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Monday, May 3, 2010

"Grand Central Arena" by Ryk Spoor (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Ryk Spoor Website
Order "Grand Central Arena" HERE or HERE (as a drm-free ebook)
Read Many Chapters HERE

INTRODUCTION: "It was supposed to be a simple test flight, one that pilot Ariane Austin was on only as a last-ditch backup; intelligent, superhumanly fast automation would handle the test activation and flight of humanity's first faster-than-light vessel. But when the Sandrisson Drive activated, every automated system crashed, the nuclear reactor itself shut down, and only the reflexes and training of a racing pilot saved the test vessel Holy Grail from crashing into the impossible wall that had appeared before them, a wall which is just part of a monstrous enclosure surrounding a space twenty thousand kilometers across. With all artificial intelligences inert and their reactor dead, they had to find some other source of power to reactivate the Sandrisson Drive and—hopefully—take them home."

Before "Grand Central Arena" I have not read anything by Ryk Spoor, though for several years I had a copy of "Boundary", his 2006 collaboration with Eric Flint which has a sequel Threshold to be published in June 2010. I started Boundary several times but the story of archaeology and long gone aliens in a near future setting never hooked me, so when I heard of "Grand Central Arena", I was not sure how much priority to give it. The blurb above was very, very tempting and when the author started posting chapters on Baen's Bar - chapters collated in the link above - I got hooked and bought an e-arc from Baen several months ago despite it being almost twice the price of the original print mmpb that has been released recently.

And I have to say that I never regretted the decision since Grand Central Arena was an excellent read, fast and entertaining and I hope it will get the sequels it richly deserves. After I finished it, I finally read "Boundary" which was quite entertaining too, though much more predictable in some ways and less exciting than "Grand Central Arena", but it is very hard for near future sf to compete with space opera as my interest goes. I plan to read Threshold too at some point in the future, though it is less of a priority for now, but any sequel to Grand Central Arena would be an asap.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Grand Central Arena" is a long book - Amazon has it listed at 688 pages but since I have only an e-arc I cannot guarantee that, just that it seems reasonable - however it reads so fast that you do not really notice when the pages go; the novel is divided into 74 chapters of which you can read quite a few for free as linked above and there are several points of view, most notably main heroine, Ariane Austin top race pilot in the Solar System 's "Unlimited Space Obstacle Racing" championship tour.

Then there is her team's chief engineer Carl Edlund who happens to know genius physicist Simon Sandrisson, the discoverer of "hyperspace" some 10 years ago, from which discovery the possibility of ftl travel followed; after extensive drone testing and with the approval of the humanity's Space Security Council, Dr. Sandrisson is ready to take the first manned human ftl spaceships Holy Grail on a test ride. The leader of the Combined Space Force sends mysterious power engineer Marc DuQuesne as both crew and representative of the powers to be and at Marc's insistence, Simon Sandrisson decides to include a human backup pilot despite everything running on pseudo-AI's - AISage - guidance, so much so that human pilots are generally used fully only
in competition racing. There are several more crew members of the Holy Grail and of course when the Holy Grail finds the Arena of the title instead of the stars, there are several important aliens, most notably one called suggestively and for reasons to be found in the book Orphan.

"Grand Central Arena" is space opera in the grand old tradition - "costume" aliens, heroic and plucky humans - but with modern sensibilities and awareness of current speculations in cutting edge physics.

"Grand Central Arena" introduces an Earth several centuries hence where advances in nanotech and AI development allowed the expansion of humanity in the Solar System, wealth and relative peace and stability in a sort of libertarian way, though the same decentralization allowed by tech and global wealth led occasionally to trouble when groups of single minded people used such for nefarious purposes, or even sometimes in thoughtless ways that turned to disaster.

All in all though, the Solar System of the novel is a prosperous place and on the verge of attaining the stars due to Simon Sandrisson's revolutionary extension of the latest unified field theory, extension that allowed the first ftl drive to be built and now to be tested for the first time in a manned spaceship. However the drone tests of the Sandrisson Drive, while mostly successful and with a reasonably low rate of non-return revealed a glitch - all AI powered systems on the drones - eg sensors, recording devices - seemed not to work properly in ftl mode, though the "dumb" 2oth century like mechanical/electronic ones worked.

So "just as a backup" Ariane is co-opted in the crew of the Holy Grail with Carl as support engineer and of course when things go completely awry and instead of the stars, the spaceship finds itself in a huge but considerably scaled down enclosed reproduction of the Solar System with all major bodies in proper orbits, all AI's - including guidance, piloting and personal ones - down - with the Holy Grail heading fast towards an inevitable crash with the looming walls of the enclosure, it's up to Ariane's reflexes to save the day and of course the surprises start immediately after...

Grand Central Arena of the title which the crew of the Holy Grail discovers instead of the stars is a very, very old place, wondrous and awesome but dangerous and "ritualistic" too, with many alien races at various privilege and development states mingling under some rules strictly enforced by ultra-powerful beings. And since the minimal achievement a race needs to get into the Arena is the Sandrisson Drive - known of course under various names by each alien species - and since each new race discovering that and using it, represents an opportunity for the more nefarious Arena species, while having itself an opportunity to "establish" itself under the rules above, it is up to the crew of the Holy Grail to make sure humanity is among the "winners" and not the "losers", with Ariane appointed by default leader, while Simon and Marc are her main "side kicks" and mysterious alien Orphan who encounters them first as "guide" and mentor of a sort.

The whole setup, rules and such are described in loving detail and the author put a lot of thought into them, so while the whole Arena and its paraphernalia are quite outlandish, I never lost for a moment my suspension of disbelief. The various alien races encountered are reasonably distinct and vary from ultra-mercantilistic, to seemingly benevolent but with maybe hidden agendas, to dark, mysterious, powerful and with unclear motives and of course to obvious enemies either out for plunder or for subtler reasons...

While the first part of the book including the early Solar System chapters, the introduction to what will become known as "humanity's sphere" and then to the Arena and its wonders/dangers is just awesome, the novel sags a little in the middle when all the aliens playing a role in a story appear, diplomatic relations and more generally Arena "adjustment" occurs; we also have the "blatant" costume-aliens part including stereotyping and representing a race by a few characteristics that is the pulp-sf legacy to the book; the novel keeps a brisk pace but I found it losing a lot of its luster and inventiveness and reverting to the old-style space opera of yore.

Fortunately "Grand Central Arena" picks up momentum and heads into some interesting and unexpected directions and the last third or so of the novel is excellent again with lots of intense action and it kept me turning fast the pages to see how our plucky heroine and her sidekicks elbow humanity into "its proper" place in the Arena's social structure. The ending is very good and completes the main thread of the novel so "Grand Central Arena" stands well on its own, but I so want more novels since both the whole setup and the heroes of the story are excellent. A very strong A, almost an A+ and a novel that manages to bridge golden age space opera tropes to their modern expressions in a way other similar recent tries did not.


ediFanoB said...

Liviu, I should stay away from Fantasy Book Critic and especially from your reviews.
You read and review far too many interesting books.

Again I could not withstand after reading your great review to add Grand Central Arena by Ryk Spoor.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words; Grand Central Arena was one of the books that I added to my anticipated list based on the blurb but I did not expect to hook me so much so that I *had* to buy the e-arc; while it has its pulpy elements as mentioned, this one was just an end to end ride and I really, really hope it will get sequels - which depends entirely on how well the book does btw

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for this excellent review. Hopefully I will be able to do many more in this universe; to be honest, *I* want to find out what happens next! :)

Joanne said...

I am sure this book is great and everything, but that cover belongs on Just sayin.

Liviu said...

I actually kind of like the cover - incidentally it's a scene from the book shown quite well imho - pulpy to some extent, but sometimes and if done well like here that is fun


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