BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An asteroid colony is befallen by tragedy, including a life-threatening catastrophe linked with Martian gangsters and an AI gone rogue.
PROS: Lots of meaty story elements, any one of which could be the premise for a story on its own; multi-faceted worldbuilding; interesting and real characters.
CONS: At times, some of the book’s structure showed through the story.
BOTTOM LINE: A fun world to visit with lots of areas ripe for further exploration.
M.J. Locke’s fast-moving and densely packed novel Up Against It takes place on the asteroid colony of Phocaea and predominantly focuses on two main characters. There’s Geoff, a seventeen year-old gene mod whiz who likes to produce harmless-but-annoying dancing skeletons for fun when he’s not salvaging leftover methane ice from the asteroid’s last big shipment. And there’s Jane Navio, Phocaea’s resource allocation chief, whose job becomes a whole lot more difficult when (for starters) a serious accident puts the lives of the colonists in jeopardy.
As if the emergency of losing life-preserving ice isn’t enough to keep the characters occupied, it is soon learned that the accident looks like the handiwork of the Martian mafia — part of a power play designed to take control of Phocaea. That’s not going to happen on Jane’s watch, she vows; but she may have little say in the matter since – when it rains, it pours — a rogue artificial intelligence has emerged that also threatens their survival.
On the surface, Up Against It appears to be a novel that wants to have it all, mixing several premises together into a cohesive whole. To some extent, that’s true; it’s part survival story, part rogue AI story, and part “us vs. the mafia” story. But to realize that is to see how expertly the author pulls it off. Each of these elements works and provides its own unique level of enjoyment. The worst that can be said about stuffing so much in is that some of the intersecting lines show. The rogue AI plot thread, for example, is largely resolved long before the end of the novel. The aftertaste can be interpreted by some to be something that was thrown in at the last minute. Even if it was, that doesn’t negate the fact that that thread provided some of the riveting dramatic parts of the novel.
Lending to that dramatic pull were the realistic character portrayals. Geoff was sympathetic because he was a likable young man who suffered a loss. His story is a coming-of-age story and as such, that thread can be viewed as a young-adult story within another novel, if you will. Jane was also likable, as she was tough-but-caring, sympathetic to the people on the colony and their personal situations, and always giving her all against seemingly impossible odds. Her story, though largely revolving around asteroid politicking, was still fairly riveting. It did seem, however, that said politicking sometimes took precedence over the more immediate emergency of having too few resources to ensure survival.
The author should be commended on the level of worldbuilding achieved in the novel. The reader is never forgetful of the fact that the novel takes place in low-g environments, for example. There are several other nice touches as well: the Viridians, a community of gene-modifying transhumanists who usually keep to themselves deep within the asteroid; the limited privacy of Phocaea citizens, sold away to the producers of Earth’s ultimate reality show, ‘Stroiders (a scary and all-too-probable extrapolation); the goodwill economy of “sammies”, public Good Samaritan points awarded by the citizens; the existence of multiple-partner marriages; rejuvenation treatments; the cool personal tech everyone has access to; and more. Any one of these elements was a welcome inclusion and it suitably ripe for further exploration should there be more stories set in this universe. I hope there will be. This world was a fun place to visit.