Up Against It
M. J. Locke
I am not always a fan of hard science fiction. It is a sad truth but a true one. Blame the fact that I came to science fiction via fantasy and Star Wars. In fact I’ve read very little hard science fiction and placing novels within this sub-genre is not the simplest process. I mean Alistair Reynolds Revelation Space is hard science fiction in one sense but it also most definitely a space opera that is not completely grounded by today’s reality. On the other hand Ben Bova’s The Precipice is a hard science fiction novel strongly grounded in today’s reality and informed by the authors views on the industrialization of space. I absolutely loved the former and have started and stopped the latter more than once. So, when I started M. J. Locke’s Up Against It there was some trepidation as to whether or not it was really the right fit for me as a reader. Thankfully that trepidation was completely unfounded as Locke’s novel combines hard science fiction with political drama and crime thriller elements to create a unique and engrossing blend.
The action of Up Against It takes place on a distant asteroid on the distant frontier of our solar system. Inhabitants of this asteroid, Phocaea, mine methane ice to stay functional. In order to stay financially afloat Phocaea has also agreed to participate in a reality show called ‘Stroiders and everyone is constantly followed by nano-mote cameras and their viewer popularity is tracked and measured. The novel follows the teenager Geoff and his friends in their rebellious teenager ways and as they are drawn via the tragic death of Geoff’s brother Carl into events bigger than themselves. At the same time much of the novel follows Jane the colony resource manager as she begins to uncover the shocking truth behind the sabotage that killed Carl while also dealing with the political fallout engendered by the crisis.
Up Against It feels a lot shorter than its 416 pages thanks to the various character perspectives and the excellent pacing. Locke provides two solid characters in Geoff and Jane and readers quickly find themselves drawn into each of their lives. Jane’s take charge, no nonsense attitude is at once endearing and abrasive. Her desire to get the job done rather than pander to politics and the popularity ratings of ‘Stroiders is both one her greatest strengths as a character and what will inevitably cause her no end of trouble. Geoff a creative and rebellious teen is struggling in the perceived shadow of his older brother Carl; a notion that is compounded by Carl’s sudden death. His personality and reactions walk the line between truism and teenaged cliché; thankfully straying closer to the former than the latter. Locke quickly and easily conveys a sense of familiarity and friendship when comes to Geoff and his friends and you really root for them (the classic underdog trope done well) as they are further enmeshed in growing crisis on Phocaea.
If sabotage and political drama aren’t your thing the issues in Up Against It are further compounded by the presence of a feral sapient AI. Introduced sort of late in the game the new AI provides for an interesting element to the story and offers some of novel’s most diverse scenes as various individuals do their best to shut it down. I was particularly engrossed by the Tron-like scene when Jane and a co-worker delve into the system to stop the AI. Up Against It also introduces a post-humanist cult. Unfortunately it only plays a small part in the novel. It’s a fascinating little sub-culture that Locke has created and I would have loved to have seen it explored more.
Up Against It has a lot of action and while the first part of the novel drags a little by the time the all the cards are on the table things are really rocketing forward. Locke maintains a constant forward momentum that surprisingly never comes at the cost of creating a fully fleshed out an believable world. Phocaea is a fully realized setting and Locke succeeds entirely at making it feel like a living breathing place. More than that she has worked extraordinarily hard at introducing cultural and genetic shifts into her asteroid culture that really aid in the sense of reality. Indeed my only major complain with the novel is that the several plot threads, spearheaded by Jane and Geoff, do interweave and eventually merge they ways in which they initially intersect feels tenuous at best. Readers will likely latch onto one of those main threads more than the other (for me it was Geoff) which lessens the impact of the other. Up Against It is an excellent novel of hard science fiction dosed liberally with adventure and mixed up to create an entertaining concoction that doesn’t disappoint. It’s not perfect by any means but it leaves me hungry to see what other wonders Locke will cook up.