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2010/10/26

Jailbait in Space

Rocket Girls
by Housuke Nojiri

The Solomon Space Agency, a semi-private enterprise trying to put a man in orbit, has a problem: their newest rocket design just doesn't work. It keeps exploding on the launchpad. With their backers threatening to cut funding, Director Nasuda decides upon a desperate course -- they'll switch back to an older, more reliable model. The only problem is, the old rocket doesn't have enough payload capacity. By stripping down the capsule to bare essentials and putting their astronaut on a severe diet, they should be able to get into orbit by the end of the year.

Unfortunately, astronaut Yasakawa isn't too keen on this plan -- he thinks 110 pounds is a little to thin. But the SSA has a stroke of luck when they stumble upon young Yukari Morita, a Japanese school girl who came to the Solomons to look for her dad, who went missing many years before on his honeymoon. Twisting her arm, Nasuda soon has Yakari in astronaut training.

Sound silly? It is. Yukari is the only sane person in the entire book -- rocket scientists, physicians, even cosmonauts, behave like boobs. Nor is it simply that this is a YA novel where the kids are smart and adults idiots, because when SSA recruits a second teenage astronaut, she proves just as spacey as everyone else. I had a hard time with the humor at first, but that changed around page 40 when Yukari had her first class with Flight Director Kinoshita, who couldn't believe that a 14 year old girl didn't know integral calculus and reverse Polish notation.

"It doesn't have an equals button."

"Of course it doesn't!" He looked like he might burst a vein. "Haven't you heard of reverse Polish notation?"

Yukari brought her hand down on her desk with a bang. "Obviously not!"

"Then I'm going to spend the next five minutes drilling it into your head. When I'm finished, you'll never want to touch a normal calculator again."


I don't know why, but that scene flipped a switch in my head and suddenly I got the humor. When the next scene came and the chief of security put Yukari into a live-fire exercise on her first day of survival training, I had no problem with the absurdity.

Yet despite all that, the book is hard-SF -- Nojiri strains plausibility occassionally, but the technology is mostly stuff that exists, only better. The biggest stretch (so to speak) is the skin-tight spacesuit SSA designs for Yukari. It's only intended for use in the capsule, but it does work in vacuum provided the wearer is shaded from the sun. Nojiri notes in his afterword that when he originally wrote the book in '95, he considered the suit to be impossible tech, but MIT is conducting research into similar technology.

Overall the book reads like an old fashioned Heinlein juvenile, except Yukari could kick Podkayne's ass back to Mars.

2010/10/06

The Lord of the Sands of Time






Japan, AD 248

(A story set in Japan before the emergence of samurai? Oh, Issui Ogawa. That explains it.)

Miyo, the oracular Princess Himiko, has left the palace to walk through the countryside with her bodyguard Kan. They climb Mount Shiki and spy the distant harbor of Suminoe. Kan wonders if any of the ships they see might be from Wei, or Kentak, or Roma.

(Roma? Did the 3rd Century Japanese know about Rome?)

Miyo answers that the distance makes it unlikely -- the embassy she sent to Roma had lost half its ships on the roundtrip voyage.

(Diplomatic contact between Japan and Rome? That doesn't sound right at all.)

But sea trade has been improving, and it's only a matter of decades before permanent trade routes can be established. Already Japan has had contact with the red-skinned men of Kentak beyond the Eastern Ocean.

(Wait what?)

The men of Kentak and Roma had been eager to exchange laws and discover that Japan, like all lands they know, follow the Law of the Messenger, an ancient commandment for all people to cooperate with their neighbors to ward of the Disaster that must eventually come.

Suddenly a mononoke, a giant insect-like monster appears and tries to kill Miyo. Kan defends her, but he's no match for the beast. Then a mysterious figure appears and slays the mononoke. The man introduces himself as O, a messenger from the future, and warns Miyo that this mononoke was just the vanguard of an army that's gathering beyond her borders.

O, we soon learn, is an android from the year 2598. The mononoke, or ETs, have wiped out all life in the inner-solar system, and humanity has retreated to the outer system and extra-solar colonies. The war had stalemated, with what little momentum remained on the side of humanity, so the ETs constructed time machines to take the war into the past. Humans respond by dispatching an army of androids to the past to defend the timeline.

All fairly standard stuff. But the book is much better thought-out than most time-war stories I've read. For one thing, neither side mucks about with subtelty -- no one bothers with covert-ops to kill great leaders before they're born, or to wreck some important historical event. In fact, the Messengers have totally written off their original timeline and only wish to establish a victorious future. When they emerge in a past era, they immediately contact the powers that be, tell them the situation, and ask for help. Unfortunately this doesn't always help, and many of the new timelines fall to the ETs. And even if the Messengers do emerge victorious in one era, the ETs can just travel downwhen a few more centuries and start over.

As both sides move further into the past, they deplete their supplies. The ETs have to rely upon what they can build in each time, while the Messengers bootstrap local cultures to a level that can stand against the enemy. By the time both sides reach the 3rd Century ... well, things are pretty grim for both sides.

However, no matter how bad the situation gets, the book itself remains optimistic. Our Heroes may be fighting against a massive zerg rush with their backs literally to the sea, but the tone never flips to "Doomed, doomed, doomidy-doomed" mode. Just as in Tolkien, you know there's a eucatastrophe waiting to happen. When it finally comes, it borders on a deus ex machina, even though it follows logically from the rules laid out for time travel.

One thing I dislike about much SF is the way protagonists always have a post-Enlightenment mindset no matter what sort of culture they're from. Ogawa avoids this nicely, having Miyo be more alien than O. At one point, O describes the American Civil War to her and Kan, and they both respond in horror at the cruelty of the North for wanting to free slaves (they believe slaves would die without masters). Although Miyo's a strong female character, she is in no way a feminist in the way Robert Jordan's or George R. R. Martin's women are. She dislikes her position of mystic royalty, for which she was selected Lama-like, but she doesn't whine about it the way most Western heroes in the Campbellian style do. Instead of avoiding the Call to Adventure, she shoulders the responsibility because it's her responsibility.

O, for his part, is more than human without any of the pinnochioisms usually found in such characters in Western science fiction. He's not the sort to ask, "What is this love which you speak of?" He does have a quest for meaning in his life, but it's an entirely human one, not much different from what Mandella goes through in The Forever War.

The ETs, however, get no development whatsoever. They're nothing more than your typical bug horde, with no signs of reasoning despite their obvious technological prowess. We eventually discover that they were created by an alien race to wipe out humanity for reasons that would make the Minbari say, "Dude, that's screwed up."

The book is a mere 200 pages but packs more in than a thousand page doorstopper. One subplot of the book involves a Messenger who's composing a novel about caterpillars defending a tree from crabs that want to prune it. This allegory of the war, even half finished, is said to be longer than the Mahabhrata. We're given ten pages about timelines that Harry Turtledove could turn into a ten book series, and glimpses of dozen more equally epic. But Ogawa restrains himself to keep the story on track.