The Big Idea: M.J. Locke
M.J. Locke is riding a wave with Up Against It, including a starred review in Publishers Weekly (“Compulsively readable and packed with challenging ideas… this smart, satisfying hard SF adventure celebrates human resilience”) and the sort of fellow author praise most authors would kill for (see the George RR Martin blurb right there on the cover). But before Locke could ride that wave, there was everything that needed to get there. In this Big Idea, Locke lays out the journey required to get up against it, and the unexpected detours — and unexpected characters — that added to the eventual ride.
The story started with this image that popped into my head one day of a space-suited woman out among the asteroids, swinging through micro-gee, high-tech vines. She is biologically modified: her hips, knees, and feet have ape-like joints. She is exhausted and filthy, headed home for a brief rest before she faces the worst.
I got this sense of contained desperation off of her. She’s a woman with plenty of authority and professional experience, who knows how to handle a crisis. But she and her people are all in very deep shit, and it’s going to take a miracle to get them all out alive. So she cranes her head to look back at Earth, and hears the voice of God.
This character, Jane, doesn’t believe in the supernatural; she is a diehard atheist. And the voice she hears isn’t there to help, but to put impossible demands on her in the midst of a crisis.
So, the story started with those three elements: high-tech, low-gee space-apes; an atheist prophet; and a disaster (caused, it turns out, by Martian mobsters).
I wanted to throw in lots of gravitational and nanotechnological business. I wanted it to be hard SF (a challenge when you have God popping up uninvited in your protagonist’s head): a bit of big physics in the tradition of Robert Charles Wilson and Jack McDevitt, post-human biology in the tradition of Nancy Kress and Chris Moriarty, and techno-social media hijinks à la Cory Doctorow. I love stories with giant machines and space stations and offworlders. I wanted to create a world that felt lived in: a multi-cultural world, a microcosm straining to contain all these different cultures, races, and belief systems. One that was on the brink of potentially catastrophic change. What would it really feel like to live in a habitat city buried inside an asteroid? What if Vernor Vinge was right and the Singularity was right around the corner?
Ultimately, the story grew beyond Jane. I tried hard to keep the viewpoint confined to her, but Geoff showed up one day and insisted on helping to save the city, and I had to go back to the beginning and figure out how he had gotten sucked into events. And Up Against It ended up being just as much his story as hers.
Geoff is the young guy who becomes the hero despite himself. He’s just graduated from high school and has a reputation as a bit of a troublemaker. No one thinks much of him–not his parents or teachers, not even Geoff himself–but he keeps saving the day despite himself, at the same time Jane is discovering that despite her many connections and her position of great authority and intellect, there are stark and painful limits to her powers.
Geoff has spent a lot of his childhood carving out this little niche for himself, hacking matter, doing stunts on his rocketbike. But he hasn’t been able to envision a place for himself in the adult world. Then the disaster hits. His big brother isn’t there to step into the hero role this time, and Geoff finds out he has the chops. But he still has a hard time breaking out of the box everyone has him in, of the self-involved, rather useless drifter he’s been cast as since childhood.
I liked how his hero arc rises against Jane’s fall from grace. And I liked how, as with Jane, his trajectory isn’t quite what it seems at first.
A third viewpoint character also showed up early on: BitManSinger, an artificial AI, is spawned by the disaster early in the book and wreaks havoc in the stroiders’ life support systems while they are trying to save themselves and fight off the Martian mob’s attacks.
Some might call BitManSinger one of the story’s antagonists, but I definitely thought of it as a protagonist, too. Like everybody else, BitManSinger is struggling to survive and figure out what the world is about and where it fits in. Only its very existence is anathema to the humans, and vice versa.
BitManSinger is a feral sapient (as distinguished from the not-quite-sapient artificial constructs the humans use every day). In fact, the book was originally titled Feral Sapiens, because I saw the story as very much about how everybody, one way or another, was a feral sapient–operating on their own agenda, often at cross purposes to everyone else. Desperate, outraged, needy, gloriously happy, crushingly sad–and somehow they still had to cope, to survive, to figure out who their allies were and who were their enemies, and how to outwit them.
There are a couple of other important characters as well. Jane’s husband Xuan is a professor at the university and a pacifist whose religious and ethical values are put to the test by the conflict. There’s also Sean, an older military guy who recently emigrated from Earth, who works for Jane. He’d thought he was done with fighting and seeing the young people around him get killed off.
And there are several non-viewpoint characters who feature prominently, including some post-human characters called the Viridians. Geoff falls for one of them, Vivian, a troubadour-hacker from the moon, who is much more than she seems. And there are the mobsters, Glease and Mills, who have great fun killing people and wreaking other havoc…