Friday, November 23, 2012

100 Books #112 - David Colby's DEBRIS DREAMS

So come on now, admit it. You've always felt, deep down inside, that the one thing that science fiction was still missing, egregiously so, was a good and thorough discussion of the pressure differential implications of farting in a spacesuit.

Problem. Solved.

David Colby's debut novel, Debris Dreams has such a discussion, and much, much more to offer the young adult or the supposedly grown-up science fiction aficionado, and plenty to offer the more casual reader as well. Colby has packed a primer in space habitat sociology, a convincing space-borne war story*, a charming coming of age narrative, and a tale of the ultimate in sucky long-distance relationships, into a brisk-reading 284 pages of microgravity adventure.

Our heroine, Drusilla Xao, is a sixteen-year-old conscript into the Chinese-American-Alliance's Space Marines, suddenly called to war when a demented-yet-calculating band of militant Lunan seperatists launch a successful terrorist attack and destroy Earth's one and only space elevator, completely cutting off the post-petroleum society down the gravity well from its colonies, destroying a good chunk of Kenya in the process, and stranding everyone in near-Earth orbit. Drusilla's parents lived and worked on that elevator, as did most of her companions' parents; they now have nothing left to love or fight for but each other -- except for Drusilla, who has an e-girlfriend she has always longed to meet in person and be together as a couple with... down in Ontario.

Drusilla's homosexuality is only a minor plot point, but it tells everything about the society Colby hopes we'll one day achieve. In Drusilla's world, being gay is just a thing like having green eyes or dry ear wax or not liking artichokes (that it also allows our young author/narrator to engage in a bit of wolf-whistling at some of his female characters' physical attributes now and then without being an icky white male ogler-in-prose is merely by the bye**). There are more important things to worry about, like always having breathing equipment handy in case of a hull breach or not stranding yourself unable to move in the middle of a room at zero gee or if that heat signature in that cloud of space debris is maybe another Lunan attack on the way.

A lot of the world-building takes the form of Drusilla's email exchanges with her beloved Earthbound Sarah as she explains her world and her culture, smitten teenager to smitten teenager. Since This is War and resources are limited, these exchanges are short and thinly dispersed and so don't intrude overly on the narrative, but are nicely informative all the same -- Dru and her author have given a lot of thought to conveying a lot in just a few words, packing in infodump and heartbreaking longing in a tiny space. The effect of this device is to make Drusilla's world comprehensible without once feeling like the author is talking down to his readers, which is something a lot of novelists with a lot more work under their belts than Colby has could stand to pay attention to.

My only real complaint about the book is a niggling little one (which, see addendum below). Because the governing alliance includes China, the characters' most intense and passionate moments tend to contain a lot of Chinese vocabulary. In places, the book has actual characters, but most of the words are in pinyin (Chinese syllables rendered into the western alphabet). Somehow, the characters came out fine in my Epub copy, but the pinyin got garbled, and thus is full of question marks in place of letters. Sometimes I could interpolate the letters (I took Mandarin in college mumble mumble years ago) but sometimes a lot of question marks in a row left me questioning, too. Fortunately, context clues let the reader gloss over these bits, but it's a pity nonetheless.

So yes, if you loved the anime series Planetes, or Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, or the TV series Firefly or Brand Gamblin's Tumbler, or Robert A. Heinlein's juvenile fiction (or even some of his more adult fiction with its casual sexual hijinx), or all of the above -- and really, I have a hard time imagining how it could not be all of the above -- Debris Dreams will feel quite familiar to you, but as I've explained, that doesn't mean it's a rehash of any of those, or that it will bore you. Quite the contrary!

Where was this stuff when I was a young adult sci-fi fan? Oh yeah, the author wasn't even born then. Um...

*The best elements of the novel are the combat scenes, many of which feature young Space Marines fighting out in the black in power armor, i.e., not in spaceships of any kind. And fight scenes within space habitats and orbiting factories, featuring the sights and smells of blood spraying in microgravity. These scenes are simply stunning.

**Though this does give Drusilla a slight taint of Mary Sue when coupled with her meteoric rise from civilian apprentice spacer to "Star Corporal" in the Space Marines. But it's only a slight taint.

ADDENDUM (Nov. 30) - I spent a few days in discussion with Kate Sullivan at Candlemark and Gleam, this novel's publishers, and we determined that what was going on in the pinyin was a fault in how a lot of e-readers handle accent marks -- tone marks in pinyin. The rising tone was fine, but the rest were rendered as question marks. Kate asked me whether the garbled accented letters were worse than not having the textbook-correct pinyin and I told her it would be better to just have the syllables in regular italics. The hard core Mandarin speakers would be able to tell from context most of the time which meaning for a syllable was meant, and the rest would just see the italics and either gloss over the foreign words or look them up. Kate has since decided to do away with the accent marks and just present the Mandarin words in italics, sparing us all the question marks and gobbledygook. You think a big Six Five Four publisher would do that for us? HA.

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