One of my minor hobbies is keeping an eye out for new examples of unabashedly SFnal entry-level SF, the stuff that draws new readers in and guarantees that there will be an SF of a particular sort decades down the road. While it’s true the young adult genre is filled with clearly SFnal novels, it seems to me that many publishers market Young Adult fiction as its own category, not as science fiction, while bookstores are careful to shelve YA well away from SF. I don’t think it is because they are afraid SF will catch YA cooties. I think the truth is much less complementary to SF: YA is too successful right now to risk it being associated with SF, which only accounts for some 2% of fiction sales.
IMHO, 2014’s Tin Star is in many ways the sort of book SF needs. Think of it as the juvenile SF novel an inexperienced C. J. Cherryh might have written if she’d decided to go full-bore Heinlein juvenile. It’s not a perfect book by any means, but the problems that bugged me could be easily corrected if the author could be convinced that correcting them would be worth her time. As it is, this is still worth consideration as a gift for young proto-SF readers.
Tula Bane, her family, and the Children of Earth, the scary cult to which they belong, are on stopover at the alien space station Yertina Feray; they are heading out to the promise of a new colony. At an inopportune moment, Tula makes the mistake of drawing cult leader Brother Blue’s attention to just how smart and observant Tula is. This earns her a savage beating from Brother Blue, who cannot afford to have people start connecting the dots on his scam before it has had time to mature.
Left for dead, Tula regains consciousness to find her fellow colonists gone. Gone for good, as the human starship exploded before it could reach its destination. The only survivor was Brother Blue, who had left the expedition at Yertina Feray for reasons he did not clearly explain.
Humans are a recent and low-ranked arrival on the interstellar scene; they are not even considered a Minor race. Nonetheless, the station authorities do what they can to keep Tula from dying. Due to humanity’s xenophobic isolationist policies, there is no other human on the station to whom she can turn to for help. Station administrator Tournour is forced to turn Tula out to survive as best she can (although the alien does do what little he can to facilitate Tula’s survival).
Yertina Feray orbits a world exploited into uninhabitability; it is economically viable only because it’s a handy waystation to and from more interesting destinations. Its long-term population is made up of hopeless losers unable to afford a ticket off the place. It is a very good place in which to be neglected to death. Happily for Tula (and the health of this ongoing series) Tula has the good luck to encounter endearing career criminal Heckleck, who is sentimental enough to take the human girl under his manipulating extremity, teaching her the ways of cunning and survival. Tula, as it turns out, can be quite adept at scheming and trading favours.
Change comes to the galaxy in the form of political upheaval; the League of Worlds falls, replaced by the far more aggressive Imperium. This is bad news for all the Minor Races and worse news for cultures without a sufficient number of space colonies (more than five, less than twelve) to qualify as Minor. The only reason Earth avoids a very sticky fate indeed is because A: a faction on Earth cuts a deal with the Imperium and B: the Children of Earth established just enough colonies for Earth to count as Minor. This second point allows Brother Blue to finesse his way into political power; he controls the colonies that control Earth’s fate. With them, Earth is subjugated; without them, Earth will be exterminated.
If those colonies actually exist.
When three more of Brother Blue’s young victims — Els, Reza, and Caleb — show up on the station, Tula doesn’t see them as fellow humans. She sees them as a means to an end, a possible route to the one goal she has brooded over since Brother Blue tried to kill her (and probably did kill her family): revenge!
Tula falls for hunky Reza and has considerable sympathy for idealistic Caleb, but it’s the amoral and ambitious Els who turns out to be the most significant character. Like Tula, Els is determined to prevail. By the time the two meet, Els has gone a lot farther down the road to utter ruthlessness than Tula has; whatever it takes to prevail, whether trading on her sexuality or betraying her friends, Els is willing to do. In Els’ defense, not only has she never had any allies, but it seems that her role in the book is to be Tula’s dark reflection — in a simple way that younger readers will easily grasp.
I am not the target market for this book, but I am going to try to judge it as though I were.
I often comment that space colonization ideas seem to be a combination of Darien and Poyais. This particular example is pure Poyais except that Brother Blue is less Gregor MacGregor and more Jim Jones.
The main weakness of this book is its worldbuilding. The politics are cartoonishly simplified (although I must admit that modern YA tends to be pretty simplistic). The thing that really kept distracting me was an impression given by many details in the book, the impression that the author has no real grasp of the scale of the galaxy or what the implications of that scale are. The Milky Way is one hundred thousand light years across and contains some four hundred billion stars in it. Yertina Feray is sixteen light years from Earth; on a galactic scale that’s our backyard. How is it that the alien cultures didn’t notice us and savagely colonize Earth ages ago? It’s like the US sweeping across North America and then somehow managing to overlook a particularly choice bit of territory a mile outside Los Angeles. For centuries.
Castelucci is an experienced writer. She may have decided that her target market would be more comfortable with a fairly black and white background. Indeed, her prose suggests that she sees her readers as young and unsophisticated. But her numbers don’t add up, and it would not make the book any harder for young readers if they did. The way they don’t add up implies, not that the author needed to handwave details for her plot to work, but that she’s borrowing set pieces from SF without understanding them. Third Artist Syndrome as Jo Walton calls it . The errors in scale suggest, not calculation, but that the author doesn’t have a good grasp of astronomy . Fine, lots of people don’t, but ignorance of astronomy is a detriment if you’re setting your story IN SPACE.
It’s traditional for the protagonists of young adult books to lose their supervising adults. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a youth-centered plot. In Tula’s case, the author does a nice job of removing the helpful adults in double-quick time; it happens before the book opens. We first meet Tula after she has been beaten and abandoned. The author does give Tula a mentor in the form of Heckleck and an ally in Tournour. However, Heckleck is both morally compromised and hard pressed to keep himself alive, while Tournour is extremely constrained by his job; there’s a limit to how much he can directly do to help the girl.
This book seems to be written as series setup; it establishes the parameters of the conflict between Brother Blue and Tula. Do be warned that it’s only part one; the inevitable confrontation between Brother Blue and Tula isn’t going to happen any time soon. That said, this can be read as a standalone novel; it isn’t a story fragment.
I don’t know that I would recommend this to adults, but younger SF fans might find this worth consideration. I think if I were twelve or fourteen again, I would be able to ignore the details that bug me now. I will certainly have a look at the next book to see how the story develops.
1: For example, the fact that there used to be a habitable world only sixteen light-years from Earth and nobody comments on that as unusual suggests that habitable worlds are not that rare. Perhaps there are two such worlds in every fifty systems. Perhaps that is an underestimate, as we don’t know that Earth and the world Yertina Feray are the only two habitable worlds in the region. Even if we eliminate 90% of the galaxy as barren of habitable worlds, there should be well over a billion life-bearing worlds. Yet it only takes five colonies to be a Minor race and the Major Races are major because they each have a majestic twelve or more colonies. Twelve. Castelluci has borrowed space stations and interstellar empires from SF, but doesn’t understand how they might actually work.
2: There aren’t that many stars that are about sixteen light years from Earth. I know of seven (although there could be a newly discovered red dwarf or two I have not heard about). I would have enjoyed this book more if the author had set the space station orbiting around a specific star (like Groombridge 1618 or 40 Eridani — well, maybe not 40 Eridani) rather than around what seems to be a generic star and planet.