously not a secret that M.J. Locke is Laura Mixon, but it's equally obvious that a thin facade has been erected to prevent SF fans from avoiding her new book for fear of girl cooties.

'Cause Up Againt It is exactly the sort of SF novel that hardcore SF nerds should enjoy: it's full of physics and engineering and rocket bikes and hawt sexy transhumanists and space mafia and nanotechnology and rogue AIs and all kinds of other sci-fi goodness.

If the book has a flaw, it's that it's trying too damn hard to have maximum appeal, which is why I found the split POV between Jane, the middle-aged resource manager of Phoecea colony, and Geoff, the teenage boy hero, to be just plain annoying at times. It was pretty darn obvious that Jane is the real main character and the one that "Locke" really wanted to write about, and she's a hell of a lot more interesting. She has a career and a family, she's a savvy engineer and diplomat with decades of experience playing political and bureaucratic games, and saving Phoecea colony is really up to her. She's genuinely bad-ass without ever strapping on a blaster, and you can tell that the author (Mixon is also an engineer) enjoyed writing a character who's a bit of a self-insert, but never came off as Mary Sue-ish.

Geoff, on the other hand, is likeable enough but his character was pretty flat by comparison, and his heroism mostly comes about as a result of repeatedly being in the wrong place at the right time. Chapters are split between Jane trying to save the colony from bureaucratic and political destruction, and Geoff and his friends zooming about in the asteroid belt dodging Martian gangsters. I thought Jane's political maneuverings were more interesting. I know you need to add some action in a SF novel, but I could not help seeing Geoff's arc as the publisher saying, "Ya really oughta add something to reel in the YA crowd."

Again, I can't blame Locke for doing it (and I'm also speculating, though her Big Idea column on John Scalzi's site also gave me the impression that Jane came first and Geoff was an afterthought), but the implications are kind of unfortunate.

There is also just a little too much packed into one book. Let's face it, the publisher's description above is kind of all over the place. Up Against It brings up questions of humanity, with a cult of transhumanists, a rogue AI struggling for the right to exist, and the looming prospect of the Singularity, and it alludes to today's obsession with reality TV, as the entire Phocaea colony basically lives in a Big Brother House-type environment (minus the evictions), plus there are corporate and political and criminal adversaries, family drama, and survival, but its heart is pure old-school sci-fi of the sort Heinlein wrote when he wasn't wanking. The main plot involves an interplanetary criminal syndicate trying to take over Phocaea by hook and by crook, and Jane and Geoff trying to stop them, each in their separate ways. The SF is pretty much old-school too, just updated with contemporary speculative science.

I've seen Up Against It shelved as "Young Adult" in a couple of places, but it's really not a YA novel despite the presence of teenage protagonists. The writing, the plotting, and the science definitely places it in the category of adult SF. You know, the sort of stuff YA SF fans used to read.

Verdict: While not the most brilliant or imaginative SF I've read all year, Up Against It is classic sci-fi in the best way, with a mix of characters from seasoned engineers to young hot-heads, and plenty of action and intrigue on an asteroid colony in the outer solar system. Fans of Heinlein's juveniles or any of the old-school authors (Clarke, Asimov, Niven, etc.) should find this an enjoyable read. It's also a completely self-contained novel, though there is certainly potential for a sequel.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Dec. 22nd, 2011 02:31 am (UTC)
I think I read a sample of this, but it didn't grab me. Sadly, while I know I read the sample, I don't remember a lick of it!
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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