The “power chord” of the slower-than-light, multigenerational starship is a potent one still, despite decades of literary exploration. (The trope seems to date back to 1928, and the non-fiction work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.) Something about the combination of heroic sacrifices, the vast void of space, clannishness in a tin can, historical nescience, cultural degeneration, the possibility of instant cosmic doom or going astray, technocratic hubris, unknown alien worlds at the rainbow’s end—all these elements and more conspire to create a kind of thrilling pioneer experience raised up by orders of magnitude.
In her new novel, The Creative Fire, Brenda Cooper gives this scenario a thorough, intelligent shaking and reworking, hewing to lots of the glorious old props while infusing a new strain of social justice and semi-YA, Hunger Games vitality into the milieu. A relative newcomer (ISFDB charts her first sale in 2001) who has placed her share of stories in Analog, Cooper displays an easy facility with the nuts-and-bolts requirements of her Big Dumb Object, The Creative Fire, while also giving us a fine, empathy-generating set of characters, chief of whom is the teenaged Ruby, a sensitive, smart prole who aspires to become so much more. (Ruby’s unrequitedly smitten best friend Onor ranks second in narrative and plot importance, and much of the tale is usefully filtered through his point-of-view.) Cooper tells us in a brief preface that Ruby’s career path was inspired by that of Eva Peron, and the mating of rags-to-realpolitik biography with interstellar odyssey is a winning combo, and might recall to some readers Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun series—admittedly a more complex and deeper creation.
We begin with a quick, dangerous scene that instantly establishes the pecking order within the ship, and conveys a sense of the claustophobic, shabby environment. (Like Poul Anderson, Cooper tries to appeal to as many of the reader’s senses as technically possible in any one passage.) As Ruby quickwittedly rescues a friend from some authoritarian law-enforcement types in red, we learn that differently color-coded folks from different decks exhibit a range of privileges and duties. Ruby is a gray, a robot- repair tech, the lowest of the low. On the verge of adult status, she faces a short life of hard labor. But when a disastrous rupture strikes the infrastructure of her pod home, she chances to meets Fox, a blue privileged type, and, after she is sent as a refugee to another low-status community pod, her life begins to blossom out—although not without pitfalls and challenges galore.
Before too long, Ruby is inciting small but significant rebellions and discontents among the grays. In time she transitions to blue territory under Fox’s mentorship, leaving behind Onor and all her other old friends and family (somewhat callously, to my surprise). With the blues, Ruby’s natural singing and songwriting talents exfoliate, and her role throughout all the strata of the ship becomes akin to that of France’s symbolical Marianne, a token of Reason and Liberty against oppression. But underneath the iconic scrim, Ruby is still human, a young woman of many passions, some conflicting.
Having just viewed the film of Cloud Atlas recently, I found myself inadvertently but tellingly, I think, envisioning Ruby’s rebellion along the lines of that movie’s Neo Seoul thread, with Ruby as the heroic Sonmi-451, and in fact this aspect of the book shares a certain inescapable cousinhood with all such tales, from Heinlein’s Sixth Column onwards. Likewise, the presence of Ix, the ship’s balky AI, will certainly resonate with the cybernetic figure of Mike, the similar entity in Heinlein’s other famous tale of revolt, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.
Ruby’s singing career, presented with romance tinges, brings to mind affiliated riffs and personages in Catherine Asaro’s Skolian novels, and, as with Asaro’s protagonists, our heroine’s inevitable and irresistable adorability—not only is she as talented as Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco and Madonna put together, but she’s gorgeous too—sometimes renders her just a little too special. The only men not in love with her are the dried-up, power-mad autocrats of the ship. But ultimately we are willing to invest her with the kind of mana that iconic performers have always commanded, much in the way Delany presented the Singers in his “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones.”
Employing nicely compact chapters and an engaging prose style, never letting the action flag while also illuminating a true trajectory of personal growth for Ruby, Cooper charts the first third of the career of The Creative Fire‘s songstress savior in a very entertaining and compelling fashion that leaves us eager for further installments.