Book review: ‘Up Against It’, by M J Locke

4 07 2016

Morgan J Locke is the penname currently used by SF writer and chemical / environmental engineer Laura J Mixon, who has five earlier novels and a selection of shorter pieces to her own name. She also has, to her name, the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer, for her blog piece ‘A Report on Damage Done by One Individual Under Several Names’, exposing the actions of extreme critic Requires Hate.

UpAgainstIt

Jane Navio is the long-serving resource commissioner of Zekeston, a city-sized habitat, set spinning for purposes of artificial gravity, within the hollowed-out interior of asteroid 25 Phocaea. Jane is also the family friend of Geoff Agre, whose job description might as well read ‘disaffected teenager’—think James Dean on a rocketbike. As Up Against It opens, Geoff and his rocketbiker friends have just participated in the capture of an incoming shipment of the ice that is so essential to the continued habitability of Zekeston and its subsidiary settlements. But the colony’s relief at having successfully harvested the ice shipment is shortlived: an accident at a neighbouring waste-reprocessing plant spills a dangerously large number of disassemblers (self-replicating nanomechanical molecular deconstructors), which rapidly set about devouring the newly-acquired ice mountain. Navio must make a command decision to prioritise either the ice’s protection or the rescue of several disassembly-plant workers trapped with insufficient air reserves by the corrosive nanite spillage: she chooses the ice, succeeds in saving a fragment of the shipment, and ten workers die. Among those ten is Geoff’s older brother Carl. But Navio’s problems are just beginning, as the colony now faces several weeks with inadequate material resources, with the only available incoming ice shipment in the hands of the Martian mob. The government of Zekeston has no real choice—their need for ice is desperate—but what will it cost them to deal with the devil? Can Jane manage an unprecedented suite of challenges, from both within and without the colony? Will Geoff’s reckless heroics lead to tragedy? And why are the habitat’s computer systems displaying anomalous, glitchy behaviour?

Up Against It is an impressive piece of action-based hard SF, with an imaginatively detailed setting, a busy, propulsive storyline, and a lengthy cast list of well-realised characters operating at loggerheads to one another. It’s broadly founded on established scientific principles and shows due deference to the laws of physics (with its one apparent infelicity in this regard a reference to a fifty-million-km lightspeed communication occurring in a fraction of a second), with several intriguing twists on established SF tropes. In content, it’s somewhat reminiscent of Lois McMaster Bujold’s ‘Miles Vorkosigan’ series—it has the latter’s predicament-heavy plotting style and somewhat space-operatic interplanetary politics, though there’s no recourse here to wormhole travel maguffins—but in tone it’s more in keeping with Golden Age problem-solving stories.

I do have some quibbles. It does feel that the storyline never lets up, with the result that the characters aren’t fully given an opportunity to sing. (Except, of course, when they’re using the music-based programming language Tonal_Z.) And on reflection, it’s not clear to me why the disassemblers’ consumption of a large fraction of the ice shipment was so materially disastrous: they hadn’t annihilated it, after all, they’d just processed it into other forms (from which, in the centuries-hence future presented here, I’d imagine they could have been reconstituted back into water and other feedstocks). Similarly, the resource-scarcity solution which eventually arrives does have a somewhat fortuitous flavour of deus ex machina about it, and I’m not convinced it’s quantitatively reasonable. (I’m being deliberately coy in my wording here, so as to mitigate spoilerism on the subject.) But these are things which occurred to me only after the event—I found the book strongly engrossing, and felt compelled to learn the fates of those assembled within.

It’s perhaps not a sublimely graceful book; but it is an effective one, and it rewards reading for its imaginative and multilayered futurism.

(This is the seventh in my ‘XX Hard SF’ series of reviews, on women writers of hard SF. For the purpose behind the series of reviews, see my posts here and here; for a listing of the books reviewed in this project, refer here.)

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