A cursory glance at the genre makes it clear that Randall Garrett did not invent Belters, those stalwarts of the asteroid belt. Examples abound in older SF, in the works of Smith, Heinlein, and Leinster. But Randall Garrett’s Belter stories seem to have been the strongest influence on Larry Niven, who lifted the Belter culture wholesale for his Known Space series. After this, Niven’s Belters seem to have had the greatest influence on later authors.
But enough literary history! Let’s just note that the Belt and the riches it might hold are irresistible for authors looking for rugged frontiers in which to set their tales. Consider these five comparatively recent works.
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (2011)
While Martians can point with pride to their ongoing efforts to terraform Mars, and Earth can point to an economy teetering in the edge of post-scarcity, Belters are busy resenting the boot on their necks that is the power of the two rich planet—power that has not been exercised in the interests of the Belters. This isn’t a new thing; neither Mars nor Earth got where they are now by worrying about the well-being of employees. Why should they care about the workers of the Belt-based resource extraction industries?
Thus, the ongoing efforts of the Outer Planets Alliance to liberate the Belt by any means necessary. Thus the determination of Mars and Earth to paint the OPA as wild-eyed terrorists.
Neither Detective Miller nor spacer Jim Holden have any great interest in politics. Miller would like to salvage his declining career by locating a missing heiress. Jim Holden just wants to finish his latest tour on the ice-miner Canterbury. A distress call in deep space should have nothing to do with a missing persons case on Ceres. Nevertheless, both are facets of a grand scheme by secretive visionaries to upend the interplanetary order … at any cost.
Up Against It by M. J. Locke (2011)
By the 24th century, humans can be found everywhere in the solar system, from the inner system all the way out to the Kuiper belt. This is possible in large part thanks to a trade network spanning the system. The network ensures that vital resources like volatiles are transported cheaply and reliably from source to destination. A case in point: asteroid 25 Phocaea (and its one settlement, Zekeston) flourish because the settlement can import the volatiles it lacks.
What Zekeston accepts as necessity, others see as opportunity. A disaster leaves Zekeston short on volatiles. Ogilvie and Sons is the only company in a position to resupply Zekeston in time to save its population. Ogilvie and Sons is more than willing to do this, provided Zekeston submits to rule by Ogilvie and Sons. Zekeston’s head of resource management, Jane Navio, is determined to save her adopted community from the predatory corporation. Whether she can do so with the resources at hand—some sympathetic functionaries and a gang of plucky kids—is unclear.
The Dark Colony by Richard Penn (2014)
Like the other colonies of the asteroid belt, 81 Terpsichore was settled thanks not to technological breakthrough, but to social adaptation. The realities of living in constrained circumstances in isolated deep space communities demand cooperation rather than amoral individualism. Terpischorean cop Lisa Johansen is happy to live in this Belter society, even though the Westermarck Effect (inevitable in such a small community) limits her love life considerably. But that’s just the way it is on Terpischore.
A corpse is discovered. The dead man is a stranger, something that should be impossible in a community as small as that orbiting 81 Terpsichore. Nor does he seem to have come from any neighboring communities. He must have come from a colony that has kept its existence a secret.
Lisa discovers that there is just such a colony. Why and how it exists challenge Johansen’s belief in the Belter way of life.
Dead Space by Kali Wallace (2021)
The researchers aboard Symposium set off for Titan with grand plans for their future on Saturn’s moon. Black Halo terrorists, hidden within the crew, ensured that those plans would never come to fruition. A series of well-timed explosions severely damaged the ship and killed most of its crew. A handful of survivors were retrieved from the wreckage by Parthenope Enterprises…but not for free. Parthenope Enterprises expects repayment, even if it takes the rest of the survivors’ lives.
Rebuilt by Parthenope doctors, Hester Marley has perforce joined Parthenope’s security forces, paying down her massive medical debt case by case. The suspicious death she is assigned to investigate would be nothing special…except that the dead man, David Prussenko, is an old friend who sent Hester an enigmatic message out of the blue mere hours before he died. Easy enough to follow the trail back to an isolated asteroid community. Escaping the killer with whom she is now in close quarters may prove harder.
Delta-v by Daniel Suarez (2019)
Nathan Joyce believes the only sustainable path to continued growth—indeed, the only way to avoid a civilization-ending crash—given the stark reality of climate change is to shift resource extraction away from Earth and into space. Step one: land a crewed spacecraft on an asteroid to mine water and metals.
Veteran cave diver James Tighe is invited to join billionaire Nathan Joyce’s visionary space project. Success depends on the eight-person crew avoiding potentially deadly hazards: radiation, vacuum, zero-g. And perhaps the hazard that is Nathan Joyce himself.
No doubt for every recent novel I’ve mentioned, ten came to readers’ minds. Feel free to discuss them all in the comments below.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF(where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.