In 2129, the world would seem to be a much better place. Peace and prosperity are available to all, with only a small percentage of the population needed to perform essential functions. Technology has advanced to the point where robots and automation handle almost everything, genetic engineering is common, and in-system space travel is well-established.
Under the aegis of the Permanent Peace and Prosperity (PermaPaxPerity), 96% of the population have become classified as “mineys,” those who live on the social minimum and pursue their various hobbies. Less than 1% are “meanies,” the sociopaths and criminals who aren’t satisfied with the status quo. 3% fall into the “eligible for employment,” or “eenies.” They’re the celebrities, superstars, entertainers. The truly rich and powerful. You’re not born an eenie, you become one. Even the children of eenies must work towards this goal; nothing is given, only earned. And so there are the inevitable disappointments, the failures, the losers. Or, as they put it, the “moes.” (Tell me you didn’t see that one coming.)
This is the story of a group of moes with a grandiose, foolhardy, even reckless plan to become eenies: They’re going to stowaway on a flight to Mars, become famous, and use that to jumpstart their eenie careers. What could possibly go wrong with that plan?
Everything starts off well. Susan, Derlock, Glisters, Stack, F.B., Fleeta, Emerald, Marioschke, and Wychee manage to sneak onto the Virgo as it heads for Mars. Ideally, the whole thing will only take a few weeks. Unfortunately, soon after that, an explosion cripples the ship, kills the crew, disables communications, and sends the stowaways onwards to Mars with no one knowing they’re there. They have plenty of supplies, but no way to call for help, and only a small margin for error. Assuming they can even control the ship. First things first, they set up a chain of command, get things in order, and hope for the best.
Unfortunately, Marioschke is a total flake. Fleeta’s brain-damaged from the use of a drug called happistuf, F.B. has no confidence, Stack’s a bully, and Derlock is a ruthless, unrepentant sociopath. Oh yeah. This is going to go so well.
As the story progresses, things go from bad to worse. Derlock’s scheming results in several deaths, and personality conflicts lead to further chaos. Some people step up under the pressure, others crumple. It looks like this stab at fame may be the death of them all .
Losers in Space is a well, it’s an odd book. John Barnes has never aimed for anything easy or simple, and this is no exception. In some ways, it’s a callback to the old Heinlein juveniles: a group of adolescents trapped in a runaway spaceship, forced to deal with each other, while operating under the constraints of “hard science.” (No anti-gravity, force fields, or magic solutions here. Just orbital mechanics, reaction mass, and things that obey scientific logic.) It’s also a reaction to the headlines: it’s a world where you can be famous for being famous, where celebrities are more important than the law, where celebutantes have a lot to live up to. Entertainment is paramount, lawyers get away with murder, and style is everything. So the juxtaposition of Heinlein themes and modern attitude leads to a rather weird aftertaste.
Let’s get the problems out of the way first. On the surface, this is a wonderfully-engaging book, with plenty of detail to accurate science, sharp characterization, a tense plot and a diverse cast. (Okay, those are all good things.) But when you look closer, a few things do pop out.
For one, Barnes makes the odd choicehe calls it a compromiseto deliver a series of info dumps as “Notes For The Interested,” sidebars which come as needed to elaborate on various aspects of the setting: history and backstory, technology, culture, and so forth. They’re written directly to the reader, which makes it feel as though the author is actually taking the reader aside to whisper into their ear. For me, it felt almost intrusive at times, yanking me out of the story and reminding me that I’m an outsider. I can’t help but wonder if they’d have worked better if presented via in-universe context, whether from the narrator, or some other appropriate medium.
For another, some of the slang and futuristic terminology can be a little offputting. The characters frequently speak of meeds and styling, hooks and splycters, while discussing the media-centric world they live in. However, they also use one slang term that, frankly, drove me nuts: “sheeyeffinit” (sound it out, you’ll see.) Call it a personal thing, but it just didn’t work for me.
However, minor quibbles aside, there’s plenty of things which do work. As I said, the cast is diverse: the narrator (and nominal heroine) of the book is, at the very least, a mixed-race character of color and casually bisexual (in that she looks for those who’ll help her fame without worrying about gender) and no one gives her any grief for it. The other characters range the spectrum (and the cover reflects this.) There’s a wide range of personalities, ambitions, and temperaments, enough to keep the cast from getting easily confused. Yes, most of them are portrayed in a fairly negative light, especially at first when we’re supposed to see them as losers, but some of the cast really do develop into complex individuals. (Poor Fleeta: brain like a golden retriever, but with flashes of her original brilliance still shining through at times.) Derlock? Pretty much a nasty piece of work, through and through. But Susan, Wychee, Marioschke, and Glister all have a chance to shine and grow.
Overlook the casual sex, rampant drug use, acts of violence, and bizarre societal standards which lead to much of the plot’s later tension, and you’ll see that this is a YA science fiction adventure with a strong resonance to its forebears. While it could have been better in places, it’s still quite satisfying.
Oh, and did I mention the talking, flying, pink elephant? Yeah. That happens.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at www.michaelmjones.com. He is the editor of the forthcoming Scheherazade’s Facade anthology.