If not for those meddling kids

Up Against It — M. J. Locke


I like stories set in the Solar System, particularly the modern Solar System as it has been revealed since the 1960s. Or at least I tell myself I do. Paradoxically, my interest in such matters makes me a difficult audience for SF that qualifies, as I suspect this review of 2011’s Up Against It will reveal.

The Solar System of the 24 century is settled; humans live everywhere from the inner system out to the Kuiper Belt. While life in space, such as in 25 Phocaea, for example, is better than life in 24 century USA [1], that’s less a measure of the wonders of life in space and more a measure of the grimdark hellhole that is Future America [2]. Life in space is fragile; cities like 25 Phocaea’s Zekeston are dependent on imported volatiles. Very dependent.

And what happens when the supply of volatiles is suddenly interrupted?

Nothing good.

Tragedy strikes when an industrial mishap involving destructive nanotech kills a worker named Ivan outright. The resulting vacuum kills another worker (Carl) and dooms eight more. They could have been saved, if saving them wouldn’t have meant losing even more of the habitat’s precious volatile reserves. Jane Navio, the head of resource management, makes the hard call; save the volatiles. However, despite Navio’s desperate efforts, despite daring maneuvers by youthful volunteers (who include Carl’s grieving brother Geoff and his pals), most of the volatiles are lost, The city is left with only twenty-six days worth of supplies; the next shipment is not due for a very long time.

As Navio soon realizes, the scale of the disaster is not accidental; someone went to a lot of trouble to make sure Zekeston would be short on volatiles at just this moment. That someone is a Mars-based company, Ogilvie and Sons, who just happen to own the only large supply of volatiles that can reach Zekeston within twenty-six days. Ogilvie and Sons are willing to divert their goods, in exchange for … concessions.

Navio was living in another colony, Vesta, when Ogilvie and Sons staged their brutal takeover there. She has no intention of letting the predatory firm take over her new home. But even with a handful of bureaucrats on her side and a small ad hoc group of plucky kids acting as covert agents [3], is there really anything she can do against Ogilvie and Sons?

And that’s not getting into the matter of the rogue AI threatening to commandeer certain vital systems for its own use…


Let’s begin with Stupid Publisher Tricks. This book was pitched as “Locke’s first novel” on the back flyleaf, which is true in the sense that it is the first novel published under the M. J. Locke name. It’s a bit less true in the sense that the person who wrote this had five previous novels published under another name. There are any number of reasons why this sort of rebranding might be necessary. but this particular example was sabotaged becauseTor put her real name on the copyright page.

This book should have been right up my alley but it wasn’t because of one reason: I am one nitpicking SOB when it comes to interplanetary adventure. And I suspect that my nitpickery is getting worse.

Granted, I quibble about some things that are must-haves if you’re going to write an interplanetary adventure with humans in it, starting with “having humans in it.” All of the companies currently working on space resource exploitation are focusing on robots, not canned primates in space. I can believe in an asteroid belt that is exploited for human ends, or at least for commercial profit. I don’t think that belt exploitation would look anything like the Wild West swarm of human belt miners featured in this and many other SF novels. I also think a more realistic novel, in which the Belt is exploited by robots under the control of people sitting in desk chairs in an office building in Flin Flon, would be a pretty hard sell.

(Although… there’s a detail in Oath of Fealty about telefactored machines on the Moon being operated from within America’s largest gated community, isn’t there?)

Other details in this novel just seem badly thought out. Take volatiles, which I admit is a particular sore point for me. The Belters import them from the Kuiper Belt, out around Pluto, because the delta vees needed to nudge iceteroids down towards the Sun are smaller out there than they are closer to the Sun. There’s a catch: what you save on delta vee you pay in time. Locke acknowledges this, but not with a specific figure. If you actually LOOK at the figures, you will see that a Hohmann orbit from the Kuiper to Jupiter (used to slow incoming KBOs down) would take about half a century. I find it hard to believe that closer local sources (like those in the Belt and around Jupiter) wouldn’t easily out-compete Kuiper Belt sources. In fact, with a half century lead time, I don’t see how the KBO system could ever get past the laugh test.

In fact, it becomes pretty clear even in the Solar System as imagined in this book the Belt is in no way desiccated, which makes the whole business with importing volatiles from the Kuiper even more baffling. Unfortunately, the whole plot depends on it being reasonable for the authorities to believe they are utterly dependent on the supply of volatiles the Ogilvies control. That’s not to say someone couldn’t write a book set in the Belt as we know it where a short term shortfall causes a political crisis … but Locke hasn’t.

At least Locke does NOT spin up her asteroids like another pseudonymous author I am too nice to name here , yay! Seriously yay, because I see variations on that one a lot. A lot. [eye twitch. muttering] But what she does do is park a rotating city inside a hollow in 25 Phocaea and while I can see how that would save on radiation shielding, I keep envisioning what might happen if the outer rim of the city, spinning at 170 km/hr IIRC, ever touches the inner surface of that hollow. The city is only a kilometer below the surface so it must want to gently fall to the bottom of the cavity it is in (and even if it was in the center of the rock, station keeping would be interesting because it wouldn’t be gravitationally coupled to the asteroid).

Despite my skepticism about the Kuiper Belt, I have to say the role Jupiter plays in the arrangement, as a source of free or at least inexpensive delta vee, made me stand up and cheer when I read it, which made the rest of the bus ride pretty awkward. Five minutes of musing about the implications of Jupiter’s escape velocity and the mathematics of the Oberth effect will reveal that contrary to an often quoted SF saying, gravity wells, especially Jupiter’s, would be a vital, exploitable resource. However, most SF authors, even the ones writing in this specific genre, have never spent the crucial five minutes looking at the actual #$%@#$%#@$ figures. I am as shocked and horrified as you are.

Various well-orchestrated set pieces at the end, especially the gang of plucky kids facing off against armed gangsters, did distract me from the nitpicking questions that haunt me. Although judging by the relative weight I have given them in this review, not nearly enough.

It seems to me clear that this was intended to be the first book in an ongoing series; there’s at least one plot hook for a subsequent book. As far as I can tell, this novel disappeared without a trace when it was released and I really don’t see why that happened. I am incapable of reading books like this one without prodding at vital underpinnings until they collapse, but most people do not suffer from this particular disability. None of my reservations about this novel are in any way unique to it [4]. Many of the books that share its flaws were, as far I can tell, fairly popular. It seems to me that readers who bought books like Bova’s Grand Tour books, Flynn’s The Wreck of the River of Stars, Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief, Sargent’s Venus books, Reynolds’ Pushing Ice and so on should have liked this as well, and yet….

Up Against It is available from Tor.

1: In this future, Canada stands strong; it’s the haven to which Americans flee. While this panders to my Canadian pride, I have to admit that the odds of Canada staying independent if there’s a completely batshit crazy America lurking below don’t seem like they would be all that great. Maybe we have a powerful patron.

2: If I commissioned an anthology about a shiny future America, would I be roundly ignored by crowds of baffled SF readers? Readers who are sure that as bad as things are now, they can only get worse? At least the author of this book can imagine a world that is, overall, doing better than the US. Including Africa! Not that doing better than the US in this book is a particularly high bar.

3: Somewhere between “volunteer” and the next level, where they keep showing up even when their services are not requested.

4: Sometimes my appreciation of a new book can be sabotaged by nitpicking done for an entirely different book. Part of the challenge Navio faces is because 25 Phocaea needs to reserve hydrogen for power generation. Thanks to a bit of silliness about tritium in Wil McCarthy’s To Crush The Moon, I happen to have the figures for fusion handy and I can tell you this is silly for two reasons:

  • D/T (deuterium/tritium) fusion gets you about 2.4x10^14 joules/kilogram. Currently Americans use about 10,000 J/second per person: let’s say these people use ten times that amount per person; over 26 days that’s 4.5x10^16 joules for everyone , which would require … 287 kg of deuterium and tritium. A single person would use up more hydrogen (as H2O) for bathing and cooking than the entire city does for power.
  • Deuterium makes up a very small fraction of hydrogen, although the exact ratio varies from place to place in the Solar System (tritium is even rarer in the wild; they are likely transmuting lithium to get it). For every kilogram of D, there would be thousands of kilograms of regular H that would be useless for fusion. To a first approximation, the Asterites would have as much hydrogen left after they extracted the deuterium from their hydrogen as they had before.

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