Viking, 2012, 432 pages
It is the year 2129 . . . and fame is all that matters
Susan and her friends are celebutantes. Their lives are powered by media awareness, fed by engineered meals, and underscored by cynicism. Everyone has a rating; the more viewers who ID you, the better. So Susan and her almost-boyfriend Derlock cook up a surefire plan: the nine of them will visit a Mars-bound spaceship and stow away. Their survival will be a media sensation, boosting their ratings across the globe.
There’s only one problem: Derlock is a sociopath.
Breakneck narrative, pointed cultural commentary, warm heart, accurate science, a kickass heroine, and a ticking clock . . . who could ask for more?
I totally loved this book, but I fear most of its audience will not.
Pretty clearly, modern YA fiction does not do much for me, because "modern YA fiction" 90% of the time is pretty girls in a prom dress on the cover, histrionic teenagers bleeding emo across the pages inside. Losers in Space is hard science fiction: John Barnes reminds us of that every chapter with detailed diagrams of the Virgo (the space ship on which the characters are trapped) in its orbit around the sun as they desperately try to maneuver themselves first into synchronization with Mars orbit, and then toward a climactic rescue during an Earth approach. Oh, and there's also sex, drugs, and a talking pink elephant. It's simply an awesome book, in fact perhaps despite, not because of, the hard SF, but it's aimed squarely at a market that doesn't seem to like this kind of book nowadays.
John Barnes tried pretty hard to write believable teenagers in this book, and the transformation from "losers" to self-determined Heinleinesque protagonists is executed very well indeed. All the main characters start out as shallow and annoying children in post-pubescent bodies, and most of them are truly young adults, admirable ones, by the end. Sadly, not all of them make it to the end, but space is a harsh place. Especially when you've been lured out there by a psychopath.
Doesn't just lampshade the infodumps, it shines a great big klieg light on them
Let's get the infodumps out of the way with first. Judging by reviews, these just killed the book for a lot of readers. The author begins the book with Notes for the Interested, #0:
Hard SF fans like accuracy, they like to learn things, and they like to know what's real and what isn't. So written hard SF uses on form or another of what we call infodumps: lectures about the science, the imaginary world, and so on, either directly or by having characters explain things to each other.
With all due respect, Mr. Barnes, no, while some hard SF fans may be the sort of nerds who like to read science lectures in the middle of their sci-fi (and yes, I know "sci-fi" will annoy the hell out of you :P), most of us just like realistic science fiction. The habit some hard SF authors have of dumping exposition about weaponry and worldbuilding and the physics of their FTL drives with As you know, Bob speeches is something we will suffer for a good story, but that doesn't mean it's what we're looking for. The best authors insert necessary information in a transparent manner. Even Robert Heinlein, when he had the main character giving lessons on astronomy (using a slide rule!) in Starman Jones, kept them brief and to the point.
But Barnes is very enthusiastic about getting kids enthused about space and hard science, while simultaneously realizing that few kids are going to read a book where the characters spend lots of page space lecturing to them about planetary orbits and reaction mass and the like. So he puts the infodumps in page-length "footnotes" scattered throughout the book, called Notes for the Interested, which can be skipped. I will say that some of them were interesting, some not so much, but the thing is, it really would have been possible to cut them from the book entirely, and the fact that they kept interrupting the flow of the chapters (more in the beginning than after the mid-point, by which time he'd already done most of his infodumping) was mildly annoying to me and apparently a deal-breaker for some readers.
But seriously, read the book and skip the notes if you don't find them interesting.
Overriding Media Interest
Losers in Space is set in 2129. The Earth is ruled by PermaPaxParity, which is a curious sort of anti-socialist not-really-capitalist futuristic United Nations. With robots doing almost all the real work, nobody has to work for a living. Everyone on Earth is guaranteed a baseline standard of living that is what someone in the early 21st century would consider luxurious indeed. But along with this universal equality are laws against inherited wealth and extremely flattened social mobility: in order to join the truly wealthy and powerful — to become an "Eenie" in 22nd century slang — you must either pass extremely competitive exams to qualify to become an elite scientist or other super-talented knowledge worker or artist, or else you have to become famous. Really, really famous. There are all kinds of ways to become famous, because the PermaPaxParity society is run on bread and circuses, and you can literally get away with murder if you entertain enough people doing it.
The "losers" (or "Moes" as they call themselves) are nine teenage children of celebrity "Eenies." Their parents are rich and famous, but they won't be unless they can pass those exams, and none of them are good enough. So one of them — Derlock Slabilis, the son of probably the sleaziest lawyer in history — talks the rest into a scheme whereby they will stow away aboard a Mars-bound ship during an academic field trip. Once they've left Earth orbit, it will be too late to turn the ship around, and they figure they can broadcast enough entertaining footage to become famous from their stunt and subsequent dramatic rescue. Instant "Eenie" status, forgiveness of all misdeeds, and with no hard work.
Unfortunately, Derlock is a sociopath and turns out to have his own agenda for making sure that he becomes really, really famous.
Although I was not convinced by the plausibility of the PermaPaxParity society, I did think it was quite clever how Barnes slipped a dystopia into this novel through the back door. There is no more scarcity, everyone gets all the entertainment they can consume, Earth has colonized the solar system — sounds utopian? But if someone rapes or murders you, they can not only get away with it but become rich off of it if they stage it entertainingly enough. It's horrific and plays a big part in the climax, because the law known as "overriding media interest" allows powerful people to commit crimes with virtual impunity, and the main characters have to find a way around the media-imposed silence on their plight.
Heartwarming character growth. And some of them die.
I really, really liked this book. It takes a bunch of vapid annoying characters and makes heroes out of them, tells a rousing sci-fi adventure with believable science (okay, I am not so sure about the talking pink elephant), and delivers drama, sex, vengeance, and heartbreak without angsty emo teenage bullshit. The characters who try to wallow in angsty emo teenage bullshit quickly realize that they don't have that luxury in space. It's like an in-your-face smackdown of all the YA novels in which the driving force for the main characters is angsty emo teenage bullshit.
The real main character is Susan Tervaille, who is the first-person narrator. She's the daughter of a famous actor, and like her fellow "Moes," she's not quite good enough to follow in Daddy's footsteps. As the book begins, she is acting like most celebutante brats: starring in her own sex videos and hooking up with stone-cold crazies like Derlock Slabilis. Susan is talked into Derlock's scheme because she thinks he's totally hot and dangerous (and hooking up with hot, dangerous boys will help make her famous) and also it beats studying for exams. Not a very likable protagonist. We get early hints of the real person underneath, the girl who once loved science and whose favorite aunt is an astronaut, and we also find out about what started to turn her into the person she is now: her best friend, another pretty, science-loving girl named Fleeta, took a drug that turned her into a happy, incurable idiot.
They are joined by Glisters, Stack, Emerald, Marioschke, F.B., and Wychee. Each of these characters begins as little more than a character sketch: Fleeta is the bubbly bimbo, Glisters is the nerdy porn-hound, Stack is the jock bully, Marioschke is a navel-gazing narcissist, etc. They're all pretty shallow and annoying, like most teenagers. They don't all like each other.
Then something goes badly wrong aboard the ship they stowed away on, and their "stunt" turns into a true struggle for survival. Their journey takes the better part of two years, and every one of them shows hidden depths and undiscovered talents. There are betrayals and tragedies that are a stab in the heart, and truly beautiful character growth. And the climax was a rousing "Stick it to The Man" with a surprisingly good and non-disappointing epilogue.
Highly recommended for all YA and SF fans. Yes, you really can skip the infodumps.
Have you read Losers in Space?
Have you read any other books by John Barnes?
Do you like YA novels?
Verdict: This is a fantastic book that would have been more fantastic without the author's only semi-successful attempt to lampshade the infodumps. Full of suspense, clever plot twists, humanity, and heartbreak, it is a great read in the spirit of the best Heinlein juveniles, and an example of YA SF occasionally gotten right.
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