Book response: Losers in Space by John Barnes

(I’m kinda hesitant to call my book posts “reviews”.  That suggests a level of detachment and professionalism that I can’t really guarantee.  Sometimes I just want to feelsplode all over the internet.  Hence “response”.)

Losers in Space by John Barnes

I have no qualms at all in admitting that my creative writing background is in fan fiction.  Been writing fic since I was 12, been participating in the community since I was 16.  It’s a useful way to learn valuable skills (with the general exception of worldbuilding, unfortunately).  Not only is the internet chockers with guides to How To Write Fic But Good, but if you break the rules, people will tell you about it.  Nicely, most of the time.

Most of fan fiction’s rules can be broken, and at least someone out there will find the result entertaining.  The exception, in my experience, is this:

Never, ever, ever put author’s notes in the middle of the story.

That’s a common rookie mistake, and except in parodies of bad fic, I’ve never seen it executed well.  It’s the kind of thing that has me backspacing right out of a story.  (In this age of downloading longer fics in epub or Kindle format, it’s jarring enough to hit the otherwise acceptable end-or-beginning-of-chapter-notes.)

Until I read Losers in Space, I had never seen the mid-story author’s note appear in published fiction.  And I’ve still never seen it executed well.

Losers in Space is a YA science fiction novel set in the 22nd century, when famine, war and social divisions (and, apparently, any culture that’s not American) has been replaced by a system where work is optional, the UN provides everyone with a comfortable upper middle class income, and a tiny minority have the opportunity to become “eenies” — people whose talent or fame entitles them to much greater wealth and privilege.

The catch is, it’s not hereditary.  On reaching adulthood, the children of eenies have to demonstrate that they’re entitled to enjoy the lifestyle of their parents:  through talent, through academic achievement, or by becoming really, really famous.

As the book opens, a group of wannabes — picture the Hilton sisters, a few lesser British royals and maybe some washed up K-pop stars — set out to become famous by stowing away on a ship to Mars.  Sure, they’ll be in trouble when they’re caught, but they’ll be sooooooo famous.

The problem is, one of them is a sociopath.

Sounds pretty great, right?

In the foreword  author Barnes makes a big deal out of this being hard SF.  But he doesn’t want lots of exposition-heavy dialogue or infodumps, so he’s going to explain the sciencey stuff and some of the social background via … author’s notes shoved into the story.  They’re labelled as “notes for the interested”, and he claims it’s possible to skip them if you’re not interested.

I don’t have a science brain, so yes, I skipped over the impenetrably mathematical or scientific notes.  Problem is, there was also a lot of significant worldbuilding stuff in the notes.  And the characters still had a lot of conversations revolving entirely around technobabble, while much of the social context was limited to the notes.

I honestly can’t believe an editor let this happen!  I wanted to get out my red pen and start correcting it, or maybe cut up the book and rearrange it so it worked better.  It was just straight up bad.  I feel like the worldbuilding should have been incorporated into the story, and most of the science notes could have been removed completely.  Maybe posted on the author’s website for interested readers. It got so that I resented every page I had to flick past.

I was also unconvinced by a lot of aspects of the worldbuilding, which was fairly heavy on the cliche. It was interesting, but not necessarily plausible.

What kept me reading were the plot and the characters, which were equal parts interesting and frustrating.  Needless to say, the stowaway plan goes terribly wrong, and the teens have to fend for themselves, discovering new reserves of intelligence and competence, whilst also dealing with the sociopath in their midst.

I honestly can’t put my finger on what it was about the plot that bugged me, on account of how it was continually being interrupted by author’s notes.  The pacing occasionally lagged, but mostly I think the problem was that the characters never completely gelled for me.

For example, at the very beginning, as we’re introduced to our characters, the narrator gives a quick summary of their personalities: morose social climber, whiny self-pitier, desperately socially awkward, creepy pervert, sociopath, etc.  But many of these traits are quickly forgotten.  A couple of characters have really pleasing arcs as they evolve from the unlikable people they were into productive members of society, but most of them, as soon as they begin to interact with the heroine, show hardly any sign of their introductory traits.  They seem to be completely different people.  And while the heroine marvels several times that she never appreciated her peers before, the turnaround is unconvincing.

I also had a lot of trouble with the hero, because I couldn’t quite shake the first impression of him as a creepy pervert who essentially makes fanvids from pornography and always has a camera on the girls.

Meanwhile, the villain is supposed to be a charming sociopath, except at no point is he actually charming.  I’ve had some dealings with sociopaths in my life, and generally they sneak up on you.  I mean, one of the key aspects of sociopathy is the ability to pass for a normal person, leaving trails of people in your wake wondering if they’re the ones who are crazy.  Derlock (…I KNOW) doesn’t do that.  He’s just straight up evil.

It’s a compelling kind of straight up evil, though, and part of the reason I kept reading was to see him get his comeuppance.  SPOILERS:  (highlight to reveal, and I apologise if this doesn’t work for you!) He doesn’t.  He gets away with everything until the epilogue, in which it’s briefly mentioned that the heroine had him killed.  

One curious thing about this book is that it has a bunch of reviews on GoodReads praising it for breaking out of the YA dystopian SF mould.  It’s true that Losers in Space is a bit different from the recent run of YA SF, but … not dystopian?  This is a world where a crime is the intellectual property of the criminal, meaning that a rapist or murderer will be exonerated if he can demonstrate sufficient media interest in his “work”.  There’s a scene where the girls explain this law to the boys, who have never heard of it.  The girls, on the other hand, had a special class about it, because it puts them all at risk.

Suffice to say, a lot of the “thank heavens it’s not dystopian” reviews are coming from blokes.

It’s details like that — a literal rape culture — that kept me reading, because I was continually seeing the seeds of a much better book between the lines.  Genetically engineered animal with human intelligence?  GREAT!  He’s a pink elephant named Fwuffy with a phonetically-rendered speech impediment?  UM.

So, yes, it’s all a bit mixed.  ON THE OTHER HAND, I couldn’t put it down (except when I hit an author’s note), and I’ve just had 1200 words worth of thoughts about it.

Other stuff

  • This future is not white.  One character is described as a “pink-headed Caucasian throwback”, from which we can assume that he’s the only white kid in the group.  The heroine was genetically engineered for very dark skin. 
  • Nevertheless, of the nine people depicted on the cover, four are white, and the central girl, presumably the heroine, has light brown skin.
  • Hey, I like to keep track of these things.
  • Very few of the characters have mothers in their lives.  This seems to be a future where fathers get custody.  The heroine’s mother essentially abandoned her for reasons which aren’t fully explained.  But remember, not a dystopia.
  • The heroine’s father is an actor who has made his name as a leading man.  Most of his movies seem to be remakes of early to mid 20th century films, which are quoted several times.  It’s a nifty trick for creating a body of pop culture that’s familiar to the audience, or so I thought when I Arthur C. Clarke did it in 2010.  I was also eleven at the time.
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