I found Up Against It thanks to Kate Elliott who was tweeting enthusiastically about it. I’d never heard of M.J. Locke, but it didn’t take very long to find out that this gender-ambiguous person was a pen name for Laura J. Mixon, who has several interesting novels to her name. Mixon is also married to a chap called Steven Gould, who has just been elected to succeed John Scalzi as Maximum Leader of SFWA, so she’s by no means a newbie. Rather this is one of those career re-launch things that people have been doing ever since it worked so well for Megan Lindholm (now Robin Hobb), and despite the fact that no one has managed to replicate that success.
Nothing surprising so far, then. We have a woman writer with a number of good novels to her name having to re-launch her career under a gender-ambiguous name. Yet despite this re-launch, there doesn’t seem to have been much publicity for the book. It came out in March 2011, and it took over two years for me to find out that it exists. Admittedly I’m not as plugged into the system as I once was, but there are very good reasons why we should have heard more about Up Against It.
Why? Well, do you remember what the latest hot trend in science fiction is? That’s right, solar system novels. We are supposed to have accepted that travel to deep space is impossible, but have a renewed enthusiasm for expansion beyond our own planet. Paul McAuley was one of the first to produce such a book with the excellent The Quiet War and its sequels. Since then we’ve seen Alastair Reynolds (Blue Remembered Earth), James S.A. Corey (Leviathan’s Wake) and Kim Stanley Robinson (2312) all have success with the setting. Even Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, despite far more advanced science than the others, could be said to be part of the same trend. Up Against It is a very similar book, being set on an asteroid and featuring political unrest in the colonies. It ought to be getting mentioned in the same breath as the others, but if it is then I’ve not seen any of that.
I’d understand if the book wasn’t very good, but actually it is fast-paced, entertaining and full of interesting ideas. The main plot concerns an attempt by a Martian crime syndicate to take over the asteroid colony of Phoecea by sabotaging its ice supplies at a time when the only alternative source of ice happens to be a shipment that the syndicate has poised for swift delivery. In addition to this we have an emergent AI, a trans-human cult and a reality TV show that follows the lives of everyone on Phoecea.
A lot of the publicity for the book focuses on Geoff Agre and his group of ethnically diverse young friends who get caught up in the political drama as a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These kids are engaging and doubtless help sell the book to the teen market, but they are not the focus of the story. The lead character is Jane Navio, the colony’s Resource Commissioner. She’s a senior civil servant who is directly responsible for ensuring that the colony has the water, food and so on that it needs. Inevitably, given the political plotting going on, she’s in a very difficult position. If you are looking for an example of a “strong woman” character who doesn’t wear leather or go around shooting people, Navio would be an excellent example.
By the way, Navio’s partner, Ngo Minh Xuan, is ethnic Vietnamese. I’ve not asked Aliette for feedback on how he is handled, but it seemed OK to me.
The reality TV show, “Stroiders”, makes for an interesting complication to the politics. Almost everything that happens on Phoecea happens on camera, which can be both useful and a total pain, dependent on circumstances. Locke makes use of a variant of Cory Doctorow’s whuffie system, and I think does a better job of it. Unlike Cory, she has no illusions that the system will accurately reflect what people do. Rather, the system is subject to the same sort of rumor, scandal and overreaction that characterizes our present-day reactions to celebrities.
The trans-human group is Bruce Sterling’s Viridians (used with permission). By the time of the book they have got quite good at body modification, though they haven’t gone as far as the people in Pat Cadigan’s “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi”. I was pleased to see that one of the aspects of baseline humanity that they have chosen to consider putting aside is the idea of binary gender. Up Against It has earned a place in my list of books with interesting non-binary characters in them. Locke speculates that non-binary people will, if they wish, be able to adjust their body chemistry to “express” a more male or female gender. I’m not sure that I’m confident in the science, but it does make for an interesting character.
Mostly, of course, the book is an adventure story. It is designed to sell to young American readers. There isn’t anything radically new about it. On the other hand, there is a lot of SF being published that is less imaginative. Locke has made an effort to portray a diverse and multi-ethnic society. She also understands that asteroid colonies have to be functional societies, not groups of rugged, self-centred Libertarians. There’s a smart feminist mind behind the book. The science is, I think, mostly good, though not being an engineer myself I’m not in the best position to judge.
Given the way that the book ends, I figured Locke intended to write a sequel. The story finishes in a satisfying way, but there are sufficient loose ends to provide material for another book. According to this blog post she has plans for eight books, but that post is a year old and nothing has happened since. I hope a new book appears, because I enjoyed this one a lot.
For more information about Laura J. Mixon, see the SF Encyclopedia.
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