Oct 5 2010 12:55pm

Trains on the moon: John M. Ford’s Growing Up Weightless

At the heart of John M. Ford's Growing Up Weightless (1993) is a train trip by a group of teenaged roleplayers across the far side of the moon. It's also the story of how thirteen year old Matt Ronay discovers what growing up means, and how his father Albin writes a symphony about water on the moon. It's set four generations after Luna became independent—and that's Lunna, not Loonam, and absolutely never call it “the Moon,” as if it were something Earth owned. This is a future with complex history that feels real. There's a story going on in the background about water and sacrifice and power politics. In fact there's a lot going on here—of course there is, it's a John M. Ford novel—but most of all it's about Matt Ronay and his roleplaying group making a trip from Copernicus to Tsiolkovsky Observatory on the train, two days there and two days back, without asking permission or telling their parents where they're going. It's wonderful.

This is a solid science fiction future that feels absolutely real and worked out in every detail. We see a whole complex universe as it spreads out from Matt; Matt is our stone dropped into the puddle of this universe. He lives in Copernicus and hates Earth, resents his father, resents the constant surveillance he lives under, and is caught up with his group of friends and their computer-mediated roleplaying game. He wants to go to the stars. His family have been important since his great-grandfather was one of the signatories to the declaration of independence. His father, Albin, is trying to solve the problem of water, in an antagonistic relationship with the Earth company Vaccor. His mother, Sonia, is a surgeon fitting people up with the enhancements they will need for space. She doesn't communicate well. Ships come in from the New Worlds, worlds around other stars, and Matt watches the ships land and longs passionately to be on one. Meanwhile he and his friends are getting old enough to accept jobs—Matt has offers, from Transport, from a theatre company, but none of them will let him leave home. He feels oppressed by the fact of Earth hanging in the sky above him. The secret trip to Tsiolkovsky is important because it's something they are doing unobserved and in the last moment before they have to take up responsibility.

As with Delany's Triton, Growing Up Weightless shows us a utopia from the point of view of people who aren't aware it's a utopia. They have faster than light travel and New Worlds out there, government is by consensus and committees meet in VR. Matt percieves his father and his world as oppressive, but he's thirteen—I've never seen both sides of a parent/teenager relationship done as well as they are done here. This is a better world—moon—for teenagers than anything else I can think of. And they have trains. (The appendices on the trains, for people really very interested in trains on the moon—that would be me—can be found in the collection From The End of the Twentieth Century.)

If John M. Ford had a flaw as a writer it was assuming too much. He never talked down to the reader. This is a book where every word has to be read with full focused attention, or it absolutely will not make sense. Even with full attention I know I didn't understand everything that was going on the first time I read it. It's a book I enjoyed the first time with a side order of “huh?”, and which I have liked more and more as I have re-read it and seen more and more in it. This is definitely a book that rewards re-reading, that blossoms and flowers on re-reading, a book I plan to re-read every few years for the rest of my life and see more in every time. I also think I'd have loved it when I was thirteen.

Growing Up Weightless is set very firmly within the points of view of the Ronay family, and they know what they know and don't think about it more than they naturally would. The point of view moves between Matt and Albin and (more rarely) Sonia as their paths cross. There's the central story to do with Matt growing up, and the background story to do with Albin and the water, and they coincide in the way father and thirteen year old sons usually do, rockily. There's also a sub-plot to do with Avakian, co-discoverer of the FTL drive. There's the relationship between Earth and Luna, there's the relationship between the solar system and the rest of the universe, there's the group of roleplayers and the dynamics within them. All of this, and the future in which they are all embedded, is written with the full fractal complexity of reality.

It's not surprising that Ford got the roleplaying right—he was a major RPG writer and designer, winning three Origins Awards. But roleplaying, and gaming in general, is usually so badly done in books that I want to put up a sign ten feet tall with blinking lights saying “Look, he got the RPG right!” The kids are playing a Robin Hood style game, within a VR interface in which the GM has programmed NPCs and situations for them. This prefigures World of Warcraft (the book is 1993!) but it's also got the feel of a real gaming group, that's social interaction as much as anything. They're using VR to see what the characters see, but they're doing the dialogue from their own hearts. When the tech gets to the point where you can design your own worlds, this is what we will have. The computers too don't feel clunky—they might in another ten years, but for now the slates feel like future iPhones. Shall I say 1993 again? There's nothing here that makes you feel the book wasn't written yesterday. And it's full of the little details that make it feel solid—for instance, after so much about Matt hating the Earth and the Earth tourists (“Slammers”) and defining Luna in opposition to Earth, we get a traveller from another solar system casually referring to “the Terralune.”

Most books are in dialogue with other books, and this one speaks especially to Heinlein—to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and its Lunar revolution, and to Space Family Stone and its happy family leaving the post-revolutionary moon.

This is one of Ford's best books, written at the top of his powers, and I recommend it very highly.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. CarlosSkullsplitter
I have to say, I found the "Terralune" thing unusually heavyhanded for Ford. Frankly, it jarred me. If the creation of the first FTL drive is still within living memory, are new interstellar cultures *really* going to come up with cutesy portmanteau words for the home planet? Let alone engage in the sort of comparative analysis they do.

(Are there even going to be new interstellar cultures, instead of third-generation expat communities with a big dose of cultural cringe? History suggests not so much.)

On the other hand, the Baudrillardization of society, that's pure gold.
Beth Friedman
2. carbonel
The first time I read the book, I missed the one line about a particular requirement for space travel (that's about as nonspoilery as I can get), and thus missed a great deal of the conflict in the book.

Picked it up, though, on the next reading, which followed almost immediately.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Carlos: It's one very long lifetime, it's a couple of hundred years. And newspapers are forever coming up with cutesy names ("Celtic Tiger") and I saw it like that.
4. CarlosSkullsplitter
Comments eaten, reconstructing via Google cache and memory:

Jo, I'm almost positive it's much shorter than that. Ah:

"That's right. And, being Lunar, you all know how old the Avakian-Gold equations are, just as old as your Independence, and the interstellar voyages just about sixty years old."

Page 198 of the Bantam trade paperback.
The stateless interstellar traders, with their specialized cultural officer and their customary practices for dealing with difficult political situations, in addition to the cutesy jargon -- "formal trade language" where a merchant marine captain will grant any reasonable boon? really? but not know if the word "Mister" is used in the home system? uh-huh. -- my disbelief just doesn't suspend that far. Not in sixty years. It's like finding the Bene Gesserit as presidential advisors.

But it's jarring only because the worldbuilding in the rest of the book is so solid. A minor flaw in an otherwise very good book.

(It's hard to see, given his transportation system, how the Solar System could be anything but central for interstellar traders after only sixty years of development. Hypothesis: Ford made the traders too RPG-y, not basing them in history or economics.)
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Thanks, Carlos. OK, you're right, and you're right that it's a minor flaw too.
Beth Meacham
6. bam
Living as I do in a world where the term "Brangalina" can be coined and become nearly universally understood over the course of a couple years, I don't have any doubts about Terralune.
8. Liz Henry
A couple of years ago when this was one of the two Books of Honor at Potlatch, we had a great panel talking about the complexities of Growing Up Weightless, with particular focus on the ways it got gaming right. I also love Ford's elisions and the way Weightless expands on re-reading!

Seems like I took notes on the panel and wrote it up somewhere, but maybe they never got posted.
10. hobbitbabe
Oh! I really need to reread this book (and to buy it, and maybe a spare so I can lend it, like Rite of Passage. ) Thanks for reminding me. So often, I like the world and not the story, or the story and not the world, but I like both in this book.

I also loved the line in ... was it Pamela Dean's Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary? anyway, someone has a character say that she or he is almost afraid to read Growing Up Weightless, for fear it won't live up to the title.
11. Joel Polowin
One remarkable structural detail, which I didn't notice until it was pointed out to me, is that pretty much the entire book is a single tracking shot. (I seem to recall that when I last reread it, watching for that flow, there was one point where I thought there was an arguable break. But I don't remember the details.)
Bruce Cohen
12. SpeakerToManagers
Even more remarkable, Joel, is that that one long tracking shot flows in and out of VR pretty seamlessly. The artist that comes to mind for comparison when I think of Mike Ford is Fred Astaire, who made incredibly difficult moves look impossibly easy.

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