Return to the Asteroid Belt

Freedom at Feronia — Richard Penn
Asteroid Police, book 2


2014’s Freedom at Feronia is a follow-up to Penn’s Dark Colony. Having exposed and broken up an illegal secret colony, young cop Lisa Johansen is now faced with new opportunities, not the least of which is legitimate and legal possession of the core materials needed for a nuclear-powered spacecraft. The new opportunities also come with new challenges, one of which is considerably more complex than the one featured in the first book (the illegal colony set up by a criminal cabal). What this challenge is, and how Lisa handles it, reminded me a lot of the Canadian TV show Flashpoint, except, of course, IN SPACE!

I see blank looks: Flashpoint was a Canadian cop show about an armed response team. It was set in an unnamed Canadian city that just happened to have a CN Tower [1]. They always tried to de-escalate situations and they always felt very badly when that didn’t work. It was very, very Canadian.


The Asteroid Belt of the 2060s is thinly settled; the few colonies that exist are small. Most population growth still comes from immigration; babies are very carefully scheduled.

Everyone who is allowed to emigrate out to the colonies agrees to obey Belt Federation laws and ethics. Many (although not all) of these customs and laws would appear … how to put this uncontroversially? … reasonable [2] if one comes from any developed nation aside from the USA and wildly socialistic if one is American.

The Belt Federation claims sovereignty over the entire Belt, but their actual ability to enforce the law is dependent on cooperation from law enforcement resources in or near trouble spots. The Federation can provide only computer backup and advice, from a distance.

Or at least that was the case in the first book. In this book, Lisa commands the spacecraft Dancer, constructed from items abandoned by the villains of the previous book when they fled, and she is willing to help the Feds. Dancer just happens to be in the right place at the right time to make the transit to Feronia, a small colony that is having problems (problems that highlight some of the inherent shortcomings in Belt governance).

Feronia was settled by two groups: immigrants from other Belt colonies and a group of Americans, immigrants from Earth, who all belonged to a small religious sect. The Americans were allowed to settle together in surface habitats. Once safely ensconced in their habitats, sect leader Isaiah Bransen Blackwell and his followers seized power and declared that they were now Free Feronia and independent of the Belt.

Free Feronia is problematic for several reasons. Even ignoring the fact that the Federation does not allow for unilateral declarations of independence, the surface habitats are only part of the colony, which also includes orbital settlements and facilities. All these elements were designed to work together, not as hostile polities. In addition, Blackwell’s sect has a number of curious beliefs: racism, misogyny, open carry of lethal weapons, and rejection of modern birth control. These beliefs are guaranteed to outrage the majority of the Belt’s population and generate endless conflict if tolerated.

Lisa and her companions must figure out how to bring Free Feronia back under the control of the Federation with minimal loss of life on both sides. Once they’ve done that, they have to manage the peace in a way that balances both majority and minority rights. Given that Blackwell’s communications are for the most part hate-filled rants, these challenges would seem insurmountable.

And … thanks to the realities of space travel, they have to do all this before the launch window to their next destination opens.


In addition to some odd pacing choices on Penn’s part, I had two issues with the background of the books.

The first is that Penn could stand to include fewer references to 20th and early 21st century culture (or at least add a few older and non-Western references). The fact that his antagonists are a familiar sort of American extremist is one symptom of this narrow field of reference. Granted, the people in this novel are only as distant in time from us as we are from the breakup of the Beatles, and yet … while it seems entirely reasonable to expect that the US will produce yet more crops of poorly socialized, gun-waving religious nuts, surely they will differ in many details from the current lot.

That brings me to my second gripe, which is that Penn’s timescale for the colonization of the other bodies in the Solar System is far too optimistic. There’s just no way that we’re going to be at the point where secondary space colonies would be spun off by 2040 or tertiary ones by the 2060s.

Other observations on the worldbuilding: I was amused to note that Lisa’s initial solution for managing the peace is something Canadians might recognise as a variant of 19th century Newfoundland’s Denominational Compromise, The rest of the planet might well see her solution as akin to the way Lebanon was run after 1926. How effective you expect her idea to be will likely depend on which of those two models is most familiar. [3]

To move to worldbuilding details that I think are deliberate:, as objectionable as some members of Blackwell’s sect can be, there are moments where the Belter majority seems almost as extreme. It’s not just their puritanical views on soft drugs. They think of themselves as diverse and accepting of people of all sorts, but in reality, diversity is limited. The Belt population is so small and so widely spread that Belters are hardly ever confronted with the unfamiliar; Lisa saw her first stranger in the previous book. As a consequence, minorities may be present in very small numbers; Lisa’s home colony, Terpsichore, has so few Jews in residence that forming a minyan is barely possible.

This inexperience with actual diversity shapes the reactions of the characters. One of the Terpsichorian Christians has to remind the majority non-Christians that Blackwell’s people are not typical of the religion. There’s a community of Arabs on Feronia, but they are a stigmatized minority. The effort to draw them into the political process seems half-hearted and there’s a tendency by the cops to lump them all together as “the Arabs” (although the author makes it clear that the Arabs are not in fact united in their opinions).

The author also shows that while the situation on and around Feronia is extreme, it is not unique. In the Belt, political or social minorities are generally outvoted or shouted down. The only distinguishing feature about the Feronia clusterfuck (aside from Blackwell being a monumental dick) is that it’s the first time that things have gone so badly that the authorities have been forced to think about how to keep both sides happy.

Another deliberate authorial choice is the Belter practice of terminating any fetus whose future health seemed likely to fall outside certain well defined norms. However, in the world the author has imagined, this may be a sensible choice. The Belters are both technically advanced and abjectly poor. Civilized nations on Earth have the resources to accommodate citizens who might need extra help; the Belters either do not or believe they do not.

(I wonder what happens to old people or people who are injured too badly work. Nothing good, would be my guess.)

Members of enthusiastically capitalist societies may be interested to learn that the Belters lean socialist to the point that Lisa doesn’t seem all that familiar with basic market economics [4]. The cost of shipping materials makes physical trade a small part of the economy. Local settlements are run along communal lines; there are, for example, no private hospitals in the Belt. What counts as private space is much more limited than it would be on Earth’s surface (where a run down house couldn’t potentially kill a whole neighbourhood).

The more I see of Penn’s Belt society, the more aware I am of certain problematic attitudes that would seem likely to have dire consequences for the characters and their society in subsequent books. Lisa and her friends seem willing to do whatever it takes to get the results they want, damn trifling issues of mere legality. Lisa routinely asks a hacker friend to tap into private communications (no warrant needed). She and her allies steal a vault of full of cash and hand it out to settlers trapped in debt bondage, then cover-up their crime. These are not police practices that have historically ended well.

It is also worrisome that both of the communities we see up close have been criminally subverted (in each case by a different group) and a third has been targeted for a hostile takeover by the antagonists of the first novel. There also seems to be an underground economy spanning the Belt, one whose shadowy masters seem better able to enforce their dictates than the legitimate authorities are. Finally, I noted one alarming passage, in which someone offhandedly says “I’ve only seen that in a slave colony.” There are enough slave colonies that one would refer to a slave colony and not the slave colony?

It seems possible that what Penn is setting up is a culture that will soon transition from a weak social democracy to something more profit-extraction oriented, something much darker. In fact, given that we know there was at least one dark colony, that transition may have already happened without the Federation being aware of the fact.

I am very curious to see where Penn takes Lisa and the Belt Federation. Will the settlers manage to reconcile the needs and desires of the various factions? Can they control and contain the surprisingly rich assortment of criminal conspiracies, from the merely greedy to the overtly malevolent, that crop up so disturbingly often? I trust that a future volume, or volumes, will yield some interesting answers, which is why I will pick up future books in the series.

Freedom at Feronia may be purchased here.

1: Although the CN Tower showed up in establishing shots in pretty much every episode, the makers of Flashpoint were afraid that admitting that their show was set in Toronto would lose them all the potential audience members who hate Toronto. The official line was that the show was set in a Canadian city.

2: Except that the Belters are pretty puritanical when it comes to psychoactive substances. Some of this may be due to the fact they are dependent on life support; smoking (fouling the air) and stumbling around stoned are luxuries they feel they cannot afford, Some of it may be because a lot of the Belters are stick-up-the-butt types who would have felt at home in Toronto the Good.

3: Indeed, the problems of the Belt Federation (a central government whose claims of authority are undermined by their lack of ability to enforce their laws) reminded me a lot of the situation in Canada’s Red River Valley in the 1860s. Granted, the Meti of the Red River Valley had legitimate concerns, whereas the Feronian rebels are more like the early American settlers in Texas, who were a bunch of rebellious gun-waving slavers who may have never intended to honour their agreements with the then-legal government of the region (Mexico).

4: She also reacts poorly to a commercial enterprise that she encounters in Feronia, but that’s not so much dislike of market economies as it is distaste for company stores, ,which form a key tool that keeps the majority of the population in debt peonage to the upper echelons of Blackwell’s sect.

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