by Antony Di Nardo
Towards the end of this heart-racing, head-rush thriller, Andrew Tremaine reflects on "how much the world has changed in little more than a very old person's lifetime." It sure has. The year is 2039. Geo-politically, the world is divided between a democratic Eurosoviet alliance and a despotic North American Protectorate ruled by a military-industrial junta in the clutches of an ultra-conservative, "Lifeist" general. Space travel is back on top of the international agenda. Gaia, however, is suffering badly at the hands of technological progress and eco-mismanagement. Ice caps have melted. Helsinki enjoys a Mediterranean climate. New York City, which never fully recovered from 9/11, is half-buried in the Atlantic and its towers are inhabited by a strange mix of metrosexuals and vagrants. Japan has gone through a de-technologisation revolution. Capitalism is foundering and America is on the brink of anarchy. The order of Tremaine's own world has been completely subverted. He resigns as director of NASA, escapes death, joins forces with a sophisticated group of political rebels to countermand the use of nuclear weapons in space, falls boyishly in love with a woman ten years his senior (he's sixty years old), and monitors the fate of Earthbaby, the planet's first self-sufficient space station.
That's only half the story. The other half takes place on Earthbaby itself. Through the journals of Lillith Shawnadithit, social dynamics officer for the space station, we're privy to the alliances, love affairs and conflicts among the five-member crew as they grapple with the news that Earthbaby has been secretly armed with nuclear weapons. Their original mission to man and manage a self-sufficient space station was but a military decoy. General Foreman, who has recently stolen the election to become President of the United States and Protectorates, intends to use Earthbaby as an outpost for deploying weapons against America's enemies and terrorist elements. The crew refuses to co-operate. A shuttle is launched to replace the "treasonous" scientists with weapons experts, and when their attempt to forcibly board Earthbaby fails, we discover that General Foreman is a member of this substitute team. He is captured and held prisoner, and eventually his principal aim is revealed: to rule the world from a comfortable distance.
But there's more. On board the space station, we have Alex, a survivor of the de-technologisation revolution and a cyber wizard. She attempts her own coup on Earthbaby in order to establish a solar computer link in space for the "Regulators", a cult of highly intelligent, cyber-savvy earthlings and spacelings, who are connected to a meta-consciousness of particle beings that exist in, and communicate through, computers. Alex, her secret objectives, and the hidden identities of her co-conspirators on earth, adds wonderfully to the tension and intrigue of the story. Complicated? You bet! But Peter Such writes with exacting confidence and his command of the narrative and the science that supports it allows us to enter this near future and feel right at home.
American writer Jim Harrison wrote: "I have read so many novels with preposterous plots that I end up believing if the writing is of sufficient quality." Peter Such had me believing from start to finish. The writing is gripping and I found myself racing to the moon, so to speak, and left breathless for the complexity and breadth of ideas introduced along the way. This is more than sci-fi pulp. Beyond the physics and cyber science of space travel, beyond the realpolitik of future capitalist governments, beyond the eventual implementation of a Star Wars defense policy, Such offers thoughtful reflection on our future: cynical commentary on the legacy of 20th century thought; the "consequentials" of our selfish disregard for the planet's ecosystem; Deleuzean notions of virtual and actual reality; and, in a grand gesture of speculative fiction, a vision of our species' evolution from "earthling" to "spaceling."
Such's imagination is rich when it comes to character depiction as well, especially when it comes to human beings' capacity for multiple kinds of complex interactions. Earthbaby is essentially an island adrift in space. The real job of its occupants is getting along with each other while navigating through internal power struggles, feelings of inadequacy, outrage, desire, and the full range of hazardous human flaws. Lillith writes in her journal: "Humans have believed the way to solve our problems was by leaving behind the rubble of our previous existence and moving to the new green valleys of the promised land." Our humanity cannot be escaped.
On earth, Such gives us terrific plot-driven action. Tremaine and his fellow rebels battle to avoid capture by Foreman's Lifeist forces. They restore a communication link with Earthbaby, and seek asylum in a Eurosoviet nation. As the story shifts from earth to space and back again, we experience the cinematic rush of fights and flights, and the psycho-knotted confrontations aboard Earthbaby. Common to both is the question of the Regulators, whose "intervention" seems to be responsible for the rescue of Earthbaby, and possibly-given the perfect ambiguity of Such's ending-the future of the world. And common to both is also "the snake of suspicion [that] slithers through every paranoid thought," for Earthbaby, the novel, is foremost a mystery that prompts readers and characters alike to speculate from start to finish on who did what to whom.
The world has changed indeed. What hasn't changed is Peter Such's ability to manage a complex, multi-cast narrative with consistently superb writing. It is the same vigorous writing that gave us Rivverrun, the novel that exposed the genocide of the Beothuk and challenged our notion of a colonial past. Earthbaby will likewise challenge our view of the future.