Losers in Space
by John Barnes
Viking books, 2012


Losers in Space is a young adult dystopian hard science fiction novel... except not, exactly.

First, while it is usually filed in the young adult section, this is mostly because it has a cast of teenagers. It also has lots of sex, drugs, suicides, murders, and other bits of adult material. Traditionally YA has been a way of getting youngsters into longer and more complex works of fiction without exposing them to the vile depravities that adults enjoy. Whether or not that is the proper role of the genre I cannot say, but this book does not fit that description.

And second, Barnes has determined that while teenagers like sex and violence, they do not like science. He's probably right. However, he really wanted to write a hard SF novel, so he compromised; he includes "Notes for the interested" throughout the book, fact-heavy expository lumps that can easily be skipped over if you do not care for science (or, in practice, if you do not care for extended exposition). He keeps them pretty light, but these notes do cover some neat ideas fairly effectively -- laser propulsion, prions, microgravity -- and if they were integrated into the story, they would be great.

But, on to the plot! In the future, the way to wealth is through fame, and the way to fame is through social media. A group of soon-to-be high school dropouts hatch a plan to get in on the fame: they will stow away to Mars. In theory it'll be easy. They go up to tour the next station travelling the Mars-Earth transport orbit and hide out for a couple days until it's too far from Earth to send them back. They'll produce some rockin' zero-G party videos for the news to remix and rebroadcast, and off-load on Mars as the hottest new media stars.

Of course, something goes wrong, and they are stranded in space. It will take all of their (parenthetical) science knowledge, endurance, and emotional fortitude to save themselves, and yes, some will die horrible, horrible deaths along the way. On the plus side, it makes great TV.

Overall, this is a pretty good book. As you may have gathered, I am not a fan of dragging all of the sciency bits into segregated micro-essays, but the sciency bits are good. Barnes, being Barnes, likes a bit more angst and drama than I do, but even so I enjoyed the book, and it is a good entryway into cyberpunk for new readers. And despite that right from the beginning the author strongly foreshadows the basic plot arc, there are still enough surprises to keep it interesting right to the end.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a some dramatic, dystopian hard science fiction, and doesn't mind putting up with some teenage drama along with the usual cyberpunk dark future accoutrements. Be warned, it takes a bit to get past the "in the future, teenagers are awful" setup, but once people start dying it quickly gets more exciting.

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