Up Against It – Between May Space Rocks and Several Hard Places

Up Against It, by Laura J. Mixon, was a novel I missed upon its initial release in 2011 (published with the pseudonym M.J. Locke). I was only a wee sci-fi book baby, lost in the bookstore, lured by flashy titles and flashier book covers. But with Tor Essentials providing readers with a reprint and a foreword for James S.A. Corey themselves, I was intrigued. And folks, did I miss a boat back then. While certain elements would have played better in my younger years, this book still packs a punch that I rarely feel in contemporary releases. Up Against It is political science fiction at its finest, featuring intrigue, resource management, and clashing personalities. 

Phocaea, an asteroid colony on the edge of the solar system, may be in serious trouble. A possible act of sabotage has put the colony’s methane supply in danger, and Jane, the resident resource czar, has to figure out how to save the colony. The “accident” occurred within the asteroid’s nanobot digestion facility, causing not only death, but the loss of a large store of methane and the nanobots the colony relies on to break down materials and create the stocks that the colonists rely on. Faced with a ticking clock of doom, Jane has to muster the ties she has within Phocaea, while fending off a possible takeover by the Martian mafia. All of this has to be done while managing her reputation on ‘Stroiders (a near 24/7 reality show that follows the lives of those on Phocaea, recorded by floating clouds of nanites) and her relationship with her husband. Throw in a few enterprising teenagers with astro-bikes who hack the nanobots in their free time and some opportunistic government agents, and Jane has one hell of a mess on her hands, and hand-feet. Will she be able to help the colony survive without dealing with the devil?

The main thrust of the book involves the control of a dwindling methane supply, and the political choices made to ensure survival and sovereignty. Jane is a great vehicle for this, having adapted to space, both physically with her hand-feet, and mentally through sheer determination. Jane maintains a healthy amount of paranoia from her past dealing with station governments and the Martian Mafia, and has a bullheaded nature that allows her to clash with them as necessary. She is not afraid to stand her ground and go toe to toe with both friends and enemies that she feels are making the wrong decisions for Phocaea. The only real complaint I have with her is I don’t feel like the plot ever threw her for a loop. I loved that she was capable of handling any situation, but I never felt like her paranoia was unfounded. I wanted something that would make her question herself, or have to use her skills to gain a new perspective with the situation at hand. 

Plotwise, Mixon unravels a heavy yarn that threatens to tangle the observer with every pull. It’s paced well with a growing stack of impossible odds being stacked against the characters. Material issues are exacerbated by human desires for power, fame and positioning. Little side stories evolve into major problems at just the right moment. Jane and her cohorts are rarely ever given a break, highlighting the dangers of living on the outskirts of the solar system. Mixon doesn’t skirt the details either, diving headfirst into the details and letting them unwind into the dilemmas they were born to be. Everything becomes a game of management, with some not realizing they are being played, while others exploit every advantage they have on offer. Mixon built an ecosystem only to push it to its limits and I adored it. Some authors kick over their rube-goldberg machines, Mixon just overclocks hers and lets people argue over its efficacy, earning a chef’s kiss. 

The one aspect of the novel that didn’t really draw me in though was Geoff’s storyline, the aforementioned teenager with an astro-bike. This is probably more a taste thing as he is written to be a teenager. He’s rambunctious, spontaneous, and out to prove himself after his brother’s untimely death. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time to thrust himself into the story. I think that would actually have been fun had I read it at a younger age, but it was hard for me to buy into it now. It isn’t necessarily a coming of age story, but he and his cadre of semi-delinquent teenagers get to participate in something that may end their lives or make them heroes. It plays out like Goonies in space as a side story, mixing both fun and adventure with scenarios that would be terrifying.

And that’s all before even appreciating the amount of worldbuilding Mixon guides the reader through. I mean there are underground organizations, rogue sapient AIs, garbage disposal nanites, Kuiper belt hikes and so much more. There is not enough room to really dive into the fun and cool side characters that influence the plot beats. If I had one complaint about the world, it would be that there is not enough about the Viridians.  If you want a very well realized space station culture with multiple tendencies, this book is what you’re looking for. 

Up Against It is a rare stand alone novel that does everything it needs to in a cool 400 pages. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, and teases out so many other possibilities. It has fun characters, an unending avalanche of a plot, and an incredibly detailed world in Phocaea. If you missed out and are looking for something that hits that realistic leaning science fiction sweet spot, Mixon’s book is for you. 

Rating: Up Against It – 8.0/10
-Alex

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An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.

 

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