Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Debris Dreams, by David Colby

A fun but dilute imitation of Heinlein, with extra gay.

Debris Dreams

Candlemark & Gleam, 2012, approx. 72,000 words

In space, one mistake can be deadly...even more so when you’re at war. After a terrorist attack, Spacer teen Drusilla Xao is drafted into a war fought in the cold of space, with no hope of relief or reinforcements. The only thing that keeps her sane is her correspondence with her earthbound girlfriend Sarah, and the dream of one day setting foot on Earth. The hardest part of being conscripted isn't learning to kill – it's learning to survive.

Teenagers in space! My very favorite type of YA story. The only type of YA story that I consistently love. My love for this trope allowed me to enjoy Debris Dreams more than I otherwise might have. David Colby is a very young author and this is his debut novel; as such, it's worth reading if you like the whole "teens in space" thing, but it's definitely no substitute for Heinlein.

Drusilla Xao is a spacer living on the Hub. She and her parents are for all practical purposes indentured servants, like most of the workers in space, working on the Elevator rising from from Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Then Lunar rebels blow up the Elevator, killing thousands of people, including Drusilla's parents, and starting a war which the Chinese American Alliance is unprepared to fight, since thanks to all the debris now littering Earth orbit, the people in orbit when the Elevator blew are pretty much the only people the CAA has available as soldiers. Which means Drusilla and all her fellow spacer teens are conscripted.

So, first of all, worldbuilding. I can kind of sort of imagine a future Earth in which China and the United States have merged, except not really. This was a great big suspension of disbelief that I think the author wanted us to accept because it seems awfully damn cool and provided an excuse to litter the text with (untranslated) Chinese expressions. And litter it does.

He—it—cut me off. "Corporal Xao, I regret to inform you that the entire computing network is tracking an intercontinental ballistic missile that just left Earth’s atmosphere."

"Nǐ zài jiǎng shén me pì huà?!"

Brown was kicking out of her bed, heading straight at me. She grabbed onto the wall, stopping herself, and we both looked at the screen.

"Cào nǐ zǔzōng shíbā dài," I swore.

The nuke—because that’s what it had to be—was coming out over the North American continent.

Something strange drew my attention away from the nuke glyph, if only for a moment. There were a load of new dots that I had never seen before, each one labeled with a 小贝蒂. My eyes widened. Little Betties? The hells?

Brown explained, "New laser sats. We’ve been making them as fast as we could."

It made sense. Big Bertha was big, but the Inverse Square Law and a million and a half kilometers would turn even a gigantic maser into a glorified flashlight. So, now it was time for Bertha’s kids to step up to bat

"Come on, acquire...acquire!" I whispered, praying to every god I could think of that one of those new orbital lasers would put a beam right through the nuke’s heart.

Brown was praying under her breath, too, when the nuke blipped off the screen.

"Gaì le!" I shouted, pumping my fist victoriously.

Then twenty-five new symbols popped up.

"No! Zěn me dé liaò!"

Someone has been watching too much Firefly.

There is a lot of dialog like that. You can usually infer more or less what the Chinese means, because it seems people speak English except when they want to swear or insult someone.

Giving the author the benefit of the doubt and assuming he ran all the Chinese past a native speaker, it still quickly reached a point where it was not "cool non-Western flavor" but "forced shtick."

If you can get past the "Chinese American Alliance," the rest of the book is mostly hard SF goodness, with fewer infodumps than Heinlein indulged in, but still conveying a sense of the difficulties of conducting a war in zero gravity with limited resources and green troops. And Drusilla and her comrades are very, very green.

Drusilla is no Johnny Rico, but she quickly rises to the rank of "Star Corporal," mostly by surviving her first couple of battles when everyone else dies.

A lot of people die in this book. Most everyone except Drusilla is an expendable extra. With so many of her friends dying a few pages after they are introduced, it is hard to feel much of what Drusilla supposedly is feeling as she alternately rages, goes numb, or fights shell-shock.

I liked the action sequences and the tech, but I didn't really find the "military" element of this military SF novel at all convincing, because the author is clearly someone whose exposure to the military is entirely through fiction. This was also evident in the big moral dilemma which forms the climax of the novel, in which the physics explanation for why Drusilla objects to the "secret weapon" the CAA wants to use is believable (at least to a non-physicist — I am not actually completely convinced that it really makes sense), but the moral argument? "We should not use this weapon because it kills lots of enemies very messily." Umm, as opposed to all the neat, bloodless ways in which both sides are killing each other? It was reminiscent of the myth that using heavy machine guns as anti-personnel weapons is a violation of the Geneva Convention. (It's not.)

Lastly, there is what is arguably Drusilla's most prominent personality trait: she's gay. Unfortunately, "scared, biting-her-lip-with-determination, and gay" is about the limit of Drusilla's personality. She has a girlfriend on Earth whom she's never met with whom she chats online and has VR make-out sessions with, and it's "The girl back homeon a planet I've never set foot on" that keeps Drusilla fighting. Believable in that teenagers do indeed believe their first love is their One True and Only and the very breath they breathe, but since the author was making a point out of how totally normal and not a big deal being gay is in the future, I got the feeling we are supposed to root for them and their **tackle-hugs** (seriously) because they're gay, not because an Internet relationship is any more likely to be a lasting one in 2068 than it is today.

Verdict: This debut novel is a not-bad entry in the Heinleinesque hard SF YA genre (a genre I have no small amount of interest in), but as much as I wanted to like it a lot, the writing oozed too much self-indulgence for me to really, really like it. Debris Dreams is an action-packed romp, and the author definitely shows promise.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, reviews, science fiction, young adult

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