RogerBW's Blog

Earth Girl, Janet Edwards 07 November 2015

2012 young adult science fiction. Jarra is Handicapped; something in her immune system revolts at alien worlds, so she's limited to living on Earth with the other people who can't go to the stars and be part of proper civilisation. What's worse, all the offworlders look down on "apes". But that's not going to stop her doing her best to have a good life.

Space colonisation for population reduction is a common topic of discussion in SF circles, and it tends to founder on the numbers. Right now, total population is increasing by around 75 million per year. If you take a Boeing 777 and cram in as many seats as it'll take, you can shift about 550 people on it; the current largest ocean liner, the Queen Mary 2, can take 2,260 passengers. So you'd need over 350 planes, or 78 QM2s, every day, packed full, just to stay even. And spacecraft are rather more expensive to run than planes or ocean liners.

I mention this because if you want to depopulate the Earth you really do need something like the portal technology that's the key to interstellar travel here: go to point A, set your destination, walk through, arrive at point B. Some of this is well thought through: with portals clearly the best option, vehicles are largely a forgotten technology except for special purposes, and when portals are disrupted by solar flares the easiest approach is just to hunker down for a few hours and wait it out. On the other hand, it seems odd that the colony worlds should have organised themselves into sectors: sure, they were settled at different times, but surely it would cost about the same to visit another world in your sector as to visit another world somewhere else entirely? And why are there portal interchange points, where you walk out of one portal and into another to get somewhere further away, when it would be possible to route the signal directly to the destination? (As is done with communications.)

But this is background; Earth Girl is very much a personal story, and Edwards does a decent job of giving the reader the necessary background while not infodumping too blatantly. The slang is a bit heavy-handed, full of nardles and zans, but we also find that "butt" and "nuke" are now forbidden words, the former being replaced by "legs". (In fact something seems to have completely rewritten attitudes to adolescent sexuality: one first has to register a contract for a set period, and nobody here even seems to think about trying to have unofficial sex.)

This is a YA book, and falls into some of the traps common to that genre: for example, everyone from Alpha sector is terribly concerned about preserving Earth's cultural history, everyone from Beta is obsessed with sex, Gammans have an inflexible moral code, Deltans are all brainy, and Epsilons are still building everything. This is deliberately subverted later, but it's still a surprisingly reliable basis for evaluating people. Being Handicapped is an obvious parallel to being disabled in some way that allows for a restricted but still effective life, along with societal attitudes. On the other hand, other YA traps are avoided: this isn't a dystopia like The Hunger Games and its imitators, it's not a bad place to live at all, even for the Handicapped (though they pretty much have to go into medicine or archaeology, those being the only things that happen on Earth any more). There's no handy romantic triangle or dark brooding hero. And while Jarra is quick to jump to conclusions about her fellow students, she's wrong, and comes to admit it for herself rather than having someone else give her a cheap moral lesson.

Because what Jarra does is to sneak round the system: she applies to join an archaeology course, not at University Earth as everyone assumes, but at an off-world university that happens to be studying on Earth (as all such courses have to for their first year). She'll show those exos (descendants of the Exodus) that apes can be just as smart and brave and clever as them, then reveal her true nature, and then they'll be sorry. Of course, it doesn't quite work out like that.

The bulk of the book happens on that archaeology course: abandoned cities, such as New York, are being mined for interesting artefacts, often in stasis boxes which people stored before they left but which are now starting to run out of power. Because it was a while before anyone thought this stuff was worth preserving, the buildings are often in bad shape. Most of the heavy work is done with "lift beams", but nobody seems to have drones any more: one person in a protective suit floats into the target area on a hover belt, while another keeps a lift beam locked on them and hauls them out quickly if necessary. Obviously this is a cue for lots of thoughts about trust and reliability.

Jarra finds out more about the parents who abandoned her, suffers a very well-described mental breakdown caused by stress, and gets herself out of it before anyone seriously notices. She's also really good at this sort of archaeology; sure, she's been doing it since she was 11, but sometimes she seems just too competent, being better than people who've spent their entire careers at it rather than less than a decade.

The pace is quite slow, and the writing occasionally feels a little pedestrian, but as with other authors I like there's enough interesting stuff going on in the background that I don't need every sentence to be about developing Our Heroine and Her Problems.

Recommended by Colin Fine. Followed by Earth Star.

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  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 12:14pm on 07 November 2015

    I loved Earth Girl. Jarra is a bit Mary Sue at times, but I adored that it avoided the standard romance tropes and that all her assumptions are as wrong about others as theirs are about her. Loved the fact that folk freak out when the portal system goes down.

    I thought the portal interchanges were to (a) link up local and interstellar networks, and (b) to extend the reach of the interstellar network. Maybe that's a fact I picked up in one of the later volumes?

    This is definitely the best in the series. The next two are one big fat book chopped into 2 volumes.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:55am on 08 November 2015

    It seemed to me that the portal system would benefit from a unified switching protocol, so that every portal is an interstellar portal if you put the right destination code in rather than having to rematerialise, walk, and dematerialise again. But I will readily admit that this is a minor quibble with a pretty solid book.

    I do intend to read the others, but I think this stands very well on its own.

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