Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Sheffield: The Jupiter Juveniles—Sweet Sci-Fi for An Adult Afternoon


Charles Sheffield is known for the depth and scope of science in his adult science fiction; as if he had added to Asimov's famous line, "To be good science fiction, it must first be good fiction," the reservation, "but it must also be good science."

This charge Sheffield has met even in his fiction for the Tor Jupiter series, with four juvenile novels (Higher Education, The Billion-Dollar Boy, Putting Up Roots, The Cyborg from Earth) released between 1997 and 2003. All four books are enjoyable even for adults, but (and I have the word of my two children here) they are great fun for teens as well.

Higher Education was co-authored by Larry Niven. The story begins in the extremely poor schools of Earth's cities, in which the Rick Luban, like other students, is repeatedly given a pass for incredibly bad behavior, until suddenly, one day, he passes over an invisible line and is expelled. Now Rick faces either a grim life of useless poverty on Earth, or being drafted into a program designed to recruit asteroid miners. His choice to take training is his first step into space, and into adulthood. Along the way he and the reader learn some basic physics and astronomy in the easist way possible (as characters in the tale.) Rick's growth from a spotty obnoxious dork to the mature, poised hero is realistic and (even better for the juvenile reader), is obviously values-based.

The Billion-Dollar Boy is, as many reviewers have pointed out, somewhat a space-fiction Captains Courageous. Shelby Cheever is the eponymous boy who decides that he can pout and tantrum his way to what he wants. In a move to get attention from the staff on his mother's space liner, Shelby lands himself in an outbound ore carrier, on his way to a ship-bound society where a man's name means less than his word (and where Shelby's word has no value). Once again, character growth proceeds along realistic lines: Shelby learns how to negotiate rather than lie, contribute instead of throwing tantrums, and appreciate the value of others' efforts in his behalf.

Putting Up Roots is a 90-degree shift from the first two novels, in that its main character, Joshua Kerrigan, is a great kid, whom we can like from the start. Unfortunately, he's saddled with a mom who shifts him with her from pillar to post; and eventually she dumps him on a farming family that is already overburdened. Their response is to sign up Joshua, and their own autistic daughter Dawn, to be farmers on a colony planet. Once there, the young adults find little farming. The colony seems to be organized more to support prospecting, and the adults are ignoring obvious signs of an indigenous intelligent life form. The way in which Joshua supports Dawn as they both grow is well-written, and her autism is handled with a light touch. With its theme of finding freedom in a frontier society, and the way the youngsters have to face and overcome the moral failings of adults who are nominally charged with their care, this novel reminded me strongly of L. Neil Smith's Pallas.

The Cyborg from Earth again starts with a fairly likeable teen. Like billion-dollar boy Shelby Cheevers, Jefferson Kopal is heir to a fortune. In Jeff's case, though, a sinister uncle acquires the fortune. Despite nearly failing his exams, Jeff is still allowed the family-traditional stint in the Navy, but is assigned to duty as far away as possible, to the outer-system colonies. He coasts from near-disaster to near-failure, until finally he is taken as hostage by cyborgs. Jeff's growth comes as he realizes that someone called a "villain" may not be evil, but that he accomodates actual villainy by not doing his best. The story makes teen-accessible the moral of the adage, "All that is needed for evil to florish is that good men do nothing."

Pallas won L. Neil Smith his second Prometheus Award in 1994. The award is given by the Libertarian Futurist Society for outstanding science fiction with libertarian themes.


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