Hard SF isn’t what I would consider my forte - though I enjoy it every once a while I don’t exactly I don’t partake in the reading of it to the same degree as I do say fantasy. This means that I can be a particularly exigent reader when it comes to this particular sub-genre, but it also means that when I encounter a quality hard SF I’m not afraid to say so. M. J. Locke’s debut, Up Against It, is just one such quality read. An intelligent, solid plot and plenty of science counterbalance some unfortunately weak characterization to achieve a very attractive debut for fans of hard SF but which will not satisfy readers trying to approach this sub-genre for the first time.
Jane Navio is the resource manager of Phocaea, an asteroid colony poised on the knife edge of hard vacuum and unforgiving space. A mishap has dumped megatons of water and methane out of the colony’s air lock, putting the entire human population at risk.
Jane discovers that the crisis may have been engineered by the Martian crime syndicate, as a means of executing a coup that will turn Phocaea into a client-state. And if that wasn’t bad enough, an AI that spawned during the emergency has gone rogue... and there’s a giant x-factor in the form of the transhumanist Viridian cult that lives in Phocaea’s bowels.
Jane’s in the prime of her career - she’s only a bit more than a century old - but the conflict between politics and life-support is tearing her apart. To save her colony and her career, she's going to have to solve several mysteries at once - a challenge that will put her up against all the difficulties, contradictions, and awkward compromises entailed in the human colonization of outer space.
Complex storylines are usually a staple of the hard SF sub-genre and as such these types of books demand much attention. This is the case with Up Against It, which merges together rampant AIs, asteroid jumping and mob conspiracies in a far-future setting which needs takes a while to comprehend and get accustomed to in the first place. Locke expresses her vision of how humans will be living three hundred years down the line, and that vision includes genetic enhancements, incomprehensibly complex computer systems, a twist on reality TV and much more.
Because of the technicalities of it’s nature, Up Against It suffers from a case of weak characterization. Most of the characters, genetically modified or not, come off as rigid and stereotyped. They aren’t exactly boring characters, but neither are they very interesting - they sit shallowly between those two extremes. Each character serves its purpose in the overall plot, but not much more. If you cannot do without strong characterization, then I’m afraid Up Against It will most likely not make the cut for you.
Since its plot is much stronger let’s talk more about that. The plot of Up Against It concerns itself with the struggle for survival of the independent asteroid Phocaea as it becomes cut off from necessary resources and simultaneously attacked from within by a rogue artificial intelligence. The plot branches off into different storylines from there as different characters battle separate elements as they strive to save Phocaea.
If Locke’s writing was lacking in terms of characterization, she makes up for it in the sharpness, intensity and intelligence of her plot. Various sub-plots - which brilliantly make use of a tangle of new and old science fiction ideas - mesh together with precision, while all of it is told at an alluring pace. The intricacy and plausibility of the setting reveals an inviting attention to detail on Locke’s part - if only that could have been true for her characters as well. Because it’s true, despite the neatness and quality of the plot, I can’t help but think of how much more compelling Up Against It would have been with better characters...
As it is, Up Against It is a fine display of hard SF from a new name in the genre scene (though Locke has previously been published under another name). Fans of this sub-genre will be pleased with the plot and will find that it hits all the right marks. For those that aren’t such die hard fans of science fiction, this is perhaps not the best of novels to try out. Since I feel my review still might be unclear, final verdict: Up Against It is perfect for fans of hard SF, but will probably not be making any new converts. Despite the weak characters I did find myself enjoying Up Against It, and look forward to the opportunity of reading more of Locke’s work.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Reading Age: 15 and up
M.J. Locke's Website: http://feralsapient.com/
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