Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
February 2017

Title: Martians Abroad
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Publisher: Tor Books

Recently a number of noted science fiction writers, such as Nancy Kress with Flash Point (2012), Allen Steele with Apollo’s Outcasts (2012), or Ian McDonald with his Everness trilogy (2011-2013), have ventured into YA territory, and now Carrie Vaughn joins their ranks with Martians Abroad, a fun, smart, character-driven story about adapting to new environments and overcoming significant hurdles in the pursuit of your passion.

Polly Newton and her “nominal” twin Charles—“Charles and I were only nominally twins, in that we were uncorked at the same time and grew up together. But I’m really older because my embryo was frozen first”—have grown up on the Mars station Colony One with their Mom, the Colony’s Director of Operations. Polly has a clear vision of her immediate future: in a few weeks she’ll start an astrodrome internship that will allow her to graduate from flying “skimmers and scooters and suborbital shuttles” to real starships. But her Mom has a radically different plan in mind: she and Charles are to travel to Earth and attend Galileo Academy, the planet’s most elite school, known for its “prestigious tradition of excellence and accomplishment.” The novel follows the course of Polly and Charles’s trip and the difficulties, upon arriving, of handling a higher-g environment and adapting to an alien culture.

An industry professional once told me that he thought a key element, perhaps the key element, of successful YA novels was their handling of relationships between the protagonist and his/her friends. By that measure of success, Martians Abroad is certainly a winner, since the majority of the narrative indeed focuses on Polly’s interactions with her new school-mates. Who can she trust? How will she cope with bullying, when the teachers seem to be in on it? Whose example should she follow, and whose should she ignore?

Navigating the subtleties of Galileo Academy’s cliques and social hierarchies while dealing with intense homesickness—Polly has left behind not only her way of life, but also her boyfriend—makes us readily empathize with her and her plight. Think of it as Robert Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars (1962) married with the sensitivity and deeper psychological focus of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn (2009), which explores some similar themes to Vaughn’s novel, albeit in a historical setting. Additional tension in Martians Abroad derives from the differences between Polly and Charles, who seems to have figured out how to “play the game” and be several steps ahead of the system with almost freakish rapidity.

The pacing of the narrative, which can at times be quite tender, is perhaps uneven: the action tends to occur in short sporadic bursts bracketed by mostly incident, and the denouement feels rushed. Settings, though restricted to a few specific locations, are thoughtfully developed. The mystery angle, about why Polly gets into the dangerous scrapes she does, generates suspense, but is mostly pushed into the book’s second half. Also, I do wonder if Polly comes across as younger than she’s meant to be, which is seventeen.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the novel is its positive tone. Even though it’s YA, which these days, alas, is often synonymous with dystopia, it expresses confidence in a technologically advanced future in which, despite the expected politicking, humanity is in significantly better shape than it is today. This quasi-utopain future, rendered artfully through details and carried along by Vaughn’s polished prose, is nicely understated. Remember the YA Star Trek: The Next Generation Starfleet Academy novels (1993-1998) and Susan Wright’s cadet-centric follow-up, The Best and the Brightest (1998)? Martians Abroad offers a more fully realized, contemporary treatment of similar tropes. The resemblance may not be entirely accidental. At one point, we’re told that “big multi-M-drive ships” are being constructed that will be capable not just of interplanetary but interstellar flight. Warp drive, anyone? And later Polly and company take a shuttle and board Cochrane station (Star Trek’s Zefram Cochrane was the inventor of the warp drive).

May I have another?

Title: Empire Games
Author: Charles Stross
Publisher: Tor Books

Charles Stross’s newest novel is technically the seventh entry in an ongoing series, but according to Mr. Stross it “was written to be a new entrypoint into my Merchant Princes universe.” I haven’t read the six preceding Merchant Princes books, and I’m happy to report that Empire Games can indeed be enjoyed on its own—or rather as the extended set-up to a complicated story that will be completed in this new trilogy’s two ensuing volumes.

The book is something like what you might get if John le Carré decided to write an elaborate story in the Fringe universe, only with better science and technology, and some Jason Bourne technothriller beats thrown in. By this I mean that we are dealing with parallel realities and the conflicts that result when one timeline becomes aware of another timeline’s existence. In Fringe, for instance, the protagonist Olivia used an artificial drug called cortexiphan to aid her natural ability to jump between timelines. Here Rita Douglas is at one point told she’ll be given “just a couple of injections” as part of her “activation.”

I won't say too much about the plot. There are four timelines, and Rita, a native of timeline two, which is essentially a security state panopticon that deviates from our world after members of another timeline nuke the White House and kill the U.S. President in 2003, is taken in by the Department of Homeland Security and “encouraged” to complete a training program to help tap into her true potential. Meanwhile, political and military higher-ups in that same timeline reveal the true design of her mission, while other players, particularly in timeline three, are orchestrating their own plans of defense and offense. Rita’s family connections, whether to her grandfather Kurt, a former member of the East German stasi, or to her biological mother Miriam, whom she doesn’t know, inform much of the plot. Added to this is a broader “paratime” story arc involving the discovery of a mysterious “forerunner” civilization that seems capable of vast technological abilities—with devastating results in at least one other timeline.

The ability to cross worlds is known as “world-walking” and Stross provides a helpful introduction to the novel’s four key timelines right at the start, along with a summary of the main character profiles. I referred to both of these more than once in the course of the novel’s first hundred or so pages. There is a lot of background information to catch up on, but after taking a deep breath—and trusting that Stross would provide what was needed—following the various plot strands turned out to be pretty doable. In fact, Stross is to be commended for the variety of techniques he uses—formal presentations, scenes behind closed doors, transcripts, flashbacks—to bring us up to speed without becoming narratively monotonous. Stross also does a nice job integrating technological imagery in the depiction of his characters’ inner lives, as in the following: “Rita was beginning to realize that the DHS had inadvertently dropped a neutron bomb on her social life, destroying her personal relationships—even her hobbies—but leaving the bare-walled buildings of her experiences and skills intact.”

Perhaps one of Stross’s greatest strengths is detailed worldbuilding, and the compelling way everything appears to have been meticulously thought through in his various posited timelines, so that economics, politics and technology have influenced one another in complex ways. About seventy pages in, after a character has world-walked, we’re told that “The doctor and paramedics crowded around his chair, waiting to slip their latest potion into his bloodstream: a cocktail of potassium-sparing diuretics and a fancy new calcium channel blocker, guaranteed to smack down post–world-walking hypertension within minutes.” An interesting detail in its own right, this also has the virtue of playing a role in the plot later on. Paying close attention to Stross’s worldbuilding generates increasing dividends as the story progresses, simultaneously creating dramatic tension and intellectual intrigue. Be warned, though: You’ll get a healthy dose of jargon and acronyms along the way.

I invoked le Carré before, and I don’t just have the master spy novelist’s classic Cold War books in mind, but also his more recent works, like A Most Wanted Man (2008), which focus more heavily on themes like extreme technological surveillance and extraordinary rendition. Like le Carré, Stross’s observations tend to be ironic. They often verge on the aphoristic, infusing the novel with a sort of detached Clarkean wit. A few examples: “She was beginning to suspect that perhaps the only foolproof way to tell the difference between a fortress and a jail was by the attitude of the guards to the inmates”; “Revolutions (she’d long since learned) ran on committees just like any other government, once you got past the screaming-and-shooting stage”; “You’ve heard of the Six Million Dollar Man, or the Seven Million Dollar Woman? You’re going to be the Half Billion Dollar World-Walker. That’s inflation for you . . . .”

With all of this going for Empire Games, perhaps my main objection is that I felt the book ended just as it was revving up. And while I connected to Rita and her experiences, some of the other characters didn’t come to life as vividly for me. Even Rita’s romantic relationship, though welcome, felt somewhat hasty in its development. If you enjoy thought-provoking alternate history and spy thrillers, told with verve and steeped in cutting-edge scientific extrapolations, this is a must-read. Fans of Stross’s Merchant Princes series should also find much to enjoy in this “next generation” sequel.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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