Up Against It

Up Against It - M. J. LockeI 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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11 thoughts on “Up Against It

  1. I read it (1). It wasn’t awful, especially compared to Bova’s dreadful Grand Tour series (which for a long time was most of the interplanetary stuff I got sent) but I did think it was a little bit dull and many of the details on which the narrative depended rang false, from the idea of a rotating city parked inside a cavity inside a stationary rock – that’s going to end badly – to the idea of importing a substance as common as water is past the frost line from somewhere as distant as the Kuiper Belt [2]; for example, the mantle of Ceres is thought to contain about 200 million cubic kilometres of water; @ 10,000 tonnes of water a day, Ceres alone could supply a million habitats as leaky as the one in Up Against It for about 50,000 years.

    As well, at one point she has the shortage of water (and thus hydrogen) lead to a power shortage. There are two problems with this:

    A quick back of the envelope calculation suggested that if these people use ten times as energy per person per unit time as Americans currently do, in the period specified they would need about 300 kg of deuterium and tritium, of which very roughly 100 kg would be D, if I have not screwed up. On Earth that could be got from about 4000 tonnes of water and as I recall, they are said to use thousands of tons of H2O *per day*.

    More importantly, the overwhelming majority of H is the wrong isotope so yanking all the D out of the water will leave you with about the same amount of H2O you began with. Fusion fuel requirements should have no noticable effect on water supply. Even if they for some reason vent the deuterium-depleted water into space without using it, the amount of water used up would only be a small fraction of the water we are told they use.

    I kept stumbling over these details that rang false and getting pulled out of the story.

    This is not a problem unique to this author: McCarthy has an even worse error involving D and Mars, a surprisingly large number of authors think you can spin an average asteroid up so that an inner cavity has a pleasing acceleration on the inner surface (3) when in fact it would probably fly apart long before you got to that point, and the general abundance of water in the solar system seems to be the second most guarded secret in SF after Warren Thompson’s work.

    Obligatory acknowledgement that for most people these details do not matter as long as the story has the right general shape.

    1: I try to read all of the new interplanetary stuff (NIS), although I will admit I’ll probably never bother to read the McAuley ones because I made the mistake of starting the second one first and I know from where it begins I am not going to enjoy the first one. I’m never in the mood for a boot stamping on a human face forever IN SPACE .

    2: That said, major points to the author for realizing Jupiter could be used to deal with the annoying comet-like velocities an object falling in from the Kuiper would have at perihelion.

    3: To be clear on this point, Up Against It does _not_ do that. It does something implausible with habitats but implausible is much better than impossible.

    1. Thanks James. It is always interesting to hear from people who understand the science better than I do.
      From my point of view, what is interesting is not whether the science is right or not, but whether the science is as good as that produced by male writers. Given your comments on Bova, I’m somewhat heartened.

      1. Let’s see. Recent material along these lines to the best of my memory.

        Female author:
        The Highest Frontier
        Up Against It

        Male author
        Blue Remembered Earth
        Back to the Moon
        Cage of Zeus
        Caliban’s War
        Gardens of the Sun
        Leviathan Wakes
        The Moon Maze Game
        The Next Continent
        Ouroboros Wave
        Pirates of Mars
        Platinum Moon
        The Quantum Thief
        The Quiet War
        Rocket Girls
        Rocket Girls: the Last Planet
        Usurper of the Sun,
        Winning Mars

        Did I miss any?

        I thought Up Against It a bit dull and disliked the Highest Frontier. Neither one is the best of the whole set but they also are nowhere near the worst of the ones I have read.

  2. Bova’s a pretty low bar* but even if we exclude him a lot of the issues I had with Up Against It are in no way unique to Up Against It or present in it to an unusual degree. I just want to read something in this genre that doesn’t make me want to beat my head against a wall at least once during the read.

    * Unless we include social issues, in which case his books are less a bar and more a trench. But for a long time it seemed like he was the main author interested in this sort of SF.

  3. I have to admit, I read this and reviewed it when it came out (for CSZ, I think), and I was unimpressed. As with James, I was thrown out by some tech issues (for it it was ridiculous comms frequencies, given my technical speciality), but I realized that they were the sort of trivial details that I could have easily ignored if the plot had hooked me. But (IIRC) I found the plot to be uneven and poorly paced, and thought that a bunch of things that the characters did–even Jane, whom I really wanted to like–were mind-bogglingly stupid.

    I’m very glad to see a different perspective on it, though! And I did very much like the casually diverse future.

    1. If I recall correctly, you reviewed it in the vol 1, #3 July 2011 edition of CSZ.

      1. Referencing your review: finding something that requires humans in space as opposed to a fleet of robots is currently a bit of a puzzler. Not resource extraction, which is the go-to reason for a lot of SF authors: none of the companies looking at exploiting asteroids now are using humans-in-space and our machines are only going to get better.

        SF authors as a class seem weirdly focused on primary industries like mining or farming. It’s like their model of how an economy is structured never got past about 1900. Or maybe 1800.

        The only short term reasons I could think of are tourism, maybe science and settlements of isolationist extremists* but the equilibrium populations could turn out to be surprisingly small: Antarctica is easier to get to than orbit and more habitable and it only has one to five thousand people.

        * I’m guessing the space Mennonites will last longer than the Friedmanites.

  4. Of course, I haven’t got on with Hannu Rajaniemi’s work either (none of the short stories I’ve read nor the Quantum Thief really worked for me), so I may just be the wrong audience for this sort of thing right now.

    1. I think it’s almost axiomatic that anyone who knows something about the science on which an SF novel is based is going to have difficulty with that novel. Nor is it limited to science. I’m the same with economics, and Farah with history.

      Of course that leads us to the bizarre situation of SF about space travel being unreadable by actual space experts. Is Al Reynolds any better?

      1. If the author knows too much, then you get disclaimers like this one: While I tried to keep the science of space travel in the story as realistic as possible, I admit there are a few spots that require the readers to stretch their imaginations. One examples would be the accelerations and speeds achieved by the ships in the story, which are nearly impossible even for a nuclear-powered propulsion system.

        He’s talking about delta-vees in the tens of kilometers per second.

  5. As I recall, Reynolds’ Pushing Ice has humans mining cometary ice using hilariously overpowered and overstaffed rockets by the year 2057. So, pretty much every objection I had to the water subplot in Up Against It applies to Pushing Ice, maybe more-so.

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