Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Virus on Orbis by P.J. Haarsma

In which an orphaned boy, sold into slavery on an alien world, learns about his abilities and the intrigues in his new home.

I randomly picked up this book at the Phoenix comicon when a guy manning the booth accosted me! It was cheap and sounded entertaining, and I can't say no to enthusiastic sales people when it's something I'm inclined to do anyway. The author, PJ Haarsma, was there too and he signed my book. I think he wrote "Fear Nothing" but I'm not sure.

This book was about what I expected it to be like. As far as I can tell it's this guy's first book and definitely reads accordingly. It's science fiction, and young adult science fiction at that. I think the setting was the strongest part, and the characters' personalities the weakest. Or maybe the dialogue was weakest. Some of that was painful.

The setting of the Softwire series (four books) is a bunch of rings surrounding a black hole that, through the sciency magic of technobabble, are inhabitable. Orbis is a bustling metropolis full of all kinds of aliens including symbiotes, two-headed ones, and evil ones. Citizens seem to have it pretty good, but many people from various planets choose to travel to Orbis via indentured servitude and they have it somewhat worse.

The main character and his shipmates are sold into slavery upon arrival due to the fact that their parents all mysteriously died before the ship arrived or indeed before the kids were born. These kids were essentially raised by the space ship's computer with no adults or supervision so the real mystery of the story is why it isn't just Lord of the Flies! These kids are normal 13 year olds, there are no characteristics present in any of them that differentiate them from normal kids. They even seem to instinctively and inexplicably posses elements of human culture and values. Figure that one out.

The characters were really, really generic. The point of view character is a Gary Stu, with a super special ability and no significant flaws. What's really exasperating about him (and all the other kids) is that they don't *sound* like kids. They read like adults. I can't put my finger on why, exactly, but when you read say The Hunger Games series, the kids actually seem like kids. Orbis kids sound like remarkably boring adults. Besides Gary Stu (ok, his name is Johnny JT Turnbull) there is the plucky female mechanic sidekick, an awkward nerd friend, a little sister in need of protection yet constantly adorable, a one-dimensional bully and his bully sidekick... and that's about it. The aliens in the story are equally flat and unoriginal, but at least they have differentiating characteristics like two heads.

And that brings me to dialogue. Guys, it was painful. Not only did characters not talk like kids when applicable, they all talked in the same tone and all that and the dialogue was just flat. Same with the point of view character's internal dialogue, to probably an even greater degree. My favorite example:
This is going to be great, I said to myself. I looked at Ketheria and smiled. I knew how much she loved food.
...I knew how much she loved food? Really? I feel like there is no excuse for such a thing to ever be written. That does not count as character development. I am reminded of a Teen Girl Squad thing in which What's Her Face declares that she likes music. And clothe.

The plot moved consistently and was generally engaging. It wasn't always really clear what was going on or why, and there wasn't really excellent foreshadowing or anything, but it worked. Lots of factors come together at the end for a moderately exciting conclusion.

To be fair this book is generally entertaining. The setting is interesting, and I can tell that PJ Haarsma has potential as an author. I imagine subsequent books of his are better in dialogue and characterization, but I have no desire to personally verify this. For one thing, I can't forgive a science fiction author for using a light year as a measure of time!!


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