Oh, Hard SF, how I always want to understand you. How I wish there was more YA hard SF, for the smart young adults who, from the fiction they read, dream the world into being. How I struggle to comprehend more than basic physics in starship propulsion and all of that space stuff. How awesome is John Barnes for creating in this book the perfect balance between story and science. His "Notes for the Interested?" Brilliant use of infodump sites.
Know someone smart? Pick this up for them. Know someone who doesn't think they "get" hard SF? Pick this up for them. This is a successful crossover and though it has a female narrator, will be greatly enjoyed by the gents, too.
Reader Gut Reaction: This is nine-tenths satire -- there are just too many funny little lines to mention. Earth society, in 2129, is fully stratified. Due to the Permanent Peace and Prosperity laws (PermaPaxPerity), people are divvied up into the Eenies, who are the cream of the crop, both intellectually and socially, the Meenies - or the meanies, who are psychopathic nutjobbers, the Mineys, who are minor players, the middle-class basically allowed to take their shot at becoming an Eenie and be a consumer, and the Moes, who are straight up, faceless losers about whom no one cares much at all. Mineys and Moes always want to be Eenies, who are entertainers and celebrities. However, you have to work hard for that kind of recognition - PotEvals are a lot like some sort of huge SAT thing, and your score is just one part of the work it takes to become an Eenie. The rest is your social networking street cred. Imagining a world where social networking and viral everything is what happens - and even adults have to compete and participate, like it is high school is kind of sick-making. The novel reminded me a lot of FEED at first, and I was thinking, "No, no, no." And then, there came the first of many little twists. This idiotic girl, Susan, and her slightly disturbing friend-with-bennies, Derlock, decide, with their tribe of moes and mineys, to become famous. They're going to hitch a ride on Susan's Aunt Destiny's ship, Virgo, which is doing a fly-by of Mars. They know they won't get into trouble - once discovered, they'll be too popular, too famous to fall. No one will make them go back - if they stow away aboard a shuttle and pop out at the last minute, there's not enough fuel to turn around.
Nine teens on a joy ride into space. What could possibly go wrong?
Concerning Character: Susan, Derlock, Glisters, Stack, F.B., Fleeta, Emerald, Marioschke, and Wychee are complex and unique characters. As with everyone, you see glimpses of good and bad, redemptive and irredeemable behavior from every single person -- things which amuse, and things which hint at the darker corners of our psyches. Susan is our narrator, and so I'll concentrate on her. She comes across, from the first, as a real eejit. She knows her boyfriend is scary - but scary is hot, see, 'cause she figures she'll be known someday because she is the girlfriend of the boy Who Did Something Scary/Huge/Headline-inducing. Her main concern in life is being filmed with That Boy or This One and having pieces of her footage uplinked to various other sites. Her other concern is avoiding Glister, who is freaky and too pink and has a huge head and no muscles and an intensely weird crush on her. The root of Susan's avoidance of things (other than Glister) is Fleeta, her once-best-friend, a one-time genius who took a hit too many of a drug which has ruined her mind. Fleeta is happy... endlessly happy, and unable to have deeper emotions or reactions. Susan feels her losses so deeply that she distances herself from her feeling anything at all, except the need to become famous and Be Something Else. Eventually, it is this distancing ability which serves her will to survive.
Recommended for Fans Of...:FEED, by M.T. Anderson, TUNNEL IN THE SKY and STARSHIP TROOPERS, Robert Heinlen, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, Beth Revis, EARTHSEED, Pamela Seargeant, and soooo many of the more classic, man-against-nature/man-against-man classic SFF novels. This book you'll want to keep and read again.
Themes & Things: I think Tor's review of this novel used just the right words in their title: Dying to be Famous. Though the book is ostensibly set in 2129, there are some obvious parallels, and Barnes really takes a few sharp pokes at the way Western society consumes "infotainment" on celebrity culture. He makes some darker points about the judicial system's leniency toward institutions and the idea of being Too Big To Fail - which leads both reader and novel to a disturbing conclusion or two.
The one thing this novel DOES NOT do is discuss ethnicity or gender inequality. I am assuming the author believed that by 2129 we'd be over issues of gender or ethnicity. While I am glad to see that this future includes brown people, I wonder at the absence the other.
As I've already said, this novel, for me balanced story with science very well, and has received ecstatic reviews from all over, including @ Kirkus, by our Leila. I'm glad I picked it up.
Cover Chatter: Slices of faces on a YA novel cover: Okay. Faces of males AND females of various ethnicities: Better. Faces on a background reminiscent of Pigs in Space: Best Yet. (Okay, maybe only I'm making that leap.) I like that the faces appear to have lines interfering with the clarity of the images is representative of the fact that Mars is a looooong ways from home.
Need to read a little preview to be further convinced you need this book? You're welcome.
You can find LOSERS IN SPACE by John Barnes at an independent bookstore near you!