Saturday, December 22, 2007

Adam Roberts: Gradisil

In Adam Roberts's Gradisil the pioneers who settle near space around the Earth fight for their political freedom, yet somehow the viewpoint characters are unsympathetic enough that it's hard to root for them. The story follows several generations of the family that leads the fight; their cause is worthy, but they're so dysfunctional and spend so much of their time pushing at cross purposes to the higher goal that I was willing to give up on them several times.

The SF is solid; the idea is that the magnetic fields around the planet are real and coherent enough that engines can be built cheaply to exploit them and climb into space. This puts near Earth orbits within the grasp of individuals. It's a new frontier, away from the control of any particular government, so the people who move there are loners, escapists, and fringe cases of many kinds. There aren't many commercial opportunities to exploit at first, and it's hard to track the ships and stations, so the society that emerges is extremely loose-knit for a long time. There is some sense of community and neighborliness, but people who want to be left alone are left alone.

Eventually the governments figure out that having so many misfits flying overhead in uncontrolled space is a concern, and they decide to pacify and take over. The uplanders resist in a passive way that exploits their strengths, or at least relies on their smallest weaknesses. I loved the depiction of a war that is controlled by the lawyers: all the generals understand that winning on the battlefield but losing in the courtroom is not winning at all, so strategy and tactics have to be approved by the lawyers before any warlike actions can be taken.

The actual battle scenes, when they finally occur are plausible. A new environment and new technology lead to new tactics. The invaders aren't as familiar with the technology or the environment, so their expectations can be exploited by the native defenders.

The bottom line is that the Science Fiction is plausible and provides setting rather than being the focal point, the good guys are fighting for something important, but the viewpoint characters, even as they mature and are replaced by their progeny, are hard to sympathize with. The action is interesting, but it's a long struggle to get through the whole thing.

As a nominee for the Prometheus award, it lacks any explicit or implicit invocation of themes of freedom. This is a glaring weakness, since the opportunities were rampant. The SF was reasonably well developed, and that has to count in the book's favor, but I didn't enjoy the character development. I don't see Gradisil as a strong contender.

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