BOOK REVIEW: “Out of Orbit” by Carole Wilkinson (Originally published as “Phenomena” in 1999)

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Recently, I’ve been reading the Republispawn bedtime stories from the “Fact Meets Fiction” series. These are books that are aimed at grade schoolers, and attempt to introduce real science, history, and whatnot in to fictional stories, thereby educating and entertaining kids at the same time. It’s a noble idea, but thus far I’ve found the ‘fact’ side of the fiction to be a little disappointing. Just the same, as many of our readers are parents, and as this entry in the series was an actual Science Fiction book, I thought ‘why not review it?’

PLAY BY PLAY:

It’s around the year 2100, and Earth has been making trips to the Alpha Centauri solar system for generations using barely-slower-than-light-speed spacecraft. It was discovered that there are several planets there which are high in minerals, so there was a period of intense exploitation which more-or-less strip-mined two of the planets until there was really nothing left to take. Since then, the Centauri system has been more-or-less abandoned, and pretty much the only interest in our nearest stellar neighbor is based around a planet called “Narelle” which has indigenous life, and is almost-but-not-quite habitable by humans.

As the book starts out, we’re on a space ship-cum-space station, the “Providus,” which set out from earth years before, and is now in orbit around Narelle. It’s crewed by two families, the adults, and a gaggle of children of varying ages. Solar flares consign the kids to the station/ship’s radiation shelter, and when they venture out again, they find their parents are in comas - owing to radiation suit malfunctions - and can’t be awakened. They put them in suspended animation, and decide what to do next. The Providus is in fairly bad shape, but still livable.

Juliana, our protagonist, eventually, reluctantly takes the lead as they decide to go live in the research base on Narelle, then learn to their horror that they’re no longer orbiting the planet - they’ve drifted in to orbit around the planet “Da Li” while they were in the storm shelter. After a run in with pirates, and discovering that no rescue is coming from earth, they decide to abandon ship and take their shuttle to Narelle, but when they arrive they find the planet has been trashed by an asteroid impact. Despondent, they try to get back to their mothership, and en rout discover another pirate ship, a vastly huger one, which is mysteriously abandoned. After solving the Marie Celeste-like mystery that entails, they managed to make FTL radio communication with earth, and the story ends rather abruptly with everyone living happily ever after, and the kids on their prize vessel heading back to earth, with their icicle-parents in tow.

THE END.

OBSERVATIONS:

This was an enjoyable, jaunty read that kept the kids entertained, though the oldest one kept pointing out various parts in the story where the Science is decidedly wonky. Ultimately all that matters is that its target audience liked it, and it is totally completely unfair to hold a kids’ book like this up to the standards of criticism that I use for more serious literature. It is perfectly fine, and this is not at all a negative review.

Even so, there’s a lot of points in the story that don’t make a lick of sense:

* Da Li is said to have a “Figure Eight” orbit around both Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B. This is pretty much scientifically impossible. In fact, it’s highly unlikely that a Binary star system like Centauri could form planets anyway, but we’ll ignore that.

* How could Earth manage to strip mine two entire planets in a generation or so? If that’s the case, and all those minerals were hauled back to earth, wouldn’t that have increased the mass of our own planet by several percent, thereby causing all kinds of problems with our gravity, orbit, etc? Earth in the book appears to be pretty much like we know it now, though.
* We’re told that the Providus expedition to Alpha Centauri was very, very expensive, so much so that the cost of a rescue mission is prohibitive. How is this possible, when they obviously must have had scores of thousands of starships at one point in order to stripmine two entire worlds in such a short period of time?

* How does mining minerals from four-and-a-quarter light years away make any kind of economic sense, anyway? I mean, this isn’t Star Trek, they are traveling slightly slower-than-light. That means you’ve got to haul people to the new system (Which takes more than four years), build a place for them to live (The planets are all uninhabitable), find the ore, mine the ore, refine the ore, load the ore on to ships, fight gravity to get it in space, then haul it back to earth (Which takes more than four years) land it, and do whatever it is the earth folk do with the ore. That’s a massive front-end investment, and a verrrrrrrrrry long time waiting for it to pay off, for such a short boom. It seems economically unviable, frankly. And to be fair, maybe it was: we’re told the system has been completely abandoned for a long time, aside from the Narelle research.

* Much as I love me some space pirates, how is it that they can make a living off of raiding abandoned settlements for scrap? And why does the first pirate ship try to fake them out if it’s just on autopilot as it later turns out to be? Why is it flying around independent of the Pirate Mothership, anyway?

* “Gravity” and “Atmosphere” are rather awkwardly confused when the shuttle is flying away from Narelle. It’s depicted as though they’re going through a launch from the planet’s surface, when in fact they’re already in space.

* Gravity on the Providus is depicted realistically - it’s a spinning donut, and the gravity is actually centrifugal force. On the shuttle, however, with no explanation, they appear to have hokey TV show-styled artificial gravity deck plates, though this is never explained or remarked upon.

* We’re told the distance between Narelle and Da Li is four million miles. Yikes! That’s *awfully* close for planets! Close enough for their gravity to interact and cause serious problems!

* The reason the Providus was blown out of orbit - a combination of solar flares and an asteroid impact on the planet they were orbiting - makes no scientific sense whatsoever, particularly because once they get back to Narelle like a week after the accident, they see the explosion and smoke cloud from the impact *still* expanding, as though it just happened.

* Despite having traveled at nearly light speed for years, the relativistic effects of such travel are ignored.

As you can see, these are all quibbles. Kids wouldn’t - and didn’t - really notice them, and it doesn’t detract from the fun of the story. There were a number of elements that I liked, too:

- Europe is evidently constantly at war with itself and neighboring nations. (Not that I’ve got anything against Europe or the EU, and the government in the book is emphatically *not* the EU, it’s just an interestingly unexpected detail to throw in given the year the book was written)

- Juliana having been raised low-tech was a nice narrative handle to allow readers to jump on. Since she doesn’t understand the technical side of things, she’s a good main character, and a good vehicle for exposition.

- One of the kids in the book is an adopted European war orphan, and evidently a victim of Aspergers syndrome. They don’t raise flags over this, but it’s a constant detail and though he’s rather annoying at times, his disability ultimately saves all their bacon. This was a very nice touch, particularly if you’ve got atypical kids.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Like I said, this wasn’t a bad book if you apply the sliding scale one uses for bed time stories and 1950s B-movies. Aside from the rather abrupt ending and the ongoing confusion about gravity and atmosphere, I really don’t take issue with it. The writing style is breezy and brisk, and good for intermediate readers, but not overly simplistic to the point where it would annoy adults. Given all that, it’s a fine short book even if it seems to have been written very quickly and under a deadline, rather than as something the author felt seriously about. It feels like a gig, not a passion. But, hey, SF is a big genre, and there’s more than room enough for dawdles as well as more serious things.

Ultimately, it’s worth reading if you’ve got a kid in grade school, probably give it a miss otherwise, since it‘s frankly not intended for you. The author, Carole Wilkinson, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carole_Wilkinson appears to be primarily a fantasy writer. I’d not encountered her before this, but I’m tempted to give her another try.

OTHER THINGS I’M READING:
* Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
* Homemade Hollywood by Clive Young
* Soon I Will Be Invincible by Arthur Grossman
* The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

THINGS ON MY READING PILE:
* World War Z by Max Brooks
* The Toynbee Convector by Ray Bradbury
* The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem
* Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
* The Science Fiction Stories of Jack London by Jack London (Duh!)
* The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
* Highrise by J.G. Ballard

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