Author: John Barnes
Publication Date: 4/12/12
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Blurb: It is the year 2129 . . . and fame is all that matters
Susan and her friends are celebutantes. Their lives are powered by media awareness, fed by engineered meals, and underscored by cynicism. Everyone has a rating; the more viewers who ID you, the better. So Susan and her almost-boyfriend Derlock cook up a surefire plan: the nine of them will visit a Mars-bound spaceship and stow away. Their survival will be a media sensation, boosting their ratings across the globe. There's only one problem: Derlock is a sociopath. Breakneck narrative, pointed cultural commentary, warm heart, accurate science, a kickass heroine, and a ticking clock . . . who could ask for more?
Losers in Space is essentially a one long test of how much of a SF nerd you are and how "hard" you prefer your SF. Evidently, I am far less nerdy than I had always thought, judging by how little of this book's SF-ness I enjoyed.
Now, I don't want to be unfair to John Barnes, he warns upfront about the nature of his novel. In a Note for the Interested, #0, at the beginning of Losers in Space, he says straight, in a funny and clever way, that his novel is "hard SF" and, being that,"it uses one form or another of what we called infodumps: lectures about the science, the imaginary world, and so on, either directly or by having characters explain things to each other. (How many characters does it take to change a lightbulb in a hard SF story? One to do it, and one to say, 'As you know, Bob, a lightbulb consists of a tungsten filament in an inert-gas-filled glass inclosure...')" According to Barnes, "people who geek on just knowing stuff, either about the real science or the fictional future, love infodumps, but infodumps are boring obstacles for readers who just want to get on with the story." (p. 2) So, to solve this problem, to compromise, Barnes separated all infodumps into sections called Notes for the Interested, that can be skipped if you are not into science.
Unfortunately, this trick doesn't manage to save Losers in Space from the over-infodumpness problem. Even if you do skip all Notes (I did, almost all of them, except those that pertained to the worldbuilding and social issues. Can you blame me for not wanting to know about reaction masses, frequencies, recalculations of spaceship courses, etc?), still, ALL CHARACTERS in the novel talk to each other in a form infodumpy tuitorials. Every conversation starts in a way as to encourage that "As you know, Bob..." long-winded and boring lecture:
Pretend like I don't know anything, because I don't. What were the "couple little things"? (to lead to a lecture on how to hook up an antenna)
Okay, you'd better explain it to me (to lead to a 2-page lecture on universal encryption), etc., etc.
I am not sure if Barnes was trying to be funny here, adhering to this hard SF canon and making a joke out of it and ended up taking it too far, or if he genuinely thought that it was impossible to write a novel that was both entertaining and scientifically solid. But I know this - Losers in Space could have been a much better book without all of that excessive, awkwardly and bluntly introduced science. Because the story itself is good.
In 2129, the world reaches a basically utopian state. Poverty, hunger, wars, diseases are all eradicated. Robotic labor supports and allows for a striving human population that has literally EVERYTHING, every person is entitled to and receives a social minimum (the 2010 equivalent of 10 million dollars a year), for which they don't have to work at all. Only a very small percentage of population can earn more than the social minimum, by performing work that can't be done by robots - art, competitive athletics, science, teaching, or entertaining. This last field is the most attractive and the easiest to enter, or so it seems. The main characters of the novel, losers, who don't show any particular skills, want to become celebrities, and, encouraged by their sociopathic leader, decide to graduate from recording nudity, sex, drugs and partying (of course, those are the most popular ways to earn fame, don't you know?) by getting on a spaceship and tricking its crew into getting them on Mars. This way, these kids can get extensive news coverage and come back to Earth as celebrities. Of course, not everything goes according to the plan, which is no surprise, considering losers have a psycho in their midst.
Again, I will repeat, this novel could have been such a riot, if Barnes didn't choose to force the infodumps down the readers' throats. They simply suffocate the social commentary (what does happen to people in a world of uniform prosperity and leisure? how far will media go in an age of such a rampant entertainment demand?) and the characters. While they were lecturing each other, I almost forgot that Glisters is an amateur pornographer, that Fleeta is a drug user who fried her brains by taking happistuff, an illegal substance that keeps you in a state of constant euphoria, that Derlock is a high-level psycho. There is such a wealth of awesomeness to explore here, hypothetically. Instead, I spent most of my reading time skimming the boring and searching for entertainment. What a pity.