I snagged this one off the shelf at work on a whim for the title, odd cover art, and imprint. Baen science fiction, even and especially the cheesy over-the-top stuff, was part of what got me through the duller bits of high school.
Rating: 3 stars
Length: Quite long, but mostly for good reasons (671 pages)
Publication: April 27, 2010 from Baen Books
Premise: Ariane Austin, a manual-control space obstacle pilot in an age of AI steering, jumps at the chance to be a backup pilot on the first Sandrisson Drive test flight and see whether faster-than-light travel is possible. She, Dr. Sandrisson himself, the mysterious power engineer Marc DuQuesne, and five other crew members anticipate seeing the far reaches of space. They don't anticipate almost running into a wall, or ending up in the cryptic Arena, where they have to compete to survive.
Warnings: portrayal of something fairly close to PTSD, but otherwise pretty clean
Recommendation: This is ideal airplane reading, since it's long and involved and avoids the problem I had of losing track of characters if I set the book down for a day or two. It's certainly not bad, but it's probably better if you've read lots of classic sci-fi and have a lot of patience with exposition.
What makes this one deliciously pulpy:
The book opens on Ariane Austin winning a race in daredevil fashion, risking her life against the advice of her friend and mechanic, Carl Edlund. Simon Sandrisson, a brilliant scientist, is there to witness both the win and the victory party--he wants her to be the backup pilot for the Holy Grail, his faster-than-light ship, in case the AIs fail. She jumps at the chance to make history, and soon Sandrisson has assembled a crew. The ship sets off, but as soon as the drive disengages, they find themselves heading towards an immense wall in space, with their AIs shut off. Ariane only has one AI and doesn't depend on it (which makes her a rarity in the book's era), so she manages to save the ship from a collision. The crew slowly recovers, but the trauma of losing their AIs, who are very nearly people and have been in their heads since they were teenagers in some cases, is very close to brain damage. This initial shock is exceedingly well-written, in part because it's a chance to show otherwise strong characters pushed close to the breaking point.
The group soon chooses Ariane as their captain because she is the least dependent on AIs and thus most mentally stable at the moment-- DuQuesne also remarks that she has an air of command. They head for docking ports that they've seen on part of the wall and soon start exploring the featureless white walls of the immense space station where they've found themselves. They meet an alien ally who calls himself Orphan, and manage to provoke the Blessed in the process. The Blessed are a Faction, one of the many groups in the station, which turns out to be the Arena. Each alien species, as it develops faster-than-light travel, is pulled into the Arena, home of an endless quest for answers. For the moment, the crew doesn't have the power to re-engage their drive and go home, so they have to bargain--and win a Challenge--before anyone will sell them power. The best feature of this introductory sequence is by far the sheer scale of the Arena-- thousands upon thousands of species make their homes there, each with their own world-Sphere, Embassy, and somewhat miniaturized model of their solar system as a transit point. When they look out over the trading areas, or the Gateways that allow movement around the whole structure, the Arena feels like the miniature universe that it is.
The Factions add to this aura of complexity, since each one has its own interests. Their relations range from near-warfare to close alliance-- many seemingly straightforward competitions are entangled in exchanges of favors, or in the mysterious power of the Arena itself. Factions like the Molothos fill a stereotypical villain role, hating all other races and trying to slaughter them at the slightest provocation, while others are more intriguingly nuanced. For example, the Faith possess some mysterious and possibly religious power that they use to guide other races, the Analytic members only try to pool scientific knowledge across species, and the Shadeweavers can reach into the minds and impulses of other groups to influence them. The groups are many things, but they're never entirely simple, and many questions remain tantalizingly unanswered. Not all of the Challenges between species are combats; on the contrary, many involve only cleverness or swift reflexes, such that species of any physical type can try to arrange things to their own advantage. The book unfortunately doesn't show many individual Challenges, but the spectrum runs from bloody group battles for survival to two professionally contracted competitors racing to the center of the maze-- this flexibility does wonders for the plot's ability to flex and encompass the unexpected.
The three central characters all work decently, but Marc DuQuesne absolutely steals the show. He was genetically manipulated and raised to replicate a character in E.E. Doc Smith's Skylark series as closely as possible; few other people in that program survived learning what was really going on. That childhood left him with amazing strength and intelligence, but also means that he has spent nearly fifty years hiding what he is. When he joins the crew of the Holy Grail, he's forced to let go of some of his isolation; that occasionally means that he angsts over minor things, but by and large it's powerful to see him deal with being open with others. This improves further when DuQuesne is pushed into his element: exploring, planning, and stepping into combat after decades of quiet and forcing himself to live like a normal human being. The dynamics of a superman finally using his strength, and struggling to understand how much of his personality is nothing but the mold forced on him, and how much is his own but flawed, are striking, and by far one of the strongest elements of this book.
His willingness to take risks in a way that most of humanity in his time doesn't understand pairs well with Ariane's thrill-seeking racing, and thus with one of the book's themes: humans habitually take risks against odds that other species consider too suicidal to attempt unless lives are already on the line. This is both an advantage, in that it allows them to constantly surprise aliens who see their everyday behavior as insanity, and dangerous when it lands them in confrontations that they cannot possibly win. We don't know entirely why humanity is so different, or what that signifies, which is honestly an advantage; there are worse motifs to support a series, and this has the seeds of a great one.
The red pen:
The beginning is all right in terms of introducing who the characters are and what they do, but given that half of those characters barely even get lines for the rest of the book (more on that below), it ends up feeling sluggish. There's a lot of meeting, talking about the ship, Sandrisson putting his foot in it about Ariane not using AIs more, worry about resources, and exploring blank rooms for maybe 130 pages before we get anywhere near actual aliens, let alone an explanation of the Arena. The sequences that shine are great, often awe-inspiring or genuinely thought-provoking in a way that only great sci-fi is, but there's also quite a bit of dead exposition devoted to explaining minor points or the science, which, while quite well-explained, can show up in odd places that bog down the flow of the story. The meat of it is so good that it's frustrating to see things on the side go neglected, particularly the Factions.
In some ways, the structure of the opposing Factions feels like a video game that you have to play through in order to get to the boss fight. First there are the Blessed, who are the enemies of Orphan, humanity's first alien ally; they resent interference but are mostly decent, about as malicious as the story demands from scene to scene, and they act as occasional allies. Then there are the Molothos, insectoid xenomisosic (alien-hating) warriors who want to destroy every other race and will start fights in public over tiny issues of perceived disrespect; they make great villains, but all too soon they wind up as just a sideshow to the Big Bads of this story: the Shadeweavers. They float along wearing dark robes, possess mysterious powers, and are good at manipulating thoughts and emotions so that their enemies make decisions that aren't to their advantage. It could have been interesting to see all three threats play off each other more, but as it is they end up vanishing until it's convenient for them to appear again, sometimes hundred of pages later, sometimes in a vague sort of cooperation with each other-- it fits with the idea of a real arena, with the victors fighting the next threat instead of continuing with the same one, but it doesn't gel with the portrayal of the Arena as a constantly shifting source of danger and opportunity from many quarters at once.
One of the other major problems comes up in my summary: to wit, the characters are disproportionately detailed in a way that makes some of them wooden at best. Ariane is prominent because she's the captain, DeQuesne is front and center for being long-lived and unusual, and Sandrisson is the scientist who kicked it all off. Carl gets a few good moments in humanity's Sphere, and was by far one of the best minor characters, but the two engineer-types, the doctor, and the biologist seem to be along for reasons of "well, I guess we occasionally need one of those because plot or something." I wanted to like several of them, especially Gabrielle the doctor, but she ended up doing very little but being soft-spoken and Southern, worrying, and demonstrating on one single page that she has military-grade nano-enhancements before they don't matter anymore. Leila Canning is particularly irksome, since she forces her way onto the mission, goes into a coma, and then gets pulled out of it by aliens with an implication that she's somehow come back different, but exactly how is never addressed. This was especially disappointing given that working with an ensemble cast is often one of sci-fi's strengths.
This is worse because time that could go to the secondary characters is instead being fed to the dull love triangle between the three main characters. In short, Sandrisson flirts with Ariane during the initial transit, and they're attracted to each other, but DuQuesne is drawn to her as well, and she seems determined to flirt with him by bringing up the fact that she's read the books on which his personality is based at every possible opportunity (which is deeply obnoxious behavior, but more on that below). The framing is a little transparent: DuQuesne is the more "dangerous" choice, the one who draws more raw passion and also nobly thinks that Ariane deserves better than him, so it's hard not to put money on them ending up together in a book or three. The romance, such as it is, mostly consists of Sandrisson struggling to find a moment alone with Ariane while DuQuesne goes through a fairly trope-riddled arc of "I'm a superman, and I'm taking forever to notice my own attraction, but it renders me helpless and irrational because I've never dealt with my own romantic emotions before." All three characters deserve better, and the time devoted to it could have been either cut, leaving a tighter book, or devoted to giving the minor characters more growth.
Ariane herself is left for last because she's in some ways the most frustrating thing. She's unusual for her era, relying on technology as little as she has to and reading old paper books, racing with her reflexes instead of her AI. This plays into a fairly common sci-fi and time travel trope, the idea that immersing yourself in the skills and ideas of yesteryear makes you stronger and smarter than the average person, but for Ariane it works because she sees those skills as fun. She rises to the challenges of the unexpected and makes a good captain, so I wanted to like her but couldn't manage it because she feels too oddly perfect. When there's a planned Challenge, Ariane is front and center whether it makes any sense or not; a space obstacle race is her strong suit, but single combats are not. Even when DuQuesne, the strongest fighter, is barred from participating for spoiler-laden reasons, there are still two better choices than risking the captain: Carl Edlund, trained as a martial artist, and Gabrielle, who has military-grade implants and presumably some level of training in how to use them. That would have been a great chance to flesh one of them out, but it would have required letting Ariane step back and actually be part of an ensemble cast instead of hogging the spotlight.
Her interpersonal interactions aren't much better. She's a good person, caring listener, good commander, and only has to faux-reprimand her crew once: when they second-guess her decision after making her captain over shallow pride issues. She makes an entirely reasonable protest to them about that, DuQuesne heads off in an agony over hurting the feelings of someone he's come to care about, and there's magically no more problem. Ariane is a solo daredevil, and being a captain should have been more of a rough adjustment; we only really see her pushing authority on two people who are attracted to her and on her mechanic, so the challenges there are largely undeveloped. Her temper only creates problems when an external force influences her emotions, which is frankly a cop-out. She also recognizes the source for DuQuesne's character mold and keeps finding sly ways to bring it up, or try to push him into talking about his experiences when he still has trouble even thinking about it fifty years later. It's weirdly pushy, and not professional in the least, but is partially written as creating a rapport between her and DuQuesne, which comes off as both disturbing and bizarre. Her method of winning the concluding big Challenge is also....special, comes a touch out of nowhere, and positions her even more in the position of the good always-right-and-great one, which is grating even when it's set up well.
Overall, this one hits a lot of good science fiction notes: it's big and unusual, not afraid to ask questions about our place in the universe, and not afraid to leave them unanswered because the answers are too complex to fit into any pithy statement. The pacing could be better, and it hits one classic sci-fi problem: placing the cool science over remotely plausible character motications. That said, though, this is one of Spoor's first books, and it's conceptually fresh in a way that makes me want to see what he'll write in another series or universe.
Prospects: Spoor is planning a sequel called Spheres of Influence, and I'm torn about picking it up. On one hand, I love this universe, and there would be less exposition next time around. On the other, the love triangle is going to still be there, and a second voyage to the Arena means more new human characters when I'm already bored by half the human crew from this time around. Probably if one comes into the used bookstore or the library, I'll give it a test of the first fifty pages.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~It feels lazy to point back at last month's sci-fi entry, but Slow Train to Arcturus approaches some of the same questions about humanity in a different way. Where Grand Central Arena positions humanity as an unusual and risk-loving faction among all the races of the stars, Slow Train to Arcturus looks at the spectrum of human risks and freedoms and ideas in relation to its own odder offshoots.
~Elizabeth Moon's Trading in Danger stars Kylara Vatta, a young kicked-out military cadet thrown from a trading mission into the start of a war. Like Ariane, she loves risk while having a keen awareness of its human cost. It doesn't have quite the same enormous universe flavor of Grand Central Arena, but the minutiae of becoming a trader is surprising engaging even before the real action starts.