1.5 million kilometers above the surface of the Earth
Drusilla Xao has only seen a tree in movies and vid-games. She has never breathed air that wasn’t recycled, re-filtered, and re-used a hundred times over again. She has never set foot on the Earth.
And now she never will.
When a terrorist attack by a radical separatist group on Luna destroys the space elevator that had called so many – including her parents – to live permanently in space, Dru is cut off from any hope of ever reaching Earth and her beloved girlfriend, Sarah. The Chinese-American Alliance declares immediate war on the rebels and conscripts everyone they can get their hands on…including Dru.
Cast adrift, forced to become a soldier, trapped in a nightmare of vacuum and loneliness, Dru’s training will help her survive, but only Sarah will be able to bring her home.
Atmospheric Analysis: The design isn’t bad (floating in space!), but the execution makes it look like something from a teenager’s DeviantArt account.
(Ironically, searching for ‘Debris Dreams’ on the Barnes & Noble yields two results: this book and the Planetes box set. The latter features what is essentially the same cover, just done much better. Who would have B&N’s search engine would feature an irony algorithm?)
Planetary Class: Military SF. Not a genre I’m crazy about, but it can be interesting in the right hands.
Mohs Rating: The technology in Debris Dreams sticks rigidly to real-world principles. The space elevator whose destruction kick-starts the plot is probably the most outlandish thing in the book, and even that could become a reality some day. That makes this a 5 on the Mohs Scale.
Viability Rating: Like Apollo’s Outcasts, Debris Dreams plays within the bounds of science rather than trying to get around them. Because of this, the setting feels like a place that could exist some day. There are even a few equations included to describe certain principles of spaceflight for those who are into that sort of thing.
Xenolinguistical Assessment: First-person, IM chat transcipts, competent writing – you’ve seen all this before.
Or you would have, if not for a few interesting(/annoying) twists. The book takes place against the backdrop of a heavily amalmagated world; the USA and China have formed into a single European Union-ish government, an unspecified number of African nations have joined together into what is implied to be a fairly cohesive group, and individual countries are rarely mentioned with the exception of Kenya, which is here the space elevator was built. Like many other authors before him, Colby describes a future in which the concept of nationality no longer makes as much sense as it does now.
Naturally, there’s a linguistic element to this – the main characters speak of a mixture of English, Mandarin, Cantonese and Swahili. In principle, this is a neat idea, and I’m all for SF that isn’t all-America all the time. In practice, though, the settings lends itself to a whole lot of Chinese phrases peppered throughout the text and not a lot in the way of cultural nuance. The Chinese dialogue functions more or less the way it did in Firefly – probably interesting if you understand it (assuming it’s correct), of little to no value if you don’t. The problem is that, as far as I can tell, a lot of the Chinese seems to be adjectives to describe people or things; you can guess whether they’re negative or positive based on context. It’s rarely used to describe concepts or ideas that can’t be expressed in English, which is where including multiple languages in a text becomes important.
Another problem I had was with the inclusion of some jarring references to 1980′s/90′s American culture. I’m not sure the notion of a ‘care bear stare’ is going to exist fifty years from now, nor am I convinced that the book’s main character would describe the false-gravity effect of a space station as ‘I can’t believe it’s not gravity’.
Expanded Report: Debris Dreams starts and ends in familiar places, and the journey between them isn’t anything you haven’t seen a dozen times already. Drusilla, the main character, is drafted into the army after the destruction of the space elevator connecting the Earth’s surface with the orbital colonies. She undergoes harsh training, has to face the horrors of war and eventually comes to realise that her side Isn’t All That Different from their lunar enemies. Along the way she angsts over the death of her parents and her potentially-permanent separation from her girlfriend, who is stuck on Earth.
If you’re going to do the ‘teenager drafted into a future-war’ thing, you really need to throw the audience a curve ball or two. Debris Dreams tries to get around the familiarity problem by accelerating past its most tired plot points at breakneck speed: within forty pages, Drew has joined the army and is being called ‘maggot’ by a Space Drill Instructor. Inevitably, she begins to distinguish herself and rises through the ranks despite frequently questioning her orders.
Dru’s IM conversations with her girlfriend are welcome respites from the fairly tedious military-SF plot. Sarah provides an alternative viewpoint on the action, and there are some interesting moments when she reveals that what everyone is seeing on TV doesn’t quite gel with what’s happening in real life. Even here, though, the book feels as if it’s following a familiar path; in this day and age, it would be more surprising to learn that a government isn’t manipulating war reporting to make itself look good.
We also don’t get much of a sense of Sarah as a character, which leads to my next complaint. Say what you will about Orson Scott Card, he managed to create a military SF story where the characters are more important than the action scenes. Debris Dreams goes for something similar, but the characters aren’t interesting enough to create that all-important sense of dread at the thought of some of them dying.
The characters don’t get a whole lot more interesting when they shack up with each other, either. To its credit, the book is a lot more open about sex than a lot of YA, although it can also feel a bit skeevy about it at times. There’s one scene in particular that casts all the frank sex talk in a slightly weird light. The characters are fitted with ‘skinsuits’, essentially ultra-lightweight space suits, which are described in discomforting detail. Do we really need to know that the suit suctions itself around the main charater’s breasts? Or that the ‘waste disposable system’ apparently involves some fairly invasive tubes? (That last part in particular is written in a way that makes it feel unexpectedly prurient.) It just feels off, somehow.
So, good points. The technology is plausible and interesting (realistic laser guns!) and the setting is potentially fascinating, although I actually would have preferred to see more of Earth rather than have the whole thing be set in space. The writing also isn’t bad. Still, those with no interest in the standard military-SF plotline need not apply.