Thursday, June 23, 2022

Microreview: Up Against It by Laura J Mixon

 Laura J Mixon’s Up Against It is an unusual fusion of two narratives in telling the story of an asteroid settlement’s trials and tribulations several centuries hence.

Geoff has a problem. He has a brother who can do no wrong, and he can do no right. He and his friends try and make their own fun, with nanotech assemblers, with bikes, with visits to Geoff’s own small asteroid (deeded to him by an old prospector). When they are at ground zero for a disaster that strikes Phocaea, Geoff’s life gets turned upside down, and he finds himself at the center of problems facing the asteroid. It’s a classic coming of age narrative, and it's time for Geoff and his friends to step up.

Jane has a problem, too. Several of them. With her job in the bureaucracy of Phocaea, when the aforementioned disaster strikes, she has to be the person to make hard decisions (and if necessary, fall on her sword for them).  With a sudden resource crunch thanks to the disaster, the entire viability of the asteroid’s population is now in question...and evacuation except for a few is not an option. And even when she thinks she has a hold on the problems facing the asteroid, new problems and threats keep pushing her to her own limit and beyond them. Can Jane step up, too? 

Their two intertwining stories are what make up Laura Mixon’s Up Against It. 

I want to explore the book and talk about it from that perspective of it being two novels in one, because, really, it feels like there are two books here that intersect at an angle, and sometimes those intersections work, and other times it feels a little forced and a  bit of a gear clash now and again, mostly in terms of tone and feeling more than anything else. While I am sure it wasn’t written as two separate books that intersect, it certainly reads as if the two narratives, taking place at the same time and place, got braided into a single novel.

Let’s go back to Geoff’s story. Teenagers from our perspective, they have what appears to be a standard life on Phocaea. Getting into hijinks and adventures, getting into trouble, zooming through life on their bikes as it were. Even when they run into actual peril and trouble, and Geoff winds up intersecting with nearly every running plot in the entire book, there is a briskness and a lightness of tone and feeling to the entire affair. What it feels to me, having re-read a couple of them lately, is that Geoff’s story is a recapitulation, an updating, a rebranding of Golden Age Heinleinian style YA adventure in space. Geoff and the others would not be out of place in Red Planet, The Star Beast, and others, and in turn, if Podkayne came to visit Phocaea, she would fit right in with Geoff and company. Podkayne on a rocketbike is an idea worth thinking about.

Even when Geoff and his friends wind up in serious peril, and they do at multiple points in the narrative, the stakes of the novel don’t feel dire, there is a confidence that even if they are going to go through some things, and perhaps get hurt, that in the end they are going to come through it, even if we can’t quite see how. The novel does explore some sometimes tough things. Geoff’s home life, his relationship with his family and the early loss of his golden boy brother Carl, with Geoff being the “unwanted” survivor that he feels (and to be clear, his family reacts as such) of the pair to his parents. It’s weighty, it's freighted, it's tough, but again, it's keeping in the YA tradition of giving readers who themselves may have difficult home lives a role model to work it.   And while I focus on Geoff as our point of view (and he does dominate his side of the narrative, even as his companions sometimes berate him for it), we get a classic “team” of friends with well defined personalities. Ian, the impulsive one. Amaya, the one with a head on her shoulders. Kamal, the loyal one. Geoff gets the most characterization and development, although all four are distinct, and important to the flowing of events.

And then there is Jane’s narrative.  Jane is a resource manager for the asteroid, and as the opening disaster (which claims Carl’s life) threatens the viability of the asteroid’s population, Jane has to juggle a number of disasters and problems--not only the lack of resources caused by the disaster, but the attempt by the Martian Mob to move in on the asteroid, a feral sapient AI whose very existence could threaten more than just Phocaea, a weird and mysterious transhuman splinter group, and much more. Jane dances from disaster to disaster, and while she doesn’t run the settlement, she is very much the point person for all of this. 

And on top of all that, Jane has to balance and deal with local politics. If Geoff’s story is a breezy YA tale, Jane’s story is hard nosed realpolitik and how people working in an administration have to deal with the concerns of constituents, interest groups, and each other. I found the political machinations and tribulations that Jane has to deal with believable, complicated and the fact that politics often hamstrings Jane in a believable way puts paid to the notion of a single person being able to do everything in an omnicompetent way. Jane has to negotiate, compromise, and even when things turn her way,  In other words, in some ways, it feels like a critique (rather than a criticism) of Geoff’s story and plotlines. 

We also get a third point of view, but the less said about that, the better. Quaerendo Invenietis.

And in “both books”, we get lots of background, engineering, hard SF ideas (from nanotechnology to resource extraction and prospecting and much more), and a very living and vibrantly detailed setting. Again, it feels somewhat Heinleinian, lots of the aspects of the background get slid on the plate while you are following Geoff and his friends, or wrangling how to keep the Asteroid going with Jane. Group marriages, the crapsack nature of Earth (the Future is Space does feel rather like Golden Age), a sense of the politics and factions of the solar system, how AIs work, and much more. The novel isn’t all Golden Age--the queer and BIPOC representation here is very much in line with current sensibilities.  

We don’t get infodumps, its all folded into the plots and character development in a believable and smooth way. James S A Corey wrote the introduction for this new edition of the novel and definitely, if you like Belter culture and the asteroid settlements and politics of The Expanse, this is a novel that takes those ideas and puts their own spin on them.  

And I think that’s a reason why this novel’s reissue gives it a moment that can be a corrective to it being overlooked back in the day. (I discovered in the course of reading this that I had an original copy of the first version under “M J Locke”). Now that the Expanse book and TV series are at a conclusion, there is a niche there for readers who want what I’ve called “Solar System Space Opera”, books whose concerns are within the Nine (not Eight, darn it) Planets, with some solid SF engineering, politics, and adventure. Up Against It is there waiting for you. 

Although it is mostly set in a different solar system entirely, I wonder if Suzanne Palmer’s Finder wasn’t inspired by reading this book back in the day, given its asteroids setting, some similarities of the tech, and factional politics. Readers of that series looking for more might try Up Against It, and after reading Up Against It, one might slide over to Palmer’s series next. 

Still, though, in the end, the strength of this novel is also its weakness. In Geoff's story, and Jane’s story, they don’t quite always match up and align as well as they might. Individually they are solid and immersive stories that one can fall into. But when the two stories intrude onto each other, the thematic, the tonal, the feel of the two stories do not quite work together. Geoff’s story feels really out of place within Jane’s perspective and narrative, and the concerns of Jane similarly feel in a very different light from Geoff’s perspective.  I don’t think it sinks the novel, but readers should be prepared for the tonal shifts and the gear clash.It’s a boat car of a novel whose boat and whose car works better than it has any right to do so...but not quite always at the same time.

Sadly, there were, and are no more novels set in this verse, this is a self contained single novel and story. There are many places a sequel or a follow up might go in this verse, though, a multiplicity of options. I’d read much more in the world that Mixon has created here.


The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for two very strong and different narratives and perspectives, with well realized characters, personalities and problems.

+1 for a richly vibrant and realized world, Solar System Space Opera in full flower.

Penalties: -1 The two very different strong narratives don’t harmonize completely when they are thrust together. 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10  

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin

Reference: Mixon, Laura. Up Against it  [Tor reissue, 2022]