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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Spaced Out review

Found on the 8-12 shelf, Space Case by Stuart Gibbs is a science fiction adventure story set on a realistic moon base in which its twelve-year-old protagonist helps to solve a murder mystery. Its sequel, Spaced Out, is about a missing person mystery. A relatable protagonist, some science fiction with proper science, a location with opportunity for adventure and an engaging mystery: these ought to be great ingredients for a book my son could enjoy.

The first problem, however, is that the protagonist is very negative about living on the moon. It would be possible to complain a bit about the poor food and the lack of space while also being excited and in awe of the achievement of living on the moon. But no, there is no upside. Even the boredom is only relieved by terrible events, leading the protagonist to yearn for boredom once more. And he’s not an inspiring chap who faces his challenges head on, with aplomb. He mostly moans about things or is scared. Instead of being relieved to get out of the micrometeorite storm alive, after the discovery of a hole in the top layers of his suit, the author dwells on his fear and dislike of returning outside even when the threat of incoming meteorites disappears.

Minor spoiler in the next paragraph…

And they’re not just meteorites, they’re space junk. Because humans always make a mess wherever they go, leaving tracks over the pristine lunar surface, filling up space with junk, and destroying the planet. Oh yeah, (spoilers): the big threat to humanity is humanity itself. And only alien technology can save us, but the aliens don’t want to give us the technology because humans are the only species in the galaxy capable of evil (I kid you not) and might turn it into a weapon.

The author goes out of his way to be negative here. I can well imagine a benevolent extraterrestrial civilisation that might need to carefully learn more about humans, as it would any newly discovered civilisation, before making contact. There is plenty of opportunity for tension between the protagonist and the alien over this point. But that is not enough for this author: humans have to be uniquely terrible and uniquely destructive. And unable to help themselves. Even their highest achievement, their moonbase, is an awful place, made to look good with propaganda and censorship, since NASA will not allow the lunar base residents to speak freely about anything negative (obviously the only reason we do not hear real astronauts constantly moaning).

The tone is pessimistic and misanthropic. What I am looking for in science fiction is a celebration of the ingenuity of humanity and optimism that we can overcome adversity and make a better world. Instead the message here is that everything is rubbish and the best you can do about it is sulk and be afraid.

Also, rich people are bad. Yes, there is a rich space tourist family living on the moon, and obviously they are one-dimensionally horrible because they are rich. The author also seems weirdly concerned with the fact that they are the whitest people the protagonist has ever met. There may be legitimate world-building reasons for this but in execution it is jarringly shoe-horned in, in both books.

All in all it is not very inspirational, unless you want to inspire the type of malaise that comes from thinking humans are a disease and there is no hope and everything sucks.

Possibly I ought to have seen it coming from the blurb:

You wouldn’t think it, but being one of the first kids to live on a moon colony isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Your’re stuck inside a small base with only a few other kids, and you’re not even allowed to go for a low-gravity romp on the moon’s surface. What’s the point?

Or even from an out-of-place remark, early on in the story:

Everyone on earth knows this, unless they’ve been living in the Amazon rain forest for the last few years, and since there’s barely anything left of the Amazon rain forest, I’m guessing that’s unlikely.

I am thinking of trying out the Ranger’s Apprentice series next. John Flanagan seems like a no-nonsense sort of bloke. From what I have seen so far, there is a bad guy who “enjoys taking taxes and killing anyone who refuses to pay them”. When asked for advice for new writers, Flanagan replied that one should plan out one’s story in advance. Not only is that solid, no-nonsense advice, it implies Flanagan might have a care that his epic fantasy series makes some kind of sense. In the meantime I will keep looking for optimistic, sense-of-wonder-inducing SF that my son might enjoy. In a separate question about heroes, Flanagan replies, “The world stage is dominated by politicians, and they usually don’t have the right qualities to be heroes.”

19 comments to Spaced Out review

  • Eric

    The first problem, however, is that the protagonist is very negative about living on the moon. It would be possible to complain a bit about the poor food and the lack of space while also being excited and in awe of the achievement of living on the moon. But no, there is no upside.

    A twelve year old? I find that very realistic.

  • Stonyground

    I grew up with myself, and everyone around me, thinking that the future would be better, it was just a given. This was, and as far as I can see still is, Bourne out by just looking at reality. Cars were an excellent barometer for demonstrating that rapid progress was ours for the taking. My parent’s first cars were Ford Prefects. Side valve engines with a hopelessly fragile crankshaft, three speed gearbox and fuel economy in the high twenties MPG. Seventies cars had advanced mechanically but the bodies would be disintegrating before your eyes. My current ride is a Ssang Yong Korando and I would bore you all to death if I went into how brilliant I think it is and why.

    I find the absurd pessimism of the environment obsessed quite depressing. Just like the socialists, they never seem to notice that they are constantly wrong.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh my. Rob, between your book review and neon’s article to which he linked in the ‘People power’ discussion, I think I’m just going to make myself a jug of nice hot hemlock tea and go back to bed. 😥

    Me, I stopped reading new SF around 1965. It seemed to be mostly becoming either silly (not in a funny way) or depressing or, more usually, both.

    I don’t want to rain on anyone’s Gibsonian or Stephensonian or even late-Heinleinian parade, though. And I did enjoy John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars, which is still free of charge online.

    Have you read Robert Zubrin’s book Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism at

    https://www.amazon.com/Merchants-Despair-Environmentalists-Pseudo-Scientists-Antihumanism-ebook/dp/B078431GFR/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=robert+zubrin&qid=1569793283&s=digital-text&sr=1-2 ?

    I haven’t, but the first two readers’ reviews make it sound like hearty, warming, delicious, nutritious stew for the long dark night of the soul. *grin!* The third review sort of confirms that view because it complains that Zubrin doesn’t deal with Monsanto, dangerous GMOs, etc.

    I do have something to say about non-reproducing corn, but some other time.

  • FrankS

    This sort of deliberate poisoning of young minds has been common enough from idiot-writers serving the climate alarmism cause. Oh wait, there is a hatred of humanity common to them both. And that makes them lefties. And revolting.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Children’s books, particularly science fiction and fantasy, are a great barometer. What a sad contrast this book makes with the SF that inspired me as a child. Funny thing was, a lot of that was full of ecological catastrophe but at least 70’s schlock had some good green ichor in its veins: the last few humans eating each other’s eyeballs in a radioactive wasteland, not a whiny brat saying space is boooring.

    Please do post more reviews of children’s literature, particularly if you find some good stuff.

  • neonsnake

    I don’t want to rain on anyone’s Gibsonian or Stephensonian or even late-Heinleinian parade, though. And I did enjoy John Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars, which is still free of charge online.

    Gibson is my favourite author, perhaps unsurprisingly. I’m also a fan of Stephenson and Heinlein, plus John Shirley and Bruce Sterling. Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan in particular for our purposes here) and Garth Ennis for comics. Grant Morrison, perhaps more controversially. Not Alan Moore.

    I’ve read a fair few Scalzi books, and have enjoyed them all thoroughly.

    Mind you, I devour sci-fi from Asimov to PK Dick without judgement.

    Sci fi, and fantasy, should be optimistic, in my view, or at least not cynical. It’s a fuzzy line, and I get that, but something like Game Of Thrones is just adolescent wank-fantasy, whereas Grant Morrison’s WE3 or John Shirley’s Eclipse Trilogy are books for grown-ups.

  • Zerren Yeoville

    If you’re looking for a kids-living-on-the-Moon book, I’d suggest John Christopher’s novel, ‘The Lotus Caves’

    Wikipedia: “The novel’s main theme is that of the development of a young person’s will and independence, and the conflict between benevolent authority and individual conscience.”

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lotus-Caves-John-Christopher/dp/1481418378

  • Rob Fisher

    That sounds more like it, Zeren!

  • I have been reading SF for a while. I also occasionally help out on charity bookstalls, which is a great place for finding books that were fashionable once.

    So I know that whiny SF was around in the 70s: dreadful stuff in which the Vietnam war, as understood by student activists, was the prototype of all of human history seen as pointless wars leading to the inevitable destruction of the species – but not before a lot of PC whining. (Like all such themes, this one produced a mountain of dreck and the occasional readable, if hardly great, story.)

    I know it was around in the 80s: in the first terms of Reagan and Thatcher, it was joked – with reason – that half the plays at the Edinburgh Festival were set in the post-nuclear-holocaust environment.

    And of course Sad Puppies would not have existed if the trend had not continued.

    Precisely those books that aim to move with the times are the ones that most swiftly go where time goes: into the past – and onto the charity bookstall (where they don’t sell).

  • I have mostly given up reading purchased fiction. Fan-fiction is free, and (with no bean-counting gatekeeper) there is a LOT of variety, far more than you’d expect in published stuff. Since most fan writers are doing it out of love or enjoyment, there’s less pessimism. The quality control isn’t always up to professionally-published standards – but these days it ain’t so hot for professionally published books either. Some of the writers are very good, though quite a few are horrid. You can tell quickly enough.

    I have my fanfic on my own site, and you could go to fanfiction.net or archiveofourown.org. The former is a bit more accessible, but the latter has better quality control and less morality control.

    You have to supply a background knowledge of the genre you’re reading – fanfic isn’t written to be read ab initio. But if you’re lucky, there is Good Stuff there.

  • Rob Fisher

    I don’t think published fiction, or published SF is in general a lost cause. Just this particular book and possibly a lot of children’s fiction is ruined by authors’ attempts to teach some bien pensant lesson.

    That said we’ve started reading the Ranger’s Apprentice books and these are much better, probably because the author is a quite sensible chap. For adult fiction (so to speak) I suspect the same is true of Brandon Sanderson from what I’ve seen of him (not having yet read any). Possibly fantasy is in a better place than SF, currently. Or probably it all depends on the attitude of the individual author. There are some good ones about.

  • neonsnake

    Rob, I’m a big fan of Sanderson (no idea of the guy’s views or politics), I’ve listened to almost all of his stuff on Audible.

    It’s grown-up without needing an 18 certificate, as it were – no swearing, no sex scenes, very little gore. Verging on YA (kinda the anti-GOT, it’s uplifting rather than cynical).

    Elantris is probably the place to start.

  • Rob Fisher

    Thanks for the tip, NS, was thinking either Elantris or Mistborn. He did a really good chat with Shadiversity on YouTube recently, which reminded me I was planning to give him a try. His attitude to making things logical and believable, including world building economics, impressed me.

  • neonsnake

    Couple of reasons I’d advise Elantris, is that it’s theoretically “standalone” (whilst being part of the Cosmere universe, which I’ll leave you to Google…), and it’s also the first in the Cosmere series.

    Mistborn is a series of trilogies, each of which jump forward in time – the first trilogy is a steampunky era, the second a Wild West, etc etc. So, if you start there, you’re kind of tying yourself into a looong series of books.

    Yes to the worldbuilding. His “magic” is all internally consistent, and carefully thought out.

    I’ve been having a swift Google, and it seems that he is “one of us” in some ways. Devout Mormon, which explains the wholesomeness of his books (a compliment, in this case), with largely (small-c) conservative beliefs, with what he calls “liberal” beliefs on free speech. Having read enough of him, I’m sure he means “classical” liberal.

    He appears to have been on a bit of a journey around homosexuality. This surprised me, since he’s got characters that are either explicitly homosexual, and occasionally implicitly bisexual, in his books.

    (In one book, he describes a gay fella as being more masculine than his friends, since he obviously wanted less women around and more men. I found this really rather amusing)

    He’s also got well-written, Strong Female Protagonists – Mistborn is an example.

    And worlds where women and men’s roles are strictly defined (eg. Men fight, women chronicle and study). And worlds where the opposite is the case.

    Also, I’ve met him. The Lady and I happened to be in Portugal when he was doing a book signing, and we chatted a bit with him after. Thoroughly lovely chap.

    On top of that, he was wearing long black leather duster coat, which I think all fantasy writers should, as a matter of course.

  • Rob Fisher

    Good stuff, NS. I’d read his “where to start” page so was aware of Cosmere. Elantris does seem the way to go. I have high hopes.

  • Alsadius

    I saw this short story recently on Facebook, and I think you guys would like it a lot better: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/32/e4/4e/32e44e12d67aaa6669621b4b8acfdcaf.jpg (You’ll probably need to zoom in to read it, but it works fine on my browser when I do)

  • Paul Marks

    Oh for the Golden Age of Science Fiction writing!

    Most Science Fiction writing (and most television and film Science Fiction) is not rotten – because it reflects the “values” of modern society, which are now rotten.

  • Rob Fisher

    Very good, Alsadius.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I need to thank William Stoddard, who, a couple of discussions back, happened to mention Heinlein’s book Between the Stars.

    Yikes! I’m listening to it now, and this is the sort of Heinlein I love. No preaching. Good plotting. Good entertainment. Political ideas and ideals that don’t make me run for the kidney basin. Getting the point across without immersing us in blood, sex, and the Dark Side generally, including dystopias and messed-up psyches. Good-natured, written with a certain low-key humour that I always enjoyed.

    And not unsuitable for innocent, fragile, tender young things like me, whose ears should not be assailed by the vulgarities common in the late Weimar period, or a dockside bar, or the “family” habits of Pharaonic Egypt.

    Just a really enjoyable story. I’m gonna have to revisit the other books that I can find to listen to. Thanks, William!

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