Up Against It: smart, whiz-bang space opera pits astro-bureaucrats against rogue AIs

MJ Locke's Up Against It is the cracking first volume of WAVE, a space-opera series that manages to be both original -- full of smart new ways of looking at science fiction ideas -- and old fashioned -- full of the kind of whiz-bang action-adventure that made so many of us fall in love with the field in the first place.

The plot: Geoff and pals are a group of plucky young folks living in an asteroid habitat called Phocaea, a distant outpost of humanity on the Solar system's frontier. They're your basic high-spirited youngsters, enjoying such pass-times as hacking matter compilers to produce dancing skeletons that prance through the low-gee communal areas, using their rocket-bikes to salvage methane ice shrapnel that flies away when the colony brings in a big (and vital) rock of the stuff, and figuring out how to avoid the ubiquitous surveillance motes that are the million eyes of 'Stroiders, a reality-TV show whose Earthside producers have paid handsomely for the privilege of spying on every detail of the Phocaeans' lives. (See what I mean about whiz-bang space-opera nift?)

Things are not as good as they seem, though. A mysterious act of sabotage kills Geoff's brother Carl and puts the entire colony at risk. And in short order, we discover that the whole thing may have been cooked up by the Martian mafia, as a means of executing a coup and turning Phocaea into a client-state. As if that wasn't bad enough, there's a rogue AI that was spawned during the industrial emergency and slipped through the distracted safeguards, and a giant x-factor in the form of the Viridians, a transhumanist cult that lives in Phocaea's bowels.

In addition to Geoff, the story revolves around Jane, the colony's resource manager, and her scenes are every bit as engrossing as Geoff's hijinx: Jane is a bureaucrat engineer in charge of keeping the plumbing running on an artificial island of humanity poised on the knife-edge of hard vacuum and unforgiving space. She's more than a century old, and good at her job, but she is torn between the technical demands of the colony and the political realities of her situation, in which the fishbowl effect of 'Stroiders is compounded by a reputation economy that turns every person into a beauty contest competitor. Locke's account of the gubbins and manoeuvring involved in keeping politics and engineering in harmony are sure to warm every geek's heart.

Though this is Locke's debut novel, I have it on good authority that "Locke" is the pseudonym for an accomplished sf writer who is trying out some new directions, and certainly this doesn't read like a first-timer's book. Rather, it is sophisticated, smartly plotty, and full of science fictional gracenotes and in-jokes that tickled me pink.

Up Against It